Sleeping in a Bomb Shelter
When I came to Israel at 17, one of my most distinctive memories was doing drama exercises in the Negev hostel we were staying at. However, this wasn’t just any room; it was a bomb shelter. It was underground, and the only evidence of it existing above was a white steel crate with steps that carried you down below. There was a tiny little window with steel bars covering it that gave a slight view to the outside, but only just quite.
The first Friday morning that I was in Israel, I had slept over at Lauren and Avi’s house in Ma’alot. Their guest bedroom had the most comfortable bed I had slept on, but the door was made of heavy steel and couldn’t be closed fully. I didn’t really put two and two together until I looked out the window and realized there were steel plates that could cover it.
I walked out that morning dressed in my PJs and asked the dumb question: “Did I just sleep in a bomb shelter?”
“Yep,” Lauren replied. She went into some of the specific things in the room, known to most Israelis here as a safe room, about the water and food supplies and filtration systems. However, the casualness of the conversation brought the truth into relief: I was in Israel, a country surrounded by enemies. And there was always the chance that a bomb might go off or rockets would be fired while I was here.
Mind you, it’s not as dangerous throughout the country as the news makes it out to be sometimes. The best example was when I spoke to my dad two days after I arrived at Inbar’s, and there had been rockets fired from Gaza into the country.
“I want you to be very careful, Reina,” he said.
“Of course, dad,” I said.
“Promise me you won’t go anywhere near there.”
“Why would I want to go anywhere near there?”
“All right, dad! Calm down! I promise I won’t go anywhere near Gaza.”
When I said this, Inbar’s laughter rang out from the kitchen across her white tile. In fact, any Israeli who I told about this conversation laughed their head off, as if an American like me could get anywhere near Gaza. But Americans get a little nerve wracked.
As I traveled across the country, though, it was a thought that crossed my mind regularly. What if that bag left over there was a bomb? What if someone came in with a device strapped to their chest? How would I respond if I were by myself and injured during a difficult time?
It’s almost as if it’s a part of our cultural narrative as Jews in the United States. For as long as I can remember, there have been issues between Israel and almost all the different countries and territories surrounding it. This tiny little country, about the size of New Jersey, is constantly under a state of threat. Even as we purchase our Israeli chocolates and borekas and drink hot water with mint in local cafes, there is still that underlying thought that this innocence is something that can be thrown off as soon as someone barges in with an agenda to kill as many people as possible. In America, this is a frightening thought.
Meanwhile, the Israelis have seemed to accept it like it’s nothing. Almost every Israeli citizen knows how to operate a gun here, and they are carried out in the open by soldiers. Every major train station and mall has intense security check points, even in suburban areas like Ranana. As I was going onto trains, I had my passport checked, and it made complete sense that before I got on the El Al flight I was asked a lot about my Jewish identity.
For me, who had been a Jew my whole life and active in this community, this was a no-brainer. But for Julianna, my roommate in Tsfat (more about her later), this brought a whole different bag of worries, her green eyes wide.
“They took me and two other people into a room,” she said. “And I’m just trying to rediscover my faith, I barely know anything about being Jewish. I had Passover once, and they were trying to question me about what we had during the seder. I said… ‘Matzah?’”
I laughed, but it would only be funny to someone who isn’t from Israel. Security is a big deal here, especially during holidays. If TSA in the United States is no laughing matter, the Israeli Defense Forces is ten times sourer. It’s in the very culture — hence, the shelters in every home used to protect its residents.
It’s a strange thing to see people risk so much to be a part of something like this. Not all choose to stay; some would rather live in America where the idea of having to hear sirens is something of the past, or there are more opportunities for life. Either way, I dream of a time where the idea of a bomb shelter in a home here is something of antiquity, not of necessity.