Avery Simon didn’t know what to do when the air raid sirens suddenly blared.
The 16-year-old Fort Worth girl was, for the first time, in Israel — the home of her Jewish faith, but also the site of growing conflict between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.
She was told to run to the bottom floor of the building she was in and find shelter in the bathroom.
There, she waited.
“It was a scary time because we didn’t know what was going on,” said Simon, who was among the dozens of Jewish Texas and Oklahoma youths who recently made a five-week pilgrimage to the Middle East with the North American Federation of Temple Youth ( NFTY). “I had no idea what to expect.
“I did know Israel was a safe place,” she said. “And it did calm my nerves that all of Israel was there to protect.”
Simon didn’t realize the extent of the warfare that was taking place in a different part of the country.
Over the coming days and weeks, she learned more about the growing violence and death toll and was among those left wondering — as airplanes in the United States suspended flights to and from Israel in the wake of rocket blasts — if she would be able to leave the country.
But she and others were able to head home as planned just days ago, leaving behind the conflict that has killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and more than 50 Israeli soldiers.
“It was crazy we got to see it, hear it, firsthand,” Simon said. “We were there when history was taking place.”
More than 40 youths went on the annual trip, most returning home last week.
They spent one week in Eastern Europe, visiting sites ranging from Prague synagogues to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Then they began their Israel Journey, which took them from the desert and sand dunes to the Old City of Jerusalem and the ancient city of Tzippori before heading to the Nazareth Forrest and Jesus Trail.
Ben Berger, a 16-year-old from Fort Worth, was among those making the journey.
One night, on a camping trip, he found himself looking at a village and listening to the strains of people singing in a nearby mosque.
“It hit me,” he said. “This was Israel.”
He saw scenic views, seaside cliffs, beautiful buildings and historic sites.
No matter where he went, people seemed to know each other and treat each other as if they were part of one big family.
That feeling remained even when the air raid sirens sounded, and he and others began running around, searching for bunkers.
When they found one, and went in, they saw crying children who had been separated from their parents.
“We tried to calm them down,” Berger said. “It was real. It was a scary situation.”
But that was one of the rare times he and others on the trip had a brush with the war.
The Israel he and others saw was far different than the one portrayed on television.
Despite the violence in and near the Gaza Strip, “no one is living in fear,” he said. “Everyone is proud of their country.
“Everyone is strong there,” he said. “You can’t live in fear all the time.”
Back in Texas
Throughout the trip, parents and guardians of the youths on the trip received constant updates about the safety of their children.
They learned when alerts and sirens went off. And they learned that all members of the group were OK.
Organizers stressed that the youths wouldn’t be going anywhere “remotely near Israel’s border with Gaza,” and that NFTY was constantly working with the Jewish Agency for Israel/Ministry of Education to ensure the group’s safety.
There were some itinerary changes, including the cancellation of some trips.
Some parents brought their children home early; others let theirs stay and finish the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I was fine when she was there, because I was there as a 16-year-old,” said Sherry Simon, mother of Avery Simon. “There’s always a conflict there.
“You just have to take a leap of faith.”
But as the trip began to wrap up, the violence there escalated and airlines began suspending flights to and from Israel.
And that’s when she and other parents began worrying.
“I was nervous,” she said. “I didn’t know when … they would get out.”
Sherry Simon was constantly checking the air schedule and was relieved when her daughter and others on the trip were able to get home safely.
The relief was palpable when children arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport last weekend and finally saw their parents.
There were big hugs. And many tears.
“It was all that emotion, stress and anxiety — and to finally see your kid,” Sherry Simon said. “All the emotion had built up.”
Avery Simon and Ben Berger said they will keep the trip — and the lessons learned — close to their hearts for years to come.
Both say they can’t wait to go back.
“I will look back on this,” said Berger, who believes the trip brought him closer to his religion. “This had a big impact. Things were put into perspective.”
Avery Simon said the trip changed her. “I feel like I’m a new person,” she said.
It’s not that she looks at situations now to find the positive side in them. Or that she has become more aware of her surroundings.
The trip brought all the pictures, lessons and images she has seen and heard about to life.
Now, Israel no longer can be described in abstract terms as “there” or “that.”
“It’s not a that anymore. It’s us,” she said. “We are Israel.”