Tel Aviv, ISRAEL, Oct. 10, 2023 – My name is Baylee, and I am currently living in Israel on a gap year program. I graduated high school in June, and decided that I wanted to spend my year learning, working, and traveling in Israel, before heading off to Northwestern University next fall.
I have never lived away from home before, much less been 7 hours and 6,000 miles from everything I’ve previously experienced.
I intended this year to be the adventure of a lifetime. Nine months off from the pressures of academics, in a beautiful place where I could meet new people, try new foods, see new sights, and learn to live independently.
I expected to be writing a story upon my return in May about why this was the best year of my life.
Instead, I sit here writing in October, isolated, uncertain, and scared.
The land of Israel is a place that is holy, unique, and irreplaceable to a large and diverse group of people, myself included.
I want to extend my love and condolences to people of all backgrounds who have been affected by this war in any and every way.
As a gap year student, I am a mere visitor – albeit a visitor with a strong emotional connection – to a place that has been so meaningful to countless people throughout its long and storied history.
And so, as I write about this war that for many has been painful and devastating beyond words, I want to make it very clear that I am writing not from a place of supremacy, profound wisdom, or political expertise, but rather as a student of the world looking to share the story of my own experience.
Last weekend, when Hamas sent their first rocket into Israel on Oct. 7, I was on a trip to a city in the north of the country called Tzfat. We were awoken with the news that missiles had been fired, but to remain calm.
It was frightening and unexpected, but the missiles were nowhere near where we were located, so my group was assured that we were in a safe place. Despite this, our trip was cut short, and we were taken back to our home location of Tel Aviv later that afternoon.
The bus ride was about two hours of anxiety and confusion. No one was really sure of the gravity or full picture of the situation.
All we knew was that we wanted to get back to Tel Aviv.
When we were about two blocks away from our apartment building, the bus pulled over and our counselors urged us to step outside. Figuring that the bus had just picked a different spot for dropoff, we all leisurely started to collect our things and head out.
Only after almost a minute of chaos did we realize that this was not, in fact, our drop off spot.
Rocket sirens had just sounded in Tel Aviv. So, my peers and I hurried off the bus, and were subsequently instructed to lay single-file on the sidewalk with our hands over our heads.
We lay there, not moving for several minutes, no one speaking, listening to the sounds of rockets and tears, not knowing what would happen next.
After a while, we were ushered into the basement of a nearby building, which served as a bomb shelter.
My group stood there in a silent panic, in various states of emotional disarray for some time. I say some time because I really have no idea how long we were there for. The minutes just passed.
Eventually, we were able to hurriedly make our way back to the apartments, where we all collapsed, stressed, into our rooms.
The next day was a strange one. We were on lockdown in the building, with no clue what the future would hold for us, the program, or the lives of millions of others.
Epilogue, Oct. 29, 2023
West Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A.
Mid-day, the leaders of Year Course, my gap year program, announced that they would be moving us out of Tel Aviv, and into the very south of Israel. The bottom of the country is mostly isolated desert communities, and our new home was no exception.
We were relocating to something called a kibbutz, which is a small community where people live and work cooperatively. The kibbutz’s money is typically made from agriculture or a related industry, date harvesting being the main source of income at the kibbutz we were moving to.
And so, two days after the war broke out, my peers and I were loading onto a bus along with two armed guards to make the several-hour drive down south.
Immediately upon arriving, it was apparent that kibbutz life would be nothing like the bustling metropolitan schedule that we were just starting to get used to in Tel Aviv.
Instead of the varying internships that we all previously held, we would volunteer around the kibbutz or travel to nearby communities to work on projects aiding those who had been directly affected by the violence.
Instead of cooking our own meals or going out to eat with friends, we would join the members of the kibbutz for dinner in the dining hall.
Also, instead of having a full program of 200 people, the numbers dwindled and dwindled, getting down into the sixties as people left to stay with family, travel in Europe, or return to the safety and familiarity of their homes.
As I write this, I am back in my hometown, having flown home after around a week and a half of living on the kibbutz.
I am confused and slightly lost, while also mourning the gap year that I believed I was going to have.
I am also abundantly grateful. Grateful for my safety and that of loved ones, and grateful for the opportunity to have new experiences this year, despite them perhaps being very different from my original plan.
Many of my peers and friends remain in Israel, continuing to live on the kibbutz for the immediate future.
One day – and I truly hope this day is soon – I plan to go back to Israel and join them for what I know will be many more beautiful memories and remarkable journeys.
I’m as unsure as anyone what events will unfold in this land that so many are blessed to call home, but I do know that for now and forever, I pray for peace.
Baylee Krulewitz is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.