Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
As a regular visitor to Israel, Aspen resident Shereen Sarick has seen conflict in the tension-filled country before.
But as mentor to young Jewish-Americans who visit Israel, her recent visit there was not typical of past trips with Birthright Israel, a not-for-profit organization that offers free trips to 18- to 26-year-old Jewish adults.
This was the first trip to Israel for the 40 Americans who were accompanied by Sarick. And while they got to see much of Israel, they also spent some of their time hunkered down in bomb shelters as the country’s conflict with Hamas and Palestinian militants escalated.
When Sarick and the Birthright Israel travelers arrived in Israel on June 29, it seemed like business as usual. But, Sarick noted, “the tension grew slowly” in the wake of the June 12 abduction of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. Their bodies were found July 1 in the West Bank, and the next day a Palestinian teen was kidnapped and found dead. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials condemned the killing, but rocket attacks were launched from Gaza into southern Israel, while Israel began to launch airstrikes on Gaza militants.
“There were some false sirens, but I was able to use that as an education point for my 40 participants: ‘If you hear a siren, stay in the building,’” Sarick said.
Because of the outbreak, Sarick’s group didn’t stick to their original tour plans.
“We chose not to go close to Gaza or the West Bank, and we talked about the conflict from a safe distance,” Sarick said.
When the group visited Nordiya, Israel, they found themselves in a bomb shelter. Sarick said while she never felt at risk because “we were doing the right thing and being very cautious and following protocol,” some the younger travelers were jolted by the experience.
“We get the sirens, and we’re in a bomb shelter, and when you’re 18 to 22 years old and you’ve grown up on American soil, ... I was concerned,” Sarick said, adding that “some of my girls were pretty worked up, but I think they were coming from a place of the unknown. I had a few sobbing, hyperventilating girls in the bomb shelters. My calm came from a better understanding of what was happening. They aren’t following current events, and it’s too much to get their heads around, and when they turned to me and other Israelis and saw us relaxed, they felt better.”
Sarick said that part of the calm comes from having visited Israel many times over; she leads two annual Birthright Israel trips — once in the summer and once in the winter. The nonprofit has brought more than 400,000 young Jewish adults to Israel over the past 14 years.
“When you live in a land that’s constantly under fire and is attacked by its neighboring countries, you get used to it,” she said.
Even so, Sarick said that her husband, Jordan, had scheduled to meet her in Israel for their 17th anniversary. But by the time he reached Newark, New Jersey, Shereen informed him it wasn’t a good time to make the trip.
“We were going to hike the width of Israel,” she said. “But we didn’t want to be backpacking on a trail during these tense times.”
Shereen Sarick returned to Aspen on Wednesday night but not before her group was relegated to a bomb shelter at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. “I let (the Birthright travelers) know that this is part of your authentic Israel tour. ... It was not like being in your own shelter in a hostel. It was more of a mass community, but everyone stayed calm, and we proceeded.”
Meanwhile, another local family had plans to leave for Israel today. Basalt residents Rachel and Giora Hahn, along with their two sons, have had plans to visit Giora’s brother-in-law, who lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv. They visit Israel every other year.
“There’s this sense that it’s not as grave as everyone makes it out to be,” Rachel Hahn said. “What’s going to happen is we’re not going to be stupid and we’re going to be more limited in our travels.”