At around 4:45 a.m. I jolted awake, in an unfamiliar bed, a moaning tune filtering in through the window of my bedroom. The muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer, sounded five times a day, interrupting my sleep and studies at Nishmat, in Jerusalem, where I studied from 2014 to 2015. It soon faded into the background, yet remained a constant reminder of the proximity of the Arabs in Beit Tsafafa, and the safety precautions needed.
Never go alone when it starts getting dark, not even during the day if you can avoid it. Always make sure someone knows where you are going.
These were messages that I carried everywhere I traveled in Israel. Over the course of the year, we received numerous text messages from our rakezet (coordinator for Shana Ba’Aretz, the gap year program), informing us of an attack—in Tel Aviv, the Old City, the Gush—and asking us where we were. News of stabbings spread like wildfire. Living with Israeli and Ethiopian girls made the situation much more real, as the attacks occurred at places they frequented, places where they have friends and family.
Somehow, life went back to normal.
I returned to the beit midrash, surrounding myself with sefarim, blocking out the muezzin and rarely coming up for air. The situation seemed to die down by the time my gap year ended, and I flew home in mid-July of 2015 to prepare for my first year at the University of Maryland.
Living in America, in a town known for its Jewish population, jokingly dubbed “Teaneck, Ir Hakodesh,” is effortless. Being an Orthodox Jew is not difficult, not even in the secular environment of the University of Maryland. But amidst the throes of a busy college schedule, Israel was never far from anyone’s thoughts. Everyone seemed to have friends or family there, and the attacks were picking up once again. The murders of Rav Eitam and Na’ama Henkin and Ezra Schwartz were tragedies that hit close to home. I had met the Henkins at Nishmat. I go to school with Ezra’s sister Molly; he was an American on his gap year in yeshiva, just like me and thousands of others. The fears that I harbor of something happening to someone I love increased, haunting me wherever I turned.
Despite all of the alarm evoked by the news reports, I was determined to return to Israel for winter break. People asked how I could go when the situation was so unsafe. They questioned how my parents would allow me to travel to a country so rife with terrorism. Letting fear prevent me from going felt like giving the terrorists another triumph.
With my parents’ warnings ringing in my ears and the news of recent stabbings in the Old City, around the corner from where I would be spending three weeks, I stepped onto the El Al flight with five friends in December. As the plane touched down at Ben Gurion the passengers applauded our safe arrival, our joy juxtaposed with the traumatic terror wave that had been befalling the Jewish nation in the fall.
The weeks flew by, visiting friends and teachers and walking around Jerusalem. The muezzin failed to interrupt my sleep (jet lag was more to blame). Yet life in Israel had a sinister tinge now. People passing by on the streets and in light rail cars with me appeared menacing. I unconsciously examined the hands of all those nearby, checking for knives and prepping myself to run at a moment’s notice. Thankfully the time for that never arose.
Upon returning to Maryland, second semester of freshman year began. While I was taking exams, friends were joining the ranks of the IDF. I worried about their safety, and began saying the prayer for the welfare of the Israeli soldiers daily. The decision I had made while in Nishmat, to make aliyah upon graduation, has since been strong in my mind, revitalized by my recent trip.
The relative quiet I had imagined in Israel was shattered this past Thursday. I read the news of the murder of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, a 13-year-old girl stabbed to death in her sleep by a Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Nasser Tarayra, in Kiryat Arba. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas claimed in Brussels last week that this act of terror, as well as all terrorism, stems from the wrongful presence of Israel in the West Bank, where I traveled twice a week for the first month and a half of my gap year while Nishmat’s beit midrash was under construction. I spent Sukkot, Shabbat and Israel’s big snowstorm in the same West Bank. My mind reeled from shock and horror.
A girl so innocent, with so much to look forward to, torn from the hands of life. Another light of the Jewish people extinguished too soon. It could have been anyone. It could have been me. It should have been no one.
I can reflect on all that happened to me since I was 13 years old and what has yet to come, knowing all that Hallel will never get to experience. Our hearts are all with the Ariel family, mourning the loss of their daughter, yet it does not feel like enough.
Somehow life, once again, moved on. Except this time, I cannot.
Terrorist attacks are not merely against those living in Israel; they are assaults on my people, my home. The deaths of people like the Rav and Rabbanit Henkin, Ezra Schwartz and Hallel Yaffa Ariel, who had already given so much and still had more to impart when they were mercilessly slain, stay with me. They make me more certain every day that Israel is where I am headed and where I belong. Where all of the dangers come with infinite joys. Where I will stand with my people, for my country.
By Sara Linder
Sara Linder is a JLNJ summer intern. She is a Teaneck resident and a student at the University of Maryland-College Park.