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Kari Zalik

Kari Zalik: Booms in the Night : My Unusual Summer in Jerusalem on Hebrew U's Mount Scopus

by Kari Zalik, July 27, 2014

I’m used to falling asleep with noise. Living in a high-rise building in downtown Toronto I really haven’t got a choice. This time however when I got into bed, I was listening to stun grenades and police helicopters.


For the past three summers I have been accompanying the Canadian student delegation to the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University. Throughout the year I promote our programs to their home institutions and meet the students who would like to attend Hebrew U, and then join them in Israel for their first two weeks to collect marketing data and meet with our offices. It was clear this year things were going to be a little different than last time.


As a former Hebrew University student I can say with confidence that I know the city of Jerusalem and the area by the school quite well. As I headed out of my hotel for what is truly a one minute walk to a – you guessed it - falafel stand, the security guard came up to me and told me there’s no way he’s letting me out of the hotel alone. 


Ok, very different than last time.


Before I continue I need to delve into the geography of where I was.  The Hebrew University is located on Mount Scopus, somewhat of an island in the eastern part of Jerusalem, (in surrounded, almost completely, by Arab villages, and the tensions in the area were soaring after the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teens. Then of course, an innocent Arab boy was murdered by Jewish extremists in Shuafat – the neighbourhood right beside my hotel.


Cue my evening soundtrack.


And before I forget – the Arab taxi drivers from the stand at my hotel were always talking with me about the situation, to the point where I was uncomfortable. Was it really the time to add my two cents in the back of their car? A girl was murdered up north by an Arab taxi driver which led me to only use an Israeli, subsequently Jewish company, where all the drivers would briefly adopt me for the time I was with them. And please don't think they let me get out of the car without their phone numbers just in case I needed anything.


Even though the news was amplifying the situation it really wasn’t all bad – the students were absolutely fine and so was I. Jerusalem  really feels like  home. I have a good handle on the language and the  guy who sells smoothies at Hebrew U remembered me, so everything was well and good. 


Although the school gives a security briefing during orientation, we called a meeting for a far more detailed one which went over exactly what to do if there’s a siren, in any situation (car, sleeping, and of course, while you are in the shower).


After the session and my meetings for the day I met one of my closest friends from Hebrew U at the Mamilla Mall which overlooks the Old City for a little shopping and dinner. She chose a restaurant that had a private balcony with the most exquisite view of the Old City. I remember telling her how excited I was to watch the sun set over the old city walls – Jerusalem stone glows at dusk and dawn. 


And then our phones rang. Both, at exactly the same time.


The first siren in a major city outside of Southern Israel sounded in Tel Aviv. My mom’s friend called me to let me know she was ok – I would be staying with her after my work was finished. My friend’s boyfriend called to say he was ok too. 


That was the end of dinner. My friend lives in Tel Aviv and commutes each day. I found it less than impressive that she would be willing to hop on a bus after a siren in the city but who can convince a North American Jewish girl of anything other than the manicurist? 


Knowing I would be in solitary confinement at the hotel and expecting to listen to some unpleasant sounds that night, I elected to stay and work. After I watched the sunset over the Old City, I called for a taxi.


I hop in the car with Eli – although at the time I didn’t know his name. “Are you worried? All the tourists are worried” he said. I told him I’m not but that I’m worried about that massive group of what I call “kids” I brought with me, who are incredibly close to me in age.


He told me I shouldn’t be worried about them or myself because we’re safe, and although I told him I was ok, Eli called his wife to see if there was dinner. “You’ll come to my house and my wife will make you something,” he said. “You’re my daughter too”. As we turned the second last corner to the hotel I was still trying to convince him that I felt at home, and that’s when it happened.


You see I thought I was prepared for this. I grew up in a Zionist home and celebrated all of the holidays. Jewish school, trips to Israel, studying in Israel – I was an Israeli veteran amongst my friends. I knew about all of the wars, the dates, the key figures. Do you want to know what Moshe Dayan did? I’ll tell you! But nothing, truly nothing could have prepared me for this.


It’s the scariest noise you’ll ever hear. Truly. It tells you something is coming for you in the most piercing way. We got out of the car and he came around to my side to duck and cover with me just as the siren stopped. I took his hand and he told me once again to not be worried. Then came the incredible boom of the Iron Dome (baruch shemo).  Eli saw the interception. My rationale was that if a rocket was going to hit me I’m not interested in seeing it so I kept my eyes firmly on the ground. 


But that was it. Run for your life for one minute, wait until you hear the boom, wait a few minutes (but if you’re with Israelis they’ll wait a few seconds) and go on with your day. The hardest part however was thinking that this is happening to people all day, every day. Every few hours some days, and soon after the war started, every few minutes. The sound is violating – perhaps designed that way, but it is louder than you’d imagine and instills an incredible yet short term fear. But they have 15 seconds in the south – popularly compared to the time it takes to read a tweet. I had one minute. Babies. Elderly. People with special needs. 15 seconds. Every day. 


My work ended a few days later and I went to Tel Aviv. Every single day I had to run for cover. Every day. While I was eating, sleeping, driving, swimming, tanning (with spf 50, don’t worry) and the worst one, showering. 


But it becomes normal. Not even strange. After getting over my first siren it became second nature. Hear it – bolt. That was it, and I wasn’t uncomfortable at all. The most uncomfortable part is being back, knowing what I went through, and knowing that people are still going through it.

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