The Planning of the Epic Trip
My husband Eric and I have had many dinners with close friends Wendy and Spencer over the years and we have discussed in depth numerous topics that include family, politics and Judaism. We don’t agree on everything as we all have nuanced ideas and beliefs and often have agreed to disagree, always with lively discussion. We are all Reform Jews and many times have expressed the interest in taking a trip to Israel together, as none of us had ever been. Once all our kids started taking advantage of opportunities to travel there (both of their kids have gone on Birthright, one of ours has and hopefully, at some point our other will be able to go), we decided it was our turn.
We spent a year researching, crowdsourcing hotels, restaurants and all the important sites, working with a tour guide to craft the perfect trip for us and a travel agent to arrange flights and hotels. We chose to travel in the fall, when the weather was perfect, and after the Jewish holidays. The four of us anticipated a trip of lifetime, looking forward to making unforgettable memories, knowing it would be moving and an important part of our lives. We planned an epic journey that ended up being nothing like what we had hoped for or expected.
Friday, Oct. 6, 7:30 pm
The driver picked us up at our house with Wendy, Spencer and their luggage already loaded in the car. We arrived at JFK, checked bags, enjoyed some snacks in the Delta Lounge and proceeded to the gate of our Delta flight #234 to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. An almost 11 hour overnight flight was ahead of us, and we all planned on trying to sleep.
The Flight to the Middle East
Our flight was scheduled to leave at 11:55pm. I was already one episode in to Below Deck Mediterranean on the seatback TV and looking forward to tackling the season. Running a few minutes late, at 12:00am we were notified that our plane had too much freight and Delta needed to unload a bit. They told us we were free to leave the plane to stretch our legs. This seemed strange to me because everyone was settled and it was the middle of the night. Several minutes later, before anyone made a move, we were told we would be taking off shortly, to buckle up and they were sorry for the unclear prior announcement. In retrospect, it was very strange to announce we would be lightening our load and then retract that and hurry to shut the doors and be on our way. Unbeknownst to us, a horrific terrorist attack was in progress.
At 11:30pm ET (6:30 am Israeli time), the barrage of rockets into Israel began, and I wonder if the pilot and crew were aware we would be flying into a potentially dangerous situation. No communication with passengers occurred and we took off approximately an hour late.
Around the time of take-off we were informed that not all of the airplane TVs were operable and they were going to reset the system. A few minutes after that another announcement said they were not able to get them to work so we would have no TV service for the entire flight. In retrospect I wonder, did Delta turn off our TVs to block out the live new coverage?
Sat. Oct. 7, 7:15 am ET (approximately 7 hours into the flight)
My friend Jen texted me while I was in the air asking “Are you guys ok?” I told her we were in-flight. She said “Enjoy. Just checking in.” It seemed odd to ask if we were ok but then we texted a bit back and forth about other things and I put it behind me.
Sat. Oct 7, 7:44 am ET
Less than a half an hour later another friend, Bonnie texted me asking “Are you ok? Are you in Israel?”
Now I was getting concerned because why wouldn’t I be ok?
I texted back to Jen asking “What is happening in Israel? “ She told me there had been some incursions from Gaza and she wanted to know how much longer we would be in the air. I told her 3 hours.
Bonnie texted “Gaza launched a surprise attack on Israel.” She then sent me a photo of a news article that I was unable to read due to the limited wifi so she dictated it to text for me. Her daughter had recently made Aliyah; moved to Israel and into a new apartment in Tel Aviv the day before, and I could tell she was concerned.
I texted another friend, Emily, who’s daughter was also living in Israel. “I am hearing there is something going on in Israel. We are in-flight. What is happening?”. Emily responded “OMG it’s under attack. It’s very bad. Hamas has infiltrated Israel through land, sea and air taking hostages and bombing everywhere.”
With my heart pounding I reached across the aisle to Spencer, the only person awake, and asked him to go online on his iPad to see what was happening. I continued to text my friends and we had lots discussion about the possibility that our flight could get rerouted or held at airport, yet no announcements came from the Delta crew. I approached a stewardess and asked her what was happening and she said she really didn’t know, but we were going to land in Tel Aviv and someone from the airport would come in to talk to us. Needless to say, that never happened. The pilot made an announcement as we were descending saying something was going on in Israel but the airport was safe and we would be landing shortly. That was it.
Arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (approx. 5:30pm Israel time)
Even though we never met Amy, our tour guide in person, she was there for us in every other way, including the fact that she made the arrangement for someone to meet us at the gate. There is nothing better than having an escort to guide you through an international airport upon arrival. Our guide was a young man who met us at the door of the plane and took us through all security check points, luggage claim and to our driver. We were looking for information and asked him questions about what was going on. He was somber and told us the situation was not good and if he were us he would turn around and go home right away. He said many of his friends were in the reserves and they were already called up earlier that day. He was waiting for his call; he was a medic and he seemed conflicted about heading into a war, scared to go but wanting to help. He spent 2 years and 8 months serving and was trained for this, but never expected to have to go to war. We told him he was the best thing about Israel so far and to stay safe. I can’t stop wondering about him and all that he may see and experience if he went to Gaza. All these soldiers and citizens of Israel along with their families will never be the same after all this.
Saturday Evening at the Carlton Hotel
Our drive to the Carlton Hotel was quiet; hardly any cars on the road, no people on the streets and deserted along the beach. It felt eerie like NYC during the early days of COVID, but I was not really aware of how strange that was because I had never been there. I was told by my son it was the most lively and happening city and there should have been people and parties everywhere. To me it felt like a ghost town.
We arrived at our hotel and checked in. The lobby seemed busy and nobody mentioned anything out of the ordinary. We went to our rooms and while I was in the bathroom I heard some banging and was thinking it was someone else’s room or the elevator door closing, but my husband started screaming and I ran out to see him on the balcony facing the south, shocked to be watching missiles light up the night sky. We were witnessing first hand the iron dome in action; we could feel the vibrations of the explosions in out guts.
We turned our TV on in the hotel room, set to a news channel, and I don’t think it was ever turned off for the next 3 days while we were there. We learned of the music festival massacre, the hostages and the barrage of missiles fired at Israel, targeting the Jews, and we were tired and scared and it was so much information to absorb.
We met Wendy and Spencer in the lobby restaurant to eat dinner; we had been on an 11 hour overnight flight from NY to Tel Aviv and it was time to try and figure out what we were going to do. We quickly realized our epic trip would not be happening and we needed to get out of Israel as quickly as we entered.
I was concerned nobody at the hotel mentioned safety procedures so I went to the concierge to ask him what we should be doing in an emergency situation. He came out from behind his desk and guided me across the lobby to the stairwell and told me the hotel stairwells suffice as the bomb shelters and when sirens go off we should go to a stairwell on any floor and walk up or down to be halfway in between floors. He said they are made of concrete and are the safest place to be should a missile reach us. I returned to our table feeling unsettled but a bit better since I now I had a plan. The room was bustling and there were lots of children; there was a private room off the lobby that seemed to be the location for a party and partygoers were wandering around. It was so strange how missiles were being detonated and shot down, yet people were going about their business.
We ordered dinner from the meat side of the menu (we had to order from either the dairy side or meat side of the menu if we all wanted to sit at the same table).
The french fries arrived first and while we all were picking at the plate we were accosted with loud sirens in the hotel, going off for the first time since we arrived.
Lots of people looked at their phones, evidently getting an alert regarding danger close by. We all stood up and shuffled quickly to the stairwell, plate of fries in hand because we hadn’t had a proper meal in so many hours and really had no idea how long we would be hunkering down. In the stairwell everyone was talking, bonding and the mood was not as somber as one would expect, but energetic and friendly. I believe we all had conflicting emotions, on one hand a bit of fear and worry paired with the comradery and connection with one another which allowed us to smile for the photo.
(Through Jewish geography we learned Sandy from Montreal is friends with my brother’s good friend)
After what seemed like 10 minutes we returned to our table and shortly after that our dinner was served. We started eating and the jolting sirens went off again so up we went, back to the stairwell. At this point we were concerned we would have a sleepless night, expecting to run back and forth to the stairwells on our floors, not realizing we would have little sleep for the rest of the week, regardless of the sirens.
Back in the room we got ready for bed and had our shoes and passports in a pile near the door, ready to go if we needed to race to the stairwell in the middle of the night. Unexpectedly, all was a quiet and we watched the news and texted with family and friends back home for hours until the sun came up.
Sunday at the Carlton Hotel
It was a beautiful sunny day, blue sky, families with children playing around in the rooftop pool. Our travel guide offered to revise our itinerary to go north rather than south if we were interested in venturing out but none of us were happy about straying far from a bomb shelter and we all agreed we would stay at the hotel for the day.
In addition, the news reports about the attacks and the hostages were unbearable and we were trying to get flights out asap. We were offered to join Westport friends, Liz and Avi who were also attempting to leave Israel, on a chartered flight to Athens but decided against it because we hoped our travel agent would be able to make arrangements for us to leave and go directly home once it was daytime in the NY area. As it turned out, it was more difficult than expected and he couldn’t get us to NY or all on the same flight, so we booked 2 tickets to London on El Al and the other 2 to Paris on Air France for Tuesday. The rest of the day and the evening were quiet and the plan for Monday was to possibly walk around the promenade and go down to the beach outside our hotel.
We had dinner at the hotel lobby restaurant for the second night and decided to order from the dairy side of the menu. When we asked the waitress if her family and friends were safe she silently nodded yes, but seemed like she was on the verge of tears and we regretted asking. The mood in the lobby was not as chipper as the night before and our appetites waned as we forced ourselves to eat a little bit. Everyone seemed to know someone impacted by the violence, a friend, friend of friend or family member, and the fear and concern was overwhelming, all consuming and draining, in Israel and from what we heard from home, here in the United States, too.
Monday at the Carlton Hotel
When I woke up at 4:30 am I could see on What’s App that Wendy had been up until 3:30 am online. We were on different schedules yet both getting only around 4 hours of sleep each night, if that. I went down to the lobby at 6:45 am and was texting my kids and some friends in the US. At 8 am I went up to the rooftop to reserve poolside chairs, feeling strange trying to make our stay feel like a vacation, hoping Israel would have a quiet day, and then down and across the street to where the hotel served a huge buffet breakfast, on my own.
Eric was up all night and didn’t feel great so he stayed in bed. Wendy and Spencer came down around 10:30 am and while they ate we spoke with the head of guest services who was making his rounds to ensure everyone was feeling ok. We were appreciative of his attention and recognized how difficult it must be to do his job in the midst of a major crisis, the biggest in 50 years.
We settled at the pool after having a conversation with Amy, our tour guide. We asked her what she thought about taking a walk down the street or near the beach outside the hotel and she told us it should be ok but if we hear sirens we have 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. If we can’t do that then we need to hide behind a concrete block, or lie face down in the sand and cover our heads. She was concerned that our response to sirens is not second nature to us and she wanted to ensure our safety, but at that moment she felt it would be ok to roam just a little bit.
It was then I realized more clearly than ever that the Israelis have to compartmentalize fear and march ahead all the time. When I think about how we were paralyzed by COVID for several years and how it effected mental health in our country, it is hard to imagine the constitution of the Israelis who live with various levels of threat on an ongoing basis and without warning.
We spent some time talking to Elisa Albert, an author we met at the pool whose stepfather grew up on a Kibbutz in the south. She lives in New York and was visiting family and attending an event with her mom, and like us was very upset about what was going on. We alternated topics from books to the Palestinian Israeli conflict and social media. It was a welcome break from feeling fearful to intellectual stimulation and human connection.
Shortly after, I decided I would go back to my room to put on my bathing suit. I walked over to the glass door that led inside and at that moment heard an explosion and felt the vibration in my gut. I froze and looked south at the horizon and across the city and coast, realizing the quiet I had hoped for was just a pipe dream. Wendy was entering the pool area at that time and was on the other side of the door. She pushed it open, saw the concern on my face and asked me what I was staring at. I told her I just heard explosions, and at the same time the sirens sounded and we quickly turned around to enter the stairwell, looking behind us to ensure our husbands were on their way in to join us and the other hotel guests.
By now this was the third time in the bomb shelter and my stomach was in knots; we heard all El AL flights were operating as scheduled but we did not have confidence the Air France flight out of the country would take off before the unrest escalated to the north.
Soon after the time in the shelter we received a text from Amy, our tour guide asking us if we were okay and then, retracting her suggestion that we walk the promenade she texted “Stay at the hotel after all.”
The rest of that afternoon we attempted to find 2 tickets to anywhere in the world on El Al with no luck. Late afternoon in Israel, once dawn broke in the northeast, we asked the travel agent and a friend from home both to work on finding flights while we were on a live chat with a Delta employee. We were filling out government forms that would go to the US consulate in case we needed to be airlifted out. We sent emails to Chris Murphy’s office (US Senator in CT) wondering how his office could help, but as it turned out, Monday Oct. 9 was Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the offices were closed. Air France was still supposedly operating and we were trying to check in online but the system wasn’t cooperating and it was so difficult to do all the paperwork on the cell phone. Stress levels were at their peak as we had all our electronic devises charging at an unused bar station in a room adjacent to the rooftop pool deck on a sunny day. Then there were murmurs of Air France shutting down all flights in and out of the country and finally the travel agent was able to locate 2 tickets out so we double booked and reserved those tickets from Tel Aviv to Dubai on Emirates. We would have to stay over in Dubai and then stop in Milan on the way to JFK. A close to 24 hour trip around the word, seeing nothing and costing a fortune, but the only way to escape a war zone that was getting more and more dangerous and scary by the day. As it turned out, it was a smart decision to double book; shortly after, Air France cancelled.
The four of us had dinner at the hotel lobby restaurant for the third night, our last meal together before we took our separate flights out the next day. I don’t think we ever made a toast or ordered a dessert, or even talked about anything other than Israel, our situation and how were were getting home. After dinner we asked the front desk to print instructions our guide had given us on how to navigate the airport security and check in. We were unable to secure an airport escort for the return trip because many of the workers had be called up from the reserves to fight against Hamas so we would be navigating it alone. We were instructed to arrive 4 hours prior to our flight because of the anticipated crowds and long lines. We took a group photo, unsure if smiling in a group photo was appropriate, but also aware that a photo of us together in from of our hotel was all the visual proof we had to show for our time in Israel. Everything else we experienced was through interactions with others and our own personal emotions which we will now have in us forever and will take some time to unpack.
Trip Home Tuesday Morning
There were lots of big families traveling the same path we were to get out of the country and back to New York, shouldering the suffering, the news of hostages, the death toll, the destruction, all while trying to protect their children from the terror. After a relatively short flight to Dubai, a quick dinner and hotel stay, we boarded our final flight from Dubai to Milan to JFK, total 15 hours in the air, arriving home to CT at 11pm. Since I’ve been home I have followed The Times of Israel online, the news site our tour guide recommended for accurate up to the minute news regarding Israel. I am heartened to see so many facebook posts in support of Israel, although hearing the family members of hostages interviewed and seeing the videos of missiles exploding continually contributes to the unsettled feelings and the concern about what the future holds for Israel and the potential for unrest the Israeli’s will have to endure in the days, weeks and the year to come. The safety of the Jews continues to be threatened in Israel, and across the world, as felt in a big way on what a former Hamas leader deemed last Friday as “Day of Rage”. The political situation is layered and complicated; not everyone will agree when it comes to solutions for peace in the Middle East, yet one thing is very clear; Israel is fighting a war against Hamas, a heartless terrorist group that has no regard for human life.
Our trip to Israel was nothing like what we had expected. We never left our hotel for three days nor did we see any of the renowned, historical and religious sites. But we did see the hearts of the Israelis and their commitment to the state of Israel. We witnessed their unwavering strength and resilience and their determination to stand their ground. The fear and sadness is overwhelming, the situation is harrowing, confusing and heartbreaking, yet the way the Israeli citizens come together is inspiring. Israel is a very special place with brave, strong people…I hope to return some day when there is peace. Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel live).