JERUSALEM — On June 29, 27 Jewish teenagers from Baltimore participated in a team-building exercise, working together to build rafts and then sailing them across the Sea of Galilee. It was a day of sun and sea, cooperation and fun. But as the teens sailed across the calm waters, they couldn’t help but notice the large pictures of boys just about their own age plastered across billboards along with the campaign slogan “Bring Back Our Boys.”
The Baltimore teens “knew” the Israeli teens well. They knew that Naftali Frenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, were kidnapped not long before the Baltimore Zionist District Israel teen tour set out for the Jewish state, and they saw for themselves the way Israelis and the worldwide Jewish community rallied together in support of the boys’ families and of the Israel Defense Forces troops searching for them.
The group of teens arrived in Israel several days prior and had already visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum and the Mount Herzl national military cemetery in Jerusalem. They hiked the Golan Heights. They toured the Old City of Jerusalem and prayed at the Western Wall. And all within the context of continued reports of the search for the boys.
Nothing could have prepared them for the news they received the following evening. After a full day of hiking and touring the Tiberius area, the teens were somberly gathered by their group leaders and informed that the bodies of Frenkel, Shaar and Yifrah had been found, murdered by suspected Hamas terrorists. Since that night, the number of rockets fired into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has increased to more than 100 a day; the IDF responded last week by launching Operation Protective Edge, amassing troops at the Gaza border and dispatching airstrikes against targets within that Palestinian territory.
The Baltimore teens’ first (and, as of this report, only) experience with a rocket attack was on Saturday, July 5. They were spending the weekend at the Beit Kama kibbutz in southern Israel, lounging around outside in a field, when an air raid siren sounded. Reassured by the kibbutzniks, who had been through this before, the teens were herded into a bomb shelter, where they continued chatting — albeit in more hushed tones —with their peers.
“I wouldn’t say it’s fear, so much as a rational nervousness,” said 15-year-old Jacob Berman of Salisbury, when asked whether the BZD teens had expressed fear regarding their safety. No participants expressed a desire to cut the trip short and return to the safety of the United States, and, perhaps more surprisingly, neither have any of their parents.
When the matzav or “situation,” which is what the climate of not-quite-war is called in Israel, broke out, there was some “uneasiness. There were some kids who were nervous,” said Berman. Counselors sat down with the participants, who had never before been to Israel, to assess exactly how much they knew about the crisis and fill in the gaps, then the teens wrote letters to their parents to let them know what was happening and how they were doing.
Staying informed apparently helped the teens remain calm, as did the knowledge that their parents, the program’s staff and Israel’s security forces were doing everything in their power to keep them safe. But more than their concern for safety, said participants, they felt for the people who call Israel their home.