the siren that shook my world

As you likely know by now, on Friday night the air-raid siren sounded in Jerusalem for the first time since 1945 (according to most reports).

In order to capture how I felt in that moment and to try to share anything, I have to share some of the events of the week leading up to it.

Tuesday – Thursday, D was on a tiyul (trip) with his program to the Negev, the desert region in the south of Israel. He called on Wednesday evening shortly after I had gotten home and told me to email our parents and let them know we were ok. While I had known about the increased missile attacks on our neighbors in the south, I didn’t think that alone was cause to reach out. That is sadly a normative part of life in that region. While we spoke, I looked at social media and was greeted by the news that Israel had decided to retaliate and Operation Pillar of Defense had been launched. So I reached out to my mother and mother-in-law to let them know that we were safe and sound in Jerusalem. Despite my reassurances to my family and rational knowledge that historically Jerusalem has been safe in these situations, I sat online reading every news source and got myself into quite an anxious frenzy.

Thursday morning was Rosh Chodesh (new month) praying together at Nishmat and I noticed the solemnity in the beit midrash (the place where we learn and pray). Afterwards, I learned that some of my peers hadn’t been privy to the amount of information I had been and didn’t know what was happening. We got a quick update and were informed that there would be a briefing in English that night, so I stuck around. While we were waiting for the briefing, we learned that a missile had been fired towards Tel Aviv. That shook us all pretty hard. We had our security briefing and left feeling confident again that while this was not a good place to be in, we were relatively safe in Jerusalem and while we should of course be cautious (and they encouraged the girls living on campus to stay on campus, mostly for the sanity of their parents) it was not believed we were really in danger of missile/rocket fire. (Remember, Jerusalem is a holy city for Muslim’s also.)

Friday was a normal day and though there was significantly increased security at the shuk, life in Jerusalem continued as normal. When the siren we here every Friday at the time for candle lighting sounded, D and I remarked about the nuances between the tone of it and what I had heard from videos about the tone of the air-raid siren. We wondered if they would have sounded the Shabbat siren if there was any fear of rocket fire in Jerusalem. I lit candles, adding an extra prayer for peace and for our soldiers, and we headed out to services like any normal Friday night.

We had just begun the amidah (the silent prayer which is the cornerstone of the afternoon service), when the silence was pierced by a shrill wail. The woman next to me and I looked at each other with shocked expressions that seemed to say “Is that what I think it is?” then peered down into the men’s section where they appeared to be focused on their prayers. (D reports that they were praying and all glancing at one other trying to determine what to do.) The four of us in the women’s sections all quickly grabbed our coats and ran down the stairs. We hovered on the stairs unsure where exactly to go in this historic building that surely didn’t have a safe room. One man came out and had us all come to an interior foyer where the men moved to finish their silent prayers while the siren finished sounding. We all stood together in complete and utter awe at what had just happened, some people looked very calm but I was shaking and my heart was racing uncontrollably. I was petrified. One man went out to check what he could see or hear twice, then decided to resume our prayers. He said quite simply, it was time to pray and that if there was another bomb we would come back to that space and finish there.

So up the stairs we went. The woman next to me and I exchanged a few words about how shocking it was and about how strongly everyone has always believed that there wouldn’t be rocket fire on Jerusalem because of the holy sites. We felt raw and vulnerable in a way which cannot be expressed in words. Every noise outside had us peering down into the street trying to grasp what had just happened. A few minutes later, another woman joined us and she broke down in tears after getting settled. I couldn’t understand what exactly she was saying, but she clearly was affected by the siren as well.

After services, D and I had an important decision to make. Do we walk 45 minutes to our friend’s home for dinner, or do we go home and eat cold-cuts. We decided to head up the road and see what was happening. There were many people out (a few less than normal, but not abnormally so) and there were people still hanging out in the few coffee shops and such that are open on Shabbat. So, we decided we would follow the lead of the locals and not be crippled by it and go to our friends home, with the added benefit that he speaks much better Hebrew than either of us and some of the other guests were Australian diplomats so there was a good chance that someone would know what had happened, and if we needed to be taking any extra precautions.

As we walked, we tried to comprehend the moment. There were fireworks sounding in the distance, which is a common wedding tradition here, but they seemed to go on endlessly. We wondered if something was happening elsewhere in the city. However as police cars passed in silence and we continued to see people out and about, we resigned ourselves to not knowing and to enjoying Shabbat as best we could. When we got to our friends place he informed us that there had been rockets fired at Jerusalem but they had landed outside the city (he had taken a moment to check on his iphone, as had so many others we later learned) and confirmed that the fireworks were much more intense than usual. We had a great Shabbat, but the sound which started it lingered in the collective conscious.

Personally, I cannot get the sound of the siren out of my head or my heart. Everything I hear makes me jump. Every low tone, every high tone, every whirring of an appliance, every siren of a police car. If this is my reaction after just one siren, I can only imagine the terror with which the people of the south who face this multiple times a day, every day, for months and years on end live. Regardless of how I (or anyone really) feel about the politics behind the conflict, it is impossible to not have your heart go out to people who live with the siren as the backdrop for their lives. D and I both agree that living amidst this for two years is nothing compared to what our brethren in the south experience and we want to show our solidarity in the only way we know how – by staying here and not letting it affect our lives too much. (Caveat: If our programs/MASA/the government tell us to leave, we will. Until then, we are here.)

It is my sincere hope and prayer that we can find a resolution speedily with as few lives lost as possible – on all sides, and that the people of Israel can continue to be watched out for by the Iron Dome (affectionally being called the Iron Kippah) and that the people of Gaza heed the warnings from the leaflets being dropped in advance of the bombings there..

(For those who want to know what the siren sounds like or what it looks like when the Iron Dome blows up a rocket mid air, check out this video a man in Tel Aviv took live.)


{I have turned off comments on this post intentionally.}