Oct 13, 2023  By Celine Leeds  Category: Blueprint Negev,

Israel Thoughts

Celine Leeds is Jewish National Fund-USA's Executive Director in Central New Jersey. She was traveling with her family in Israel when war broke out. These are her thoughts and reactions.

My thoughts and feelings are swarming my mind and crushing my heart after ten days in Israel…. How do we come home and try to be normal again… Do you unpack, deal with mounds of laundry, restock your fridge, catch up on mail, emails and act like everything is normal? Our kids will go back to school here after a sukkot vacation but not in Israel. The disconnect from what we just experienced is real.

For the past few months, with great excitement to visit our son. Benjamin. at Alexander Muss High School in Israel, our itinerary was carefully planned. Our family had not travelled together to Israel since 2017. Our youngest son Emmanuel, age 5, was going for the first time. When we “surprised” the kids and told them about our trip our 11-year-old son Sammy immediately panicked and said he didn’t want to go. Israel was not a safe place and there are attacks there all the time. We reassured him we would be safe and how statistically speaking Israel is actually safer than the US. Looking back on that moment now, did Sammy somehow know we would experience a tiny dose of Israeli reality?

On our first full day in Israel, we visited an iron dome repair facility on IDF Air Force base. The repair lab proudly employs one of our Jewish National Fund-USA, Special in Uniform soldiers, a young man, Akiva, on the autism spectrum. Akiva is brilliant and can build or take apart the components of the Iron Dome missile blindfolded. He is highly valued and considered one of the best technicians in his unit. We left the base visit with a feeling of pride and awe at all this young man has accomplished with the support of our work for those with disabilities. Like his twin brother, Akiva can proudly and very usefully serve in the IDF. Little did we know how vital the Iron Dome technology would be in the coming days.

The following week we spent the day with our dear friends who live in several Gaza border communities. Our kids learned about how the Jewish National Fund-USA one-of-a-kind GrooveTech center is serving the needs of school children of all ages in the Eshkol region. Whether it’s during school hours with their teachers or after school to keep the kids busy and safe while their parents may be working and have a longer than usual commute because of where they CHOOSE TO LIVE. This place is incredible, my kids didn’t want to leave!

We went from this high-tech center to the endless greenhouse farms where we ate the most delicious organic cucumbers, grown with so much love. Watching the dessert bloom, I didn’t realize how gratifying it would be for my husband Seth and our four children, to learn about everything we do in the Gaza Envelope, and then reality struck. Literally.

This past Shabbat, October 6, we decided to stay in Jerusalem. A change of plans so we could see Ben more and experience the Simchat Torah holiday in Jerusalem and at the Kotel (Western Wall). We had a beautiful Friday night prayer there and ate delicious food we bought at Machne Yehuda market earlier that day. We went to bed with mixed feelings about Saturday being our last day in Israel. It’s always hard to say goodbye, especially when you’re leaving one of your kids to continue his studies.

On Shabbat morning, October 7, we were woken up by several red alert sirens. To be honest I told Sammy the first one was an ambulance. I was not sure myself what was going on. Since we typically do not use our phones on Shabbat I had no way of knowing what was happening. I decided to check my phone and then another siren went off, I could hear families in our AirBNB building running down the steps. I knew we had to run. I had to wake up our 14-year-old daughter, Rya, and get her out immediately. We ran, most of us in pajamas to wait in the building stairwell as there was no shelter in the building. The unknown was terrifying. I began to grasp the reality that Israeli mothers live with every day.

After about five or six sirens, Rya took a shower. Would she have 15-seconds to get out if needed? I gave her my robe and said keep it nearby in case you have to run. Luckily, she didn’t need it. We had plans to walk our kids to some local parks to meet their camp friends also spending Sukkot in Israel. We also planned to meet Ben and his Muss friends at Independence Park. None of that happened. Instead we spent the day indoors, trying to explain baseless hatred to our children, trying to not show how terrified we were as every siren rang. The endless questions were so valid and smart, yet our answers didn’t satisfy their inquisitiveness.

We purposely stayed really close to Old City so I kept telling our five-year-old, Emmanuel, that we’re safe. I said the Palestinians don’t want to hurt the Old City since it’s important to them as well. All day he kept repeating that we’re safe because they don’t want to hurt our area of Israel. It was like he was saying that to reassure himself. I myself wasn’t sure if what I told him was valid, maybe it’s just what I wanted to believe. With the purest soul of an innocent child, he kept asking why do they shoot rockets if they know the iron dome will stop them? Such logic!

Later in the afternoon, we decided to meet up with Ben and his fellow Muss classmates. Their teacher Jon reassured them all and answered such smart questions from this group of young leaders. Future Board Presidents, lay leaders and volunteers who will understand Israel in a way most do not. I spoke to the students and told them Jewish National Fund-USA will keep them all safe, and to please reassure their parents they are in good hands.

We said the difficult goodbye to Ben I had been dreading it all week, then Saturday that dread changed to a whole new level. How do you leave your child behind in this fluid, ever evolving situation? I asked Ben if he wanted to leave with us and he laughed me off saying he was staying. When we hugged for the last time, I didn’t want to let go. Parenting is not for the weak!

On our way to the airport Seth was driving. I think we saw three rockets get thwarted in the air. The kids didn’t notice. I squeezed Seth’s arm and we exchanged that look and just didn’t say anything out loud. It almost looked like the rockets were coming at us until you see them in the air get stopped. Gd bless the Iron Dome system.

The main question I am still grappling with is how do you get on that flight, leaving a piece of your heart behind? Knowing logically that Ben is in the best hands, but he’s not with us. Should we have just taken him?! The other kids needed to get out. Maybe that was driving me to leave. How do you answer the same question over and over, why do they hate us? Part of me wanted to stay with Ben and send the others home with Seth. I kept thinking, I can work from here and help on the ground and be near Ben if he needs me. However, it’s important to keep everything “normal” in these situations. So that meant getting on the plane as planned. And by the way, we got on one of the last United flights out of Israel. As we were leaving one of my favorite places on earth, stories of the horrors and atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists in Israels southern communities started coming out. Not only was I leaving my son, but I was leaving my friends, family, brothers, sisters, colleagues. I knew these communities. I’ve visited some of these kibbutzim. How could this be happening? How could I be leaving them?

There is such a strong feeling that I can “escape” this situation, but my family and friends choose not only to stay but to LIVE fully in the region they call 99 percent Heaven 1 percent hell. How do I leave during that one percent period of misery?

On the flight home, Rya watched The Little Mermaid and Moana on the flight home. Did she need to feel like a kid again? I don’t blame her for a second. It was a scary day we will never forget.

How do we remember our trip now? Do I make a Shutterfly photo book and just pretend there were no sirens, no rockets in the sky? Maybe now when I go to work early one morning, miss a bedtime or come late to a basketball game my kids will understand more of what we do and why it’s important to do whatever it takes to support these families. The labor of love.

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