March 17, 2003 - As Bush prepared to invade Iraq, 100 Jewish college students from Yeshiva University and Stern College boarded a plane to Israel, under the motto: Israel: We Care. We’re Going. The mission had been hastily tossed together. The purpose: to go to Israel and show that even in a time when war is imminent, when most people were leaving the country, we still cared in the most tangible of ways.
My name is Navah Rosensweig. I’m 20, and a junior in Stern College, a Jewish University. I spent the past two years in school in Israel, and I miss it still. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to go for a week, to clearly make the statement that I still cared fiercely about my homeland.
It was an incredible experience. These are excerpts from my journal, written at the time of the mission.
March 18, 2003
With nary four hours warning, I packed and was off to the airport. They had a big reception for us, in the El Al red carpet area, with music and food and cake, and lots of speakers, all congratulating us on going.
There was a general atmosphere of excitement, and for me, a sense of things being entirely unreal. Things moved along, and before I knew it, we were on the plane and on the way to Israel!
They took us first to the Western Wall, the kotel, where we prayed. There were oodles of reporters all over, snapping pictures of us and pushing us together for all sort of different shots. We got interviewed by Hong Kong television, and had another reception, this one with Benny Elon, Minister of Tourism - and then the busses took us off to our respective schools, where we were going to stay. They also gave us gas masks in boxes, which we're not supposed to open until the government tells us to.
Today, I walked into school to see Pinni, our handyman and my friend, starting to prepare the sealed rooms in the school building, and it occurred to me to wonder where we were going to go in case of an air raid. I then spent the morning figuring out our sealed room. I think there's a bomb shelter in our building, but just in case, we're going to seal off a room. Pinni gave me plastic and duct tape to seal the windows, doors and ducts, and taught me how to do it. I bought water, and got a radio, and a map of Israel and some food. We've got a bucket and towel (to wet and put under the door, in case of chemical warfare) and we just have to fill it. Tonight, we'll tape up the room.
Tonight and tomorrow is Purim, the Jewish holiday commemorating the story of Esther. It's a happy holiday, meant for happiness. People dress up in costume, give gifts of food, and have a big festive meal. There's festivity in the air already, and a general happy buzz in the air, despite the oncoming war.
I'm not scared at all. For one thing, they generally don't aim at Jerusalem, because there are lots of Arabs here, and the big mosque, so Jerusalem is generally safe. Even if we do have an air raid, and we do have to use the gas masks and the sealed rooms, I doubt anything will fall here. But even so, I'm glad to be here. I hated the idea that things were going on in Israel and I wasn't there. I'd rather be here if there's stuff going on. If it were in my hands, I wouldn't leave until the war was over - either war - and then some. I feel safer in Israel than in America, anyway - Israeli security is so good, and they know what they're doing. Maybe it's crazy, but I'm not afraid. Not even a little.
People keep telling us how glad they are that we're here. I'm just glad to be here.
March 19, 2003
We went to a Purim carnival and festive meal with an organization called One Family, an organization that works with terror victims and their families. Today, they had around 900 families of terror victims together, and we were joining them to show our solidarity and support.
We spent the first hour or so wearing funny clothes, playing with children, blowing up balloons, taking kids on camel rides, and the like. It was fun, but got tiring after a while, and it was a bit awkward when we were talking to the parents. We weren't really sure what was taboo - we never knew if we could ask a woman if her husband was there, or how many children she had - what might strike a nerve? Who among these happy faces was missing forever? All the people were normal and friendly, but we knew that every person there was somehow connected to tragedy.
Then, just as we were beginning to be tired of the whole thing, they moved us into a large Bedouin tent to have a very fancy festive meal. They had beautiful tables set up for us, and we were told to mingle and sit with the Israelis. It turns out that two American boys, instead of having big Bar Mitzvah parties, had opted to donate the money to One Family instead, and this huge party for these people was in place of their Bar Mitzvah celebration.
My friend Adina and I sat with some Israelis - a woman and her son, a man, his wife, and their son and daughter. We chatted idly, played with their kids, and exchanged small talk - and then one of the people in chare of our mission spoke. After he spoke, they circulated some of the awareness booklets we had been putting together, booklets with pictures of all the people killed in this Intifada.
It was then that the woman next to us (the man was her brother) flipped through the book until she found a particular picture - Tirza Polansky, killed May 18, 2001. Her mother, killed in a suicide bomb outside a Netanya mall. She had her brother and his wife started telling us about her. The kids started smiling and talking about their Savta (grandmother). They were eager to tell us, desperate to get their story out. It was amazing how important it was to them that we were there, and interested, that we cared.
We're sealing up our room tonight. I've been told (though it's not been verified) that we're supposed to be carrying out gas masks around with us from now on. We're not to open them until the government tells us to, but we're supposed to have them with us. They come in cardboard boxes with a strap for easy carrying.
We've got a radio, bucket, towels, water, cookies, flashlight, batteries, for the sealed room, and a bomb shelter in the basement of our building just in case. I'm not afraid. I doubt anything will happen in Jerusalem at all. The general attitude of the country is that they just want to get it over with already.
I'm still happy I'm here.
March 20, 2003
Last night, we got word that we were supposed to open our gas mask boxes and try on our gas masks. We were supposed to be ready for the possibility of an air raid during the night.
Wearing a gas mask is interesting. You can breathe totally normally, and see as well - you just have this big thing on your head, with a filter attached. We all looked pretty funny, and took pictures. It's funny, because you try to smile, and then realize that no one can see you smiling. We waved instead.
Then I began to seal the room. You have to cut a piece of plastic (they call it "nylon" here) a bit larger on all sides than the surface you're covering, and tape it securely with duct tape all around, so that there are no cracks. Our room had a window, a vent, and a door, all needing to be covered. It's harder than you'd think, both to cut and to tape. It was a long, trying, frustrating process. Our door still isn't properly sealed, but it can't be, because we have to be able to get in quickly.
There was no air raid during the night. I woke up, showered, hefted my gas mask over my shoulder, and hied off to the school building. Everyone in the streets had their gas mask boxes, or a bag large enough to carry one - like the latest style of purses. It's very casual - everyone has one, it's no big deal.
March 21, 2003
We went to the hotel to check in at 9am, and then there was a blood drive. I can't give blood, so I hung around and helped organize the next activities, but lots of people gave blood - there were Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) volunteers there at the hotel, running it.
After that, we went out to something fun - give out CDs and CD players to Israeli soldiers. I wish I had a picture of those soldiers' faces, when we first offered them the CD players. It was like an "am I on candid camera?" type thing. I mean, we were just walking up to random soldiers and offering them presents! It threw them off a bit until we got to chatting with them, explaining what we were doing in Israel and why we were giving them the stuff. It was really, really fun, and they really appreciated us being there - we gave away our last CDs to a female soldier, feeling really good.
The mission was an incredible experience, and I was so lucky to get to go. It was a week packed with activity and emotion. Everyone we met thought we were crazy - we must have gotten “You came to Israel for the war? Are you nuts?” from nearly everyone we met. Even my relatives thought I was a bit mad. But there was no question in my mind that we were doing the right thing. I wasn’t afraid, not even for a second. Instead, I was glad to be in my homeland in a time of crisis. It’s much harder, and much scarier, to be far away when bad things are happening at home. If I had had the choice, I would have stayed beyond that one week.