St. Louisans visiting Israel reflect on recent terror attacks

A group from Temple Emanuel visits Jerusalem earlier this month.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Alex Zvibleman heard one of the rabbis at Bar Ilan University tell a story last week about what could have happened to his family amidst all the violence happening in Israel.

In Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem Thursday morning, two Palestinians wearing shirts with a Hamas logo tried to board a bus full of children but were stopped. The rabbi’s children normally ride that bus on their way to school but that day his wife worried — despite the fact that there hadn’t been any attacks in Beit Shemesh — that something might happen. So she drove them to school instead.  The two men stabbed a yeshiva student standing at a stop outside of a synagogue

The victim suffered moderate injuries, while one of the terrorists was killed and another was in critical condition at a hospital, according to the Times of Israel report.

The rabbi’s wife and children witnessed the attack and could have been injured or killed.

“It’s a legitimate fear. At first, it was like, we’re safe, it’s not going to happen, but now it’s a daily thing,” said Zvibleman of the recent stabbings, shootings and other attacks that started in Jerusalem near the Temple Mount in September and have since spread to other parts of the country.

Zvibleman, who graduated from Parkway Central High School last school year and is doing a gap year in Ramat Ef’al, in central Israel, said life is going along as usual in Israel for him and the other 86 students in the program — with a few exceptions — despite the violence.

“Don’t go to bus stops. Stay away from large groups, large events at clubs where they are more likely to be successful. Watch your back. Travel with friends at all times,” said Zvibleman, 18.

And keep in contact with parents. The leaders of the gap year program asked students to check in and out as they travel. Students also need written parental consent in order to leave what is normally an open campus.

Some people from St. Louis who have been in Israel recently say the lines of communication with friends and family are important not only for safety reasons, but also because of what they see as a bias in the media that distorts what is actually happening in Israel.

“It’s crazy that there is not more positive press about Israel,” said Zvibleman, who is from Chesterfield. “It’s Israel does this wrong, does that wrong.”

Reports of violence, regardless of spin, can also cause anxiety for people who have relatives in Israel.

“I have very lax parents who trust me a lot,” Zvibleman said. Another student’s parents sent her a bullet-proof vest.

“I’m a lot more independent because of the way my parents raised me than some of these kids here,” he added. 

That level of trust could also be influenced by whether or not family back home has spent time in Israel. If they have, they probably realize that when attacks become commonplace, Israelis still try to go about their lives.

Joel and Joanne Iskiwitch, who returned last week from a Temple Emanuel trip to Israel, said they received texts from their two daughters in California during the trip asking for updates. Their daughters, who had been on Birthright organized trips, understood the “security precautions,” put into place to protect tourists.

“Our kids were concerned but they also know how Israel takes care of its visitors,” said Joel, 60, who had last traveled to Israel in 1972. The only change to the group’s itinerary was that they could not visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred Christian sites, because of the threat of attacks.

Despite that warning, Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh, leader of the Reform synagogue and part of the TE contigent, said attendees still pushed for the original plan.

“They were saying, ‘Can’t we go? We want to go,’ ” said Hersh, of the 10-person trip. “The violence is horrible, and we need to speak out against it, but that aside, it did not affect our trip.” 

Hersh and several of the attendees said a highlight was meeting Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Muslim journalist who worked for NBC News and has been critical of the the Palestinian Authority and anti-Israel media bias.

The Palestinian Authority “and its leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, cannot evade responsibility for the latest wave of terror attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank,” he wrote in a recent blog.

Based on her conversation with Toameh and what she saw around the country Hersh said, “We are being told half-truths and lies in the West.”

She had not been back to Israel in 25 years, since she was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. On this trip, she and her group traveled to the Israeli border with Syria and Lebanon and brought food to Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were eating canned rations.

“I’m embarrassed that it had been so long. I feel like it was almost just a first-time trip for me. I feel such a sense of renewal,” said Hersh.

Zvibleman and his friends were preparing for a night in Tel Aviv despite news of the attack that day at a bus station. They planned to go to a beach and then to a club.

His parents told him, “Just be smart and don’t put yourself in a situation where you can be in harm’s way.”