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Americans College Students Try To Stay Chill in Israel War Zone

Jason Hershman, a third-year Northeastern University student, stopped by an outdoor breakdancing competition on his way home from work July 10.

More than 100 people were sprawled on the park grass in front of him, enjoying the spins and twists of dance teams who had driven two hours to show off their talents.

The Boston native joined the spectators in a scene that could easily have taken place in Chicago or Brooklyn.

Except he was in Haifa, Israel. And as the tranquil summer scene played out on the lawn, the latest bloody chapter in the Middle East conflict was unfolding.

Fewer than 100 miles to the south, about the same distance as a Friday drive to the Hamptons from Manhattan, Israeli planes continued to pound Gaza. By July 15, the death toll had risen toward 200 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Across Israel, air raid sirens blared, warning of the impending arrival of rockets fired from Gaza — more than 700 as the fighting entered its second week. The first Israeli fatality was recorded on July 15.

Thousands of American students have found themselves in the middle of this conflict, and many of their parents back home are on pins and needles. But the students are mostly keeping their nerve, taking cues from their Israeli peers, who have grown up living through periodic moments of crisis.

“Things are happening as usual,” Hershman said in a phone interview from Israel. “The neighborhood is quiet and mellow.”

As he spoke, Hershman, who is participating in Onward Israel, an extended internship program for Diaspora Jewish students that is sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, stopped for a moment to let the sound of a fighter jet rushing by echo through the receiver. He laughed at the timing.

Haifa is just inside the range of Hamas’s most advanced M-302 rocket, which has a range of about 100 miles. Hershman said there was a single, faint siren around 3:30 a.m. on July 10, but he and most of his fellow American students slept through it or didn’t bother to head for shelter.

Tel Aviv, 30 miles south of Haifa, lies within striking distance of Hamas’s Fajr-5 rocket, a missile the group has in much more plentiful supply.

Nevertheless, Tel Aviv-based Michael Schwartz, a University of Maryland junior and Baltimore native, echoed Hershman’s composure. Israelis, he said, have led the way in keeping their cool amid the fighting.

“When you see them calmly going to the pool, it gives you a sense of comfort,” said Schwartz, who’s also on an Onward Israel program. “Until they are concerned about it, I don’t think it makes sense for us to be concerned.”

Still, Schwartz has been a little more jolted by the conflict than Hershman has. He has awakened on consecutive mornings to sirens, and has rushed to the bomb shelter on his floor — each floor of his dorm at Tel Aviv University has one — where he huddled with his American friends.

He’s also skipped work for three days because of his nervousness about possible terrorist attacks on public transportation.

But these precautions were due more to his parents’ fears than to his own, Schwartz said.

“A lot of the issues have not been us being anxious and unsettled, but the fact that we are dealing with our parents who are outside the country and far away,” he said. Schwartz described them as “unable to understand the environment we’re in.”

So far, Onward Israel has had about 25 early departures among the 712 American college students enrolled in the internships it sponsors throughout Israel. “In most cases because of anxious parents whose perception of what’s going on here is informed by the media,” Onward Israel director Ilan Wagner said.

Young Judaea has had just 10 early departures from among the approximately 900 Americans in its Israel programs.

Schwartz’s father, Jeffrey Schwartz, seemed relatively unfazed by his son’s presence in Tel Aviv, probably in part due to his own experience in Israel during the Lebanon War in 1982, and the second intifada around the turn of the century. He said a mother might have a very different perspective.

“Running out while my friends were at war didn’t sit well with me,” Schwartz said about his time studying abroad in ’82. “I would never tell Mike to go home, but if he didn’t feel comfortable enough, that would be his decision, and I would support it.”

In his July 10 interview with the Forward, Mike seemed plenty comfortable.

But six days later — after Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal and rockets, sirens, and interceptions had intensified in the Tel Aviv area — he seemed more on edge.

During a bus ride to his dorm on July 13, he explained, “I had my headphones in and all of a sudden I see everyone running off the bus. My heart dropped for a second.”

The sirens were sounding. He followed the Israelis on the bus into a museum where everyone crowded into a stairwell.

Five students on the same program were heading back to the States, Schwartz said, most because of worried parents.

Of course, the worst destruction in the crisis is taking place in Gaza, a place where few if any American students ever set foot. Most of the American students have limited contact with Palestinians.

Michigan State University junior Nate Strauss, who lives in Michigan and has been studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem since mid-June, said his parents are also “probably terrified.”

But on the night of July 9, Strauss and his friends dined and strolled down bustling Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem. The next day, four rockets were fired at Jerusalem.

“I’m still trying to internalize it all and figure out exactly why I’m not scared,” Strauss said after the rockets had fallen without causing injury.

Like other Americans, he stressed the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system in shooting down rockets from Gaza. He also cited the laid-back attitude of most of his Israeli friends.

Despite the concern that things could escalate, for now Strauss saw the wall-to-wall coverage of the crisis as more hype than reality.

“When international news outlets use a phrase like ‘country in terror,’” he said, “that’s not exactly how I would describe the situation.”

Contact Yardain Amron at [email protected]

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