Let’s just say that missiles and bomb shelters were not on the itinerary of our 16-year-old daughter’s pilgrimage trip to Israel this summer.
I spoke to her this morning. Yeah, the air raid sirens are unnerving, she said, but absolutely, she wants to stay with her group.
Again today, we say OK. But as the bad news keeps streaming in, my husband and I ask ourselves, no doubt in the company of the other tortured parents whose children are there: Are we crazy?
We’re not asking our family and friends to answer that. We get texts by the day, showing support along with various degrees of restrained concern. “Is Jesse safe?” “You guys OK with Jesse in Israel?” Our rabbi calls repeatedly to check in. My mother-in-law cuts to the chase, no doubt echoing the true sentiments of many: “Are there plans to get the kids out yet?”
The truth is, we’re not OK. But, along with hundreds of other parents in our position, we are choosing to tolerate our discomfort because it’s a complicated choice that involves us as parents, Americans and Jews.
How do we see our choice?
First, although anxious, we use statistics to help prevent us from truly fearing for our daughter’s safety. So far, more than 1,000 missiles have been fired into Israel without a direct civilian fatality.
“The odds of actually being hit by one of these rockets is like winning the lottery,” our Israeli friend says. “Except you have a better chance of winning the lottery.”
Our daughter was probably at greater risk of injury in the cab ride to JFK the day of her flight.
My own experience with Israel helps. Having spent childhood summers there, I grew accustomed to the dual realities. I remember obsessing about my SAT scores as my cousin went off to mandatory paratrooper training for the Israel Defense Forces. See a paper bag on a bench? Run and tell one of the dozens of soldiers walking the streets — soldiers who are your age, in army fatigues with M-16s around their necks. You live surrounded by some of the best protection in the world.
But when it’s your own kid walking those streets in need of that protection, it’s not so easy. It helps to read the daily reports from the organization to which we’ve entrusted our child’s care. The National Federation of Temple Youth, Ramah, United Synagogue Youth — these institutions have led American teenagers through Israel for decades. For them, this last week is sadly not far from business as usual. Veterans at coordinating these youth trips with Israeli military and government officials, they’ve kicked into high gear, dispatching security guards to travel with our kids and evaluating each group’s itinerary day by day.
Finally, we battle our anxiety and the pressure to bring our kids home with the values that led us to send them to Israel in the first place. Our kids went to learn about their heritage and legacy. After a week in Warsaw and Krakow, where they walked along the same railroad tracks that carried their ancestors to oblivion, they came to Israel to experience its complexities and wonder. They came to explore their identity, and their larger story, as Jews and Americans. Frighteningly, tragically, this conflict is part of that story.
So as long as we feel certain that the risk of true danger is remote, we will honor our daughter’s wish. Because to us, aborting the trip would be a triumph of anxiety over a higher cause. Staying the course, our daughter will understand on a whole new level what it means to be part of a society that has to fight for its freedom and democracy. She will learn in a powerful way what it means to stand in solidarity with one’s people.
We also hope she will come home with a deepened spirit and perspective, with a new understanding of the tragedy of war, and a new appreciation of America’s gifts. Maybe she’ll even be a little less concerned about her SAT scores.
Staying, she gets an unforgettable chance to practice courage and commitment to something greater than herself. Something else, too, that all of us nervous parents are hoping. Maybe our children will return home passionately empowered as Jews, Americans and global citizens, with all the complications and ambiguities of these roles. Maybe they’ll grow to be part of a new generation of leaders who do a better job than we have at running this world.
Still, it’s no picnic to know that our choice to allow our daughter access to this experience will likely change her in ways we won’t be able to control or ever fully comprehend.
“We’re all fine, Mom,” my daughter said to us after taking cover in the shelter during this morning’s latest air raid siren. “It’s freaky, but it’s OK. It’s good.”
In our hearts, we pray that she and we are right.
Julie Fingersh is a writer who lives in San Rafael with her family. This essay was written July 15, before the ground invasion of Gaza.