An Israel trip unlike the rest

Loni Schuman volunteers in Israel

By Loni Schuman

I lived in Israel until I was seven, spent a fantastic gap-year there, and many a vacation. Not once did I ever feel the sense of fear and anxiety as I did on this most recent trip.  Prior to take off we learned the tragic news that seven Israeli soldiers, boys my age, had been killed by an anti tank rocket and that a missile had exploded close to Ben Gurion Airport.  

After an anxious landing and the traditional passenger applause, my mother and I collected our bags and boarded a cab to Jerusalem. 

The ride to my Savta’s Jerusalem apartment, where we would be staying for ten days seemed to take far longer than it’s usual 20-minute. I felt my body tense, fearing that a siren would go off and we would have to jump out of the taxi, run to the edge of the highway and take cover with our hands over our heads as the signs instruct on the highway.

We arrived in Jerusalem thankfully without incident but I felt anxious which made me feel like a traitor. Israel, the country I once loved to visit and never passed up an opportunity to go to, now, didn’t feel comfortable.  

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Nonsense! This is the miraculous Israel. I’m here for what will prove to be the most amazing ten days, under exceptionally unusual circumstances.

The next day I was awoken by the TV news of the previous day’s fallen soldiers. Among them, was the “lone” soldier Max Steinberg.  An LA native who after one Birthright trip was consumed by the country and vowed to return and join the army. After going on Facebook and seeing that we had mutual friends, I was hurt deeply. These soldiers who were once grown men in my eyes, were now my peers, potentially my friends.  Young lives cut much to short defending our country and people from terrorists. 

When the going gets rough, Israelis get moving to help and my mom and I joined 50 plus volunteers to package donated toiletries, socks and underwear and more for delivery to the troops. Included in each parcel were hand written notes and children’s drawings.  The packages were then loaded into trucks to be transported South to the thousands of courageous men fighting ruthless terrorists . As I was packing each parcel I imagined in whose hands it would soon arrive. Whose son? Whose friend? Whose father? Each package was a personal token of appreciation and respect. 

There was one particular man at the makeshift packing center that astounded me. As we assembled our packages, the repetitive motions started to become boring and so we began talking.  Ed, a middle aged Jewish man from Connecticut, had come to Israel when the ground troops entered Gaza to volunteer wherever his help was needed.  I looked at Ed in amazement. Not only did he come to Israel to help support the country, but he came when most people were canceling their trips! That is the best Jewish response possible I thought to myself. We are in this together.  

The next day was once again a hard but inspiring one. It was a day that I will never forget. 

Driving to Mount Herzl, the site of the military cemetery, the taxi driver told us he couldn’t go any further. Throngs of people were walking to the cemetery to attend Max Steinberg’s funeral.  They came by the thousands, men, women, and children, flooding in from all directions.  Very few knew Max personally, but all had learned that he had left a life of ease in LA to fight on our behalf.   We walked until we could not advance farther and stood waiting for the service to begin.

Standing in the middle of 30,000 people listening to Max’s parents speak, I thought how courageous he was. His parents said that people ask them if they have any regrets for letting their beloved son join the army, they responded “Not a single regret.” All in attendance felt a sense of deep loss and mourning and a need to pay respect to this solitary young hero.  

The following shared experiences in Israel were unlike any before. Perhaps because many of our brave soldiers are my age, or that some of these soldiers are my close friends, or that I have just never been in Israel during times of war. But one thing is for certain. Israel is a brilliant and resilient country that is determined if not destined to survive and thrive in a sea of barbaric violence.