A group of exchange students from Bethany High School cut their trip to Israel short by a couple days, and a mother frets daily over her son's well-being in Tel Aviv.
Oklahomans with ties to Israel said they are indeed concerned about the recent spate of violence there, but that the conflict is for the most part isolated to the southern part of the country and has had only minor relevance in their daily lives.
“If you hear a siren you take shelter, but we never really felt afraid — it wasn't anywhere near us,” said Michelle Ayers, an English teacher in Bethany who took nine students to Israel this month. “It's a lot like hearing a tornado siren.”
The students, and their counterparts at high schools in New York and Virginia, spent several weeks in educational seminars and visiting landmarks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Part of the lesson plan was to learn how different cultures coexist, Ayers said.
When fighting broke out a week ago at the Israel-Gaza border, they also learned how cultures can sometimes clash.
Though the cities in the north are well within range of rockets fired by militants in Gaza, Israel's missile defense system has reduced the danger there to sirens and the sounds of those very same rockets being intercepted.
Ayers said she spent the last several days of the trip trying to convince parents and school officials back at home that everything was OK, but ultimately the Bethany crew came home two days early.
“I think the kids learned an amazing lesson,” she said. “Number one, they realized that the news media blows things out of proportion. They also learned what it's like for these kids to live in an area where they're surrounded by people who want to annihilate them. It really gave them insight into how blessed they are to live in the United States of America.”
Violence a surprise
Jack Randolph, a 2010 graduate of University of Oklahoma, painted a similar picture of life in Tel Aviv. Randolph, 26, and his friend Curran Banning Fudge left in July to play American football.
“The violence, neither of us saw that coming,” he said. “We've been more thinking about what's going to happen with Iran. This really came as a huge surprise last week.”
Five times he has had to bunker down in a shelter after the missile alerts sounded, but the occurrences are short and became nonevents after the first several.
But don't try making light of it to his mother.
Lory Randolph said she initially demanded Jack return home, but now keeps her nose to the news and the State Department website.
“You have 90 to 120 seconds to get to a shelter once the alarm goes off,” she said. “My son has promised me that he will heed every one of those warnings; he's promised me that he will never be further than 90 to 120 seconds from one.”
A planned trip by her younger son, Ryan, to see his big brother in December is on hold for now, she said.
Family in Israel
Rabbi Vered Harris at the Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City said the short-term crisis is not nearly as concerning as the long-term implications of instability again in Israel.
Harris claims a sister, grandmother, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in Israel. Two of her cousins serve in the military, one as a reserve. Her father is Israeli and fought in wars there in 1967 and 1973.
“I'm pretty much sick to my stomach every day, what I'm going through as an Oklahoman with connections up there,” she said. “The issue is not just the short-term safety of the people who live in threat of the people who live in the Gaza border; the issue is the long-term stability of Israel as the only democracy in that part of the Middle East.”