Sending a child away from home can be stressful. Sometimes, ensuring a safe return is even more taxing.
Months ago, Upper St. Clair resident Liz McCallum helped her son Artie head to Israel for a semester-long program. Artie, 15, had never visited the Jewish state, but during a summer at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown he heard about URJ Heller High.
Located in Hod HaSharon on the Alexander Muss (AMHSI) campus, Heller provides students in grades 10-12 a Reform community within AMHSI’s larger pluralistic environment.
Alongside fellow teens, Artie could travel, celebrate Shabbat and experience the Jewish holidays in Israel. In many ways, it’s an “extension of camp,” McCallum said. “We thought it would be good for him.”
After several friends expressed interest, Artie decided that he, too, would spend a semester in Israel.
On Aug. 23, the Upper St. Clair teen arrived in the Jewish state.
“There were 30 students in our program, but there were also two other programs in the dorm,” he said.
Together, the teens studied Jewish history by visiting ruins and engaging in discussion with educators and staff.
“All of the teachers who worked at Heller were Israeli,” Artie said. Between hearing from them and “learning about history in the actual land, it was pretty cool.”
“I thought it was just the Holy Land, and that it didn’t have any archeology other than the Western Wall,” he continued, “but there’s thousands of years of history everywhere you go.”
Six weeks after arriving in Israel, Artie’s understanding reached nearly unimaginable levels.
On the morning of Oct. 7, Heller students were celebrating Shabbat, and the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, in Jerusalem.
“We were supposed to wake up at 10 a.m., but we got woken up by the sirens at 8:30,” Artie said.
The students, who were staying at a hotel in the city, were instructed to descend multiple floors and enter a bomb shelter.
“Nobody knew what was going on. Cell service didn’t work down there,” he said.
Students waited for 10 minutes after the sirens, then ascended several floors.
“Our teacher, David, talked to us about what we are going to do,” Artie said.
Students were told to stay in the hotel until more information was received.
Another siren sounded.
“We went back down, and that kept happening over and over throughout the day,” Artie said.
He and fellow students watched news reports.
“We learned what was going on, that Israel was being bombed,” Artie said.
Along with firing rockets, Hamas terrorists attacked the Jewish state by land, sea and air. More than 1,400 Israelis were killed. Approximately 240 civilians were taken hostage by Hamas, including infants and the elderly.
Communication from school
Throughout Oct. 7, Heller communicated with parents.
“They let us know that the children were safe in Jerusalem, but they felt they could take better care of them if they moved them back to campus,” McCallum said, adding that Heller had more staff in Hod HaSharon.
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 7, students were told they were leaving Jerusalem and heading back to the Tel Aviv area.
“That night, we drove back to school. There were no sirens on the road,” Artie said.
The following morning, an emergency WhatsApp group was created for parents. Real-time updates were sent, and while administrators communicated, teachers continued studying with students.
“They tried to tell us about what was going on,” Artie said. “We kept hearing about all the sirens in southern Israel, and about all the people dying. Everyone was stressed out and nervous. No one was having a good time.”
On Oct. 9, teachers tried tempering students’ fears, but the realization of war was setting in, Artie explained.
“The teachers were scared to be at school,” he said. “They wanted to be with their families. The students were not focused on school because they were focused on what was going on.”
After a siren, students had 90 seconds to reach the bomb shelter. The room was reinforced with metal walls and doors.
“There were couches in there, and our phones worked in there pretty fine,” Artie said. Still, trips to the shelter “stressed everyone out and made everyone afraid.
Teachers tried distracting us from what was going on with activities.”
Finally, during an all-parents meeting online that day, Heller representatives told families, “They were going to end the semester early and send the students home,” McCallum said.
Heller educators tried finding a flight, all the while managing their own families and needs, she continued.
“The administrators and the staff, the madrichim (counselors), were amazing. Most of them are Israeli and they were just putting all of their energy, time and resources into caring for our kids. I’m sure they were exhausted and traumatized. I can’t imagine what their days were like, but they were holding it together and keeping our children safe and calm.”
Nearly six weeks before the war began, most students arrived at Heller with two suitcases; after the emergency flight home was booked, however, students were told they could only bring one bag on the plane, Artie said.
Items left would be donated, McCallum said.
Around 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 11, a final processing and farewell program was held. Heller then brought students to Ben Gurion Airport. The flight traveled from Israel to Rome, then Rome to Boston. Once in the U.S., students traveled to their home cities.
Artie returned to Pittsburgh on the evening of Oct. 12, his mother said.
There was an initial burst of “adrenaline,” but then “sadness” kicked in, she continued. “It hit him. He wanted to go back. There was such a strong bond with the kids and teachers and the madrichim. He just wanted to be with them.”
On Oct. 17, Artie returned to Upper St. Clair High School. He had space in his schedule for two electives, McCallum said. He signed up for journalism and world current affairs.
“He’s been thinking a lot about what people’s reactions are here,” she said.
War ignites extreme opinions, he told the Chronicle.
“Being in Israel, while it’s getting bombed, makes people want to support Israel,” he said. “I saw that happening with a lot of people who were there. They became anti-Palestine without reading anything about it. I tried to look at it objectively. I think Israel definitely shouldn’t just let Hamas bomb them, but I also think Israel should definitely not kill Palestinian citizens.”
“The Palestinians are getting bombed by Israel and they are getting killed by Hamas. I don’t think they wanted that,” he continued. “Palestine is not Hamas.”
Artie said he’s received pushback for sharing his views, “but I would rather say what I think is right.”
Since returning to Pittsburgh, Artie said he’s followed news reports “mostly from CNN, The New York Times and Times of Israel.”
Instead of getting information from tweets or videos, Artie said he prefers reading “actual websites.”
He understands that being in Israel at the start of this war offers certain vantage points.
“I want people to know that it’s a difficult issue, and not to form opinions on it too quickly,” he said. “Don’t form opinions from Instagram and social media posts. Read about the history and know it before making big statements about why Israel is right or why Palestine is right.”
McCallum said that her son “has a more nuanced opinion than many 15-year-olds.”
“He’s always been a deep thinker. He’s always had good questions. I think that he feels connected with these kids, and teachers and these people — and they are Jewish — but I also think he’s thinking deeply about the context,” she said.
McCallum said that as soon as the war began, “We had a lot of support from non-Jewish colleagues and friends that really sustained us, especially in those first few days when we couldn’t really focus on work or anything besides where Artie was in Israel and if he was going to be able to get home safely.”
With her son back in Pittsburgh, McCallum reflected on the entirety of the past several months.
“Sending him to this program was one of the best things that we have done. Even despite the end, I would not change a thing,” she said. “He grew and he learned: He grew in ways that he couldn’t have had he not gone; he learned things that he wouldn’t have otherwise. He made connections with kids, teachers and staff that he wouldn’t have. He experienced the people of another country that he couldn’t have had he not gone. And I know he would say the same thing.”
Artie continues contacting his teachers in Israel. When the war is over, he said, he’d like to return.
“I feel like I didn’t see everything there,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot more for me to see and learn.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.