My Summer in Tel Aviv

By Guest Contributor

Jolted out of bed at 2 a.m. by the wailing of the fire alarm, I flail around in my dark room to find some resemblance of an outfit. After what seems like an eternity, I reluctantly go outside to join the other Battell residents huddled together in the cold, experiencing what has become a rite of passage for Middlebury students.

Imagine that the alarm went off a couple times a day, instead of a handful of times a year. Imagine being awakened by an alarm signaling that you have 90 seconds to get dressed and get to the nearest bomb shelter. Imagine rockets with 100 kg. warheads landing near your home. Imagine going to work every day and proceeding with life as normal despite the rockets. That was my summer.

On the May 30, I departed my home in Los Angeles and traveled halfway across the world to Tel Aviv, Israel. Birthright Israel sponsored 40 North American college students for a very unique program. We lived together in a youth hostel and worked in various internships. Evenings included special programming or a speaker. We were paired with 40 Israeli peers that studied at an Israeli University or served in the army.

The first month of the trip was exactly as I had expected. I learned a lot at my job at Giza Venture Capital, I learned about Israel’s miraculous economy from high-profile speakers, I experienced a traditional Shabbat dinner with my Israeli peer Shay and I explored Tel Aviv’s nightlife with my new friends. 

Between June 30 and July 2, the IDF found the bodies of three Israeli teens murdered by Hamas, and a Palestinian teen was murdered by far-right Jewish extremists in retaliation. On July 8, the first rocket siren in Tel Aviv went off. The relative quiet that I had enjoyed for my first month in Israel was over. 

During the final five weeks I was in Israel, the sirens became a routine. 90 seconds to get to the shelter, nervously praying to hear the dull boom of the Iron Dome — a missile interception system — indicating the rocket was intercepted, while texting loved ones back in the U.S. that I was safe. Then I would go on with my day, or back to sleep if it was in the middle of the night. 

At first, the routine was a novelty.  The first dozen sirens were not only terrifying, but also exciting. Running from the rockets to the bomb shelters was an adrenaline rush. Living in the U.S., I had never feared for my life before. 

After a week or two, the excitement began to fade and a new reality set in. When I walked into a restaurant, I asked for the menu and for the location of the nearest bomb shelter. I was also incredibly fortunate to live in Tel Aviv. Less than 40 miles south, Israelis had only 15 seconds to get to the shelters. Thousands of rockets were fired on the South during the month of July, and residents also lived in fear of Hamas militants emerging from their complex network of terror tunnels from Gaza into Israel’s South.

Many of my Israeli peers, just a couple years out of their mandatory service, were called up for reserve duty. Every day, I followed the news from Gaza religiously and worried for my Israeli peers. I knew the people fighting, and that made it personal.  Towards the end of the summer, one of my Israeli Peers was injured in combat. He has since recovered after surgery, but the fear of losing someone I cared about remained. 

The civilian deaths in Gaza and subsequent media backlash also weighed on Israeli society. There was no rejoicing in death tolls out of Gaza — simply frustration at the reality of the Middle East and the desire to live without fear of rockets.

Living in Tel Aviv for the summer was an unforgettable experience. I made lifelong friends, learned professional skills and gained a deeper appreciation for how good we have it in the United States. My Israeli peers and my co-workers at Giza were incredibly supportive and were a big reason that I never seriously considered leaving early.  Back home, I live without fear of rocket fire, and I can be proud of my Jewish identity without fear of backlash. It is something that I cannot do in much of the world, including some European countries following the most recent outbreak of anti-Semitism.

I wanted to avoid writing another polarizing op-ed on the Middle East and rather tell the story of someone who lived in Israel the past few months. If you do feel strongly about this issue, I am happy to discuss it in more depth. Feel free to email me at [email protected] 

AARON DE TOLEDO ’16 is from Los Angeles, Calif.