The view of Tel Aviv's beachfront from our outdoor cafe was beautiful as always. My friend Lauren and I were finishing up our coffee, trying to figure what part of town to explore next. Then, it happened. The potential moment I had feared most about living in Israel. A moment I had been expecting, but not now, not here. The distant blare of an air raid siren transformed the busy intersection next to us into pure chaos. I don't think I registered what was going on, my mind had separated itself from my body. I jumped up. Like everyone else, without thought or understanding, I started to run. Lauren looked at me confused; from her vantage point she couldn't see the reaction of the crowd behind her and therefore wasn't fully able to process exactly what was going on. We grabbed each other and followed the mass of people.
A statistic from some news source soared to the forefront of my mind from an infinite amount of other thoughts: In Tel Aviv you will have roughly 90 seconds to find shelter once you hear a siren sound. One and a half minutes stand between you and the danger of being exposed to an incoming missile.
The first place we saw to seek shelter was occupied. We kept running. Like, RUNNING. I could have qualified for the Olympics if this was a time trial.
Two Israeli women motioned for us to follow them into the Tel Aviv School of Design's lobby. The receptionist yelled for us to go into the parking garage. We entered and stood there in disbelief. I had tried to prepare myself mentally before arriving for how I would react if this unfortunate, unlikely, but yet still possible situation were to occur. Now, in the moment, I was laughing. We were scared, but we had quickly found safety. It was obvious that we were trying to keep each other in good spirits, attempting to make quick jokes and block out the insanity of what was going on around us. It was comforting that the Israeli's were laughing too.
Then the laughter stopped.
I felt it before I saw it. The most disturbing, haunting echo resonated through the concrete garage. Every part of myself reacted to this literal feeling. My stomach. My mind. My instantly goosebump-covered flesh. And lastly, my eyes. From where we were standing in the parking garage we still had a limited view of the beach. A huge splash erupted from the water. I cannot give an honest distance because I have no idea where to even begin with that estimation. But it was close. Too close. Psyche-altering, perspective-changing, feel-your-skin-turn white close. What made it more alarming was what stood between us and that Fajr-5 missile: nothing. No other people, no other buildings. Just space, time, sand, and sea.
We emerged from the shelter to collect our belongings from the cafe's table. We must have looked shaken, because the waiter came over and attempted to calm us down. "It's okay, finish your coffee!" he encouraged. "We're fine, we're just surprised American's!" I exclaimed as I picked up my cup. I believed myself, too. Everything was too surreal to register. And as I picked up my coffee, I realized my mind and body were still not on the same page. Even though I thought I was alright, my trembling hand sent coffee spilling over the edges of the cup as I brought it to my mouth.
My undergraduate alma mater prides itself on "experiential learning"--a hands-on, immersion based approach to academics. I'm in Israel to study Peace and Conflict Management. This was experiential learning. Before this event, war seemed real enough. I knew it was a bad thing. People get hurt. People die. But that missile made me realize everything I had "known" about conflict was arbitrary. Textbooks, articles, the news--they can only teach you so much. Seeing one missile taught me more than all my time spent in a classroom. This was without a doubt the most disturbing moment of my life, and I saw only one missile. People in the south of Israel experience this every day, many times a day, as they have for years. People in Gaza are trapped in a small space where it's literally raining bombs. I now have a tiny but terrifying glimpse into the hell that is reality for both sides.
I waited a few days to write this post because I needed time to organize my thoughts and sort through my emotions. I have also used the time to deeply reflect on what I saw. That missile was an act of indiscriminate violence. There was no target. It was sent to cause pain, to kill, and to frighten. It was more than a missile. It was hatred. It was inhumanity. It was evil.
Last night on campus everyone in our program was finally back from the various places they had been traveling. Just the normalcy of being back together was comforting. So many others had similar stories from the weekend, and we could tell everyone was feeling the gravity of living in a news headline.
There has never been a more meaningful group hug in the history of group hugs.
I am thankful for them. I am thankful for a living in a city that is out of harms way. I am thankful for a huge reminder that what we are studying, what we are doing here, is important.