Personal Account of Experiencing a Siren

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Why do stories matter? Why are narratives so powerful? Why should you focus on them with your children, at your Shabbat table, or in your classroom?

Three reasons stand out to me:

  1. Jonathan Haidt wrote a powerful book that I strongly recommend, The Righteous Mind, in which he points out that the human mind is actually not a logic processor. Rather, our minds are story processors. We are wired to think in narratives. This realization crystallized for me why the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, starts with stories and then describes law, and not vice versa.
  2. The stories we tell each other are much more effective than communicating a series of facts. Think about the Passover seder. Do we recite a list of laws? Do we engage in archaeological excavations that prove the Exodus? No: that night we tell stories, specifically our story – the story of freedom and escaping from slavery on the Jewish path to the “Promised Land.”
  3. Hearing stories, allegories and metaphors helps us detach from our own world views and opinions, allowing us to feel empathy for the other. The best stories allow for us to see through others’ eyes, and this can increase our understanding of their perspectives.

When rockets hit central Israel last week, I checked the news and, like most of us living outside of Israel, thought “phew, at least there were no deaths, but yikes, that was scary.” And then I moved on with my day.

I realized my reaction was lacking in empathy, and I also realized this happens to all of us.

But I feel it is incumbent on all of us as a nation of educators to be excellent story tellers for the reasons cited above.

That’s why I asked my colleague Elana Raskas to share with us her experience of the rockets falling near her in the center of the State of Israel. (Elana grew up in America and taught in a Jewish high school in New York before moving to Israel.)

I hope you share this story with your children, colleagues and students, and that you use this as an opportunity to teach through sharing narratives of how people are shaped by their own interpretation of experiences.

If we can do that, we’ll all be the better for it.

Last Sunday night, I went to sleep around midnight. I was in Raanana, a city in central Israel north of Tel Aviv. I set my alarm for 7:30 the next morning and figured, 7.5 hours of sleep – not bad. I’d prefer eight, but I’ll take what I can get.

I was in for a rude awakening.

At 5:18 the next morning, my husband, Eli, woke me: “Elana, get up. There’s an azakah.”

An azakah. A siren. In my groggy state I heard the blaring through the window, letting thousands of people know that they have about a minute and a half (in some places much less) to find shelter. I jumped out of bed and felt my feet hit the cold floor. With my blurred vision I ran to the cabinet with the collection of keys and rummaged through it to find the one for the miklat, the bomb shelter. There was no time for shoes or glasses.

We dashed out of our apartment and down the steps to the ground-floor miklat. Eli fought with the heavy lock on the door. This isn’t a drill, I thought. They don’t test the system at 5am. This is for real. I realized I was shaking. Eli opened the door and before we could step in, we heard a BOOM. And then silence. We hadn’t made it in time.

“That was the Iron Dome, right?” I asked, assuming and hoping that the mighty Iron Dome took care of business. “Could be,” Eli said. “I’m not sure.” We waited in the miklatfor a couple of minutes before venturing back upstairs. We checked the news but there wasn’t much information available just minutes later.

So… now what? We went back to sleep. Or tried to, anyway. I laid in bed for a while, trying to calm my racing heart and trembling body. My mind was running a mile a minute. Is everyone ok? Are there more rockets to come? Will we hear another siren soon? Did the Iron Dome intercept the rocket? Why in the world are bomb shelters kept locked? I googled incessantly until I found out what had happened, and I answered my parents’ texts from New York to tell them we were ok. I drifted back to sleep.

When I woke up just a little while later to my planned alarm, I was zonked. It felt so strange to carry on with a normal day after what had just happened.

I learned the full picture: a rocket from Gaza had been fired into Israel’s Sharon region. It hit a house with a sleeping family in Mishmeret (about eight miles from Raanana). In those hurried seconds, the father woke his children, wife, parents and sister and brought most of them to safety. He saved their lives; the rocket landed squarely on their house.

In the days afterward, I kept circling back to the same thought: residents in Israel’s south, near Gaza, experience this all the time. It’s something that we’ve gotten used to. I hear about rockets falling there, and it sounds so… regular. But after experiencing the panic and fear of what it really means for a siren to go off and make a run for it, I can’t quite wrap my head around how these people are managing. How can a person, how can a family, live a normal life with the knowledge that at any moment the next rocket could land on your house?

This led me to think about our work here at Jerusalem U. Our goal in these weekly emails is to bring Israel’s current events to classrooms throughout the world in a personal and thought-provoking way. We seek to engender understanding of and empathy toward the Israeli experience and people, who are a part of different cultures, ethnicities and religions. The challenge is how to do that from afar.

Do you need to undergo a certain common experience in order to identify with others?

Can you feel people’s joys and pains from thousands of miles away?

It’s not a given, but we believe it is possible through story. Sometimes, hearing the real-life experience of one person can shape the way you understand an entire people.

Elana Raskas

Elana Raskas is the Education Associate at Jerusalem U. After earning her master’s degree in Bible and Talmud from Yeshiva University, Elana taught high school Judaic studies in New York. Elana is passionate about harnessing technology to educate young Jews across the world.

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