After gap year, teen feels wars heartache, yearns for Israel

I recently returned from my gap year in Israel, and over the past few weeks many people have approached me and said, “ I bet you are thankful to be at home safe and sound.”

Though I am grateful to live in a place where I don’t need to find shelter within 30 seconds of hearing a siren or see my peers go to war, a huge part of me yearns to be back in Israel. After spending nine months in my homeland, I developed an inseparable connection to the country, the culture and the people.

During my time in Israel, I traveled to more than 40 cities, spent Shabbat at approximately 16 different households, and cared for more than 300 patients on the ambulances where I volunteered. I no longer view Israel as a faraway country. Instead I see it as a place with poor drivers, nosy grandmothers and opinionated people who lack manners. But nowhere else do people address elderly women, even those they don’t know, as “savta,” Hebrew for “grandmother.” Nowhere else will one be invited over for a meal after simply saying hello and starting a conversation on an Egged bus. Nowhere else does the cashier say “Shabbat Shalom” at check-out at the grocery store.

Yael Zoken (left) and a friend at the Magen David Adom station in Rishon LeZion, where they volunteered

Though I am physically in California, my thoughts and emotions are still in Israel. I am currently reading a book about the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I receive a “red alert” on my phone every time a rocket crashes into Israeli soil. I spend hours each day reading articles on Facebook and Jewish newspapers. And of course I am in close contact with friends and family in Israel.

One of my friends whom I have known since seventh grade is an Israeli Navy Seal and is currently doing his best to defend his home on the battleground. He is a true warrior, as he did not have to enter a combat unit because his older brother was killed in the Lebanon war eight years ago. My friend who got married a month ago had to say goodbye to her husband as he went off to the reserves. My friend who is spending two years volunteering with Magen David Adom (Israel’s national ambulance service) did not budge during the code red siren that went off as she was giving CPR to a patient. A week later, she delivered the horrific news to an Israeli family that their son had been killed in the current operation, Protective Edge.

It is hard for me to fathom how I can teach swim lessons every day at a private club while my friends are risking their lives for the wellbeing of others and their country.

I hope there is an imminent solution to end this horror and madness. But until then, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

Yael Zoken is 19 and graduated from San Rafael High School in 2013. She will enter UCLA this fall.