Metro Detroit students share their experiences.
On Oct. 7, Maya Aisner woke up, checked her phone, and saw missed alerts about rocket attacks, including instructions to seek shelter immediately. There were also dozens of calls and messages awaiting her response.
When the next alert came, the 18-year-old West Bloomfield High School graduate spending a gap year in Israel, grabbed a newly packed bag containing food, water and clothing and headed for the stairwell of her four-story Tel Aviv apartment.
Her building didn’t have a bomb shelter, so she and the other residents — all Americans participating in the same yearlong program — huddled together, listening to the sound of rockets overhead. They watched in horror as a nearby building crumbled from a direct hit.
“You could hear explosions as if they were right next to us. When you hear the bombs going off and see a building go down, it’s terrifying. Kids were crying and calling their parents, and we were all hugging each other,” she recalls.
Aisner arrived in Israel on Aug. 27 for what was supposed to be a nine-month program. But, on Oct. 15, she, Noah Tracht and another participant, all from West Bloomfield, boarded a U.S. government-chartered flight to Greece. Two days later, they arrived home.
“There were times when I was pretty scared, nervously waiting to see if the Iron Dome intercepted the rockets,” says Tracht, a 2023 Frankel Jewish Academy graduate. “A building was hit about three blocks from my apartment, and I think that was the turning point for me to call my dad and say, ‘Hey, listen, I want to go home.’”
There’s no estimate of how many American students were in Israel when Hamas surprised Israel in one of the deadliest attacks on Jews since the Holocaust. While the U.S. State Department tracks the number of students earning college credit, those numbers don’t account for programs like Aisner’s or those studying at a yeshivah or seminar.
Recently, the Jewish News spoke to Metro Detroit students participating in various programs during the attack about their experiences beginning on Oct. 7. Some, like Aisner, came home, while others, after lengthy discussions with their parents, decided to stay.
They Decided to Stay
Seth Weissman, an 18-year-old recent West Bloomfield High School graduate, is studying at a yeshivah near the Shuk, a well-known market in Jerusalem. He assured his parents he felt extremely safe and wanted to remain in Israel.
Weissman, who was on his high school football and wrestling teams, went to Israel for a yeshivah experience. He’ll be attending the University of Michigan next fall.
At the time of the attack, he was celebrating Simchat Torah and disconnected from technology. He recalls a festive atmosphere at the yeshivah, including everyone dancing around the bimah. Then he overheard talk of Israel being under attack.
When the sirens interrupted a prayer service, the young men ran to the bomb shelter, kept their tefillin on, and continued praying and singing.
“It was very emotional. We sang about not being afraid, unity and brotherhood,” he recalls.
In other parts of Israel, seminary classmates and friends Golda Rapoport and Amalia Smith spent the holiday weekend with friends and family, each in a different part of Israel.
Rapoport of West Bloomfield was at a friend’s grandparent’s house near Ashdod and spent the morning of Oct. 7 in a shelter. She said they could feel the house shake from nearby explosions, and at one point, she saw heavy smoke in the sky due to the defense of the Iron Dome.
Although the family was observing Shabbat, someone turned on the news. As the day progressed, Rapoport says they watched as her friend’s uncles, one by one, were called up for duty.
“It was a hectic experience. I played a lot with the kids and tried to stay away from hearing about what was happening and focus on being there for the children,” she says.
As soon as the holiday ended in Israel, Rapoport called a family member who wasn’t observant. She knew her parents would be unreachable because it was still Simchat Torah at home. The message of her safety was related to her parents, who wanted her to leave Israel but were respectful of her decision to stay.
Smith was in Jerusalem with relatives when the war erupted. Their rabbi advised congregants to come to shul for Simchat Torah. As Smith walked to the synagogue with her young cousins, sirens alerted them to take cover.
She saw a group of Israeli mothers running with their children into an apartment building and followed them, and everyone crammed into the bomb shelter.
When it was safe to leave, she and the children went to shul. There, she saw rockets flying overhead, and her thoughts turned to her 21-year-old brother, serving in the IDF.
“It was the only time in my life when I had trouble not being on my phone during a yontif or Shabbos,” she says.
When the holiday ended and she was able to connect with her parents, they told her they had booked her on two different flights home in case the first one was canceled. But her parents ultimately gave her the choice, and she decided to stay.
Weissman, Rapoport and Smith are all back to learning but also more involved in volunteering. They’ve been busy preparing food for the soldiers, farming, donating blood, working with displaced children, tying tzitzit for soldiers and offering words of inspiration to members of the IDF.
The girls said their seminary changed campuses for safety reasons and access to more volunteer opportunities. They praised the school’s leadership for the extensive security measures, checking in with the girls’ mental health and finding them volunteering opportunities.
Tracht and Aisner are adjusting to being home early. Tracht rejoined a hockey team. He’s spending time with family and friends, planning on getting a job and looking into a semester abroad somewhere starting in January.
Aisner is contemplating working or volunteering, possibly helping local Israeli moms whose spouses are serving in the IDF. She hopes to return to Israel as soon as she can. And, although she’s home, she still receives text alerts for bomb activity.
“I’ve been trying to stay away from it, but it’s hard when you have people there you’re worried about. Most of my stuff is still there, which I can replace. I’m not worried about that. But I lived there. I have people I care about who are there. It’s hard. I’m 18; all my Israeli friends are serving right now. It’s hard to think about.”