TORONTO – Twenty-six-year-old Toronto native Laura Hochman arrived in Ashdod, Israel for a ten-month English-teaching contract on Aug. 27.
Hours after the assassination of Hamas’ top military commander on Wednesday, she was forced to leave her school and apartment in the southern town, located dangerously close to Gaza.
“Around seven o‘clock we were called by our leader, and told that a cab would come get us in two hours to take us to Tel Aviv, because things would probably heat up the next morning,” said Hochman during a phone interview Friday afternoon.
Hochman says that twenty minutes after the cab left, they heard reports that a missile had hit their neighbourhood.
“By that time we were already on the highway and we didn’t hear anything… so we kind of got out at the perfect time,” she said. “Just in time.”
Hochman is part of the Israel Teaching Fellows (ITF) program, and is joined by 15 others between the ages of 22 and 29-one other Canadian and 14 Americans.
“The 16 of us have been together since Day 1, so we don’t really say ‘I feel this’ or ‘I’m doing this,’ it’s always ‘we,’” she explained. “We’re a family, we’re pretty much sticking together.”
When the group first arrived in Ashdod, it was their young students who showed them where the bomb shelter was and what to do when alarms went off. Every school there has such a shelter, and Hochman said responding to the alarms is “more of a way of life” in Ashdod than it is in Tel Aviv.
In Ashdod, the group had a saferoom reinforced with steel within their apartment that took only 30 seconds to get to if they were at home. In Tel Aviv, Hochman says they have about 90 seconds to take cover.
In Tel Aviv, the group was given a new apartment and shown the way to the shelter. They were immediately assured they city was a safe spot, since “nothing’s happened” there since 1991.
“Literally ten minutes later, the alarm goes off,” said Hochman. “So there’s seven floors in the building, and we run into the stairwell, and everyone is just racing down the stairs as fast as they can. I mean, we know each other, we’re all helping each other, but your heart’s hammering, and you feel like you’re going down the stairs for hours.”
She says the Israelis in Tel Aviv return to the streets within minutes after the alarm sounding, and appear to have the attitude that they’ll take care of themselves, but won’t let the war stop the way they live their lives.
Hochman’s colleague Matthew Kaplan says he’s feeling “alright” in Tel Aviv, but has been worried by phone conversations with teachers back in Ashdod, who are too afraid to evacuate.
“I was just talking with the teacher that I work with at school, and it just really shook me up-because she said, ‘oh there are explosions, gotta go’ and hung up the phone,” said the 24-year-old, originally from Seattle.
Kaplan says one of the teachers he knows has a place to stay farther north than the town, but is scared to leave her house to travel, since alarms are sounding “every five minutes or so.”
“One of the most dangerous places to be is on the roads, there’s no cover, and she was really worried about it,” he said. “I was telling her, ‘go north, go north, get out of there’-I could tell that it was really getting to her, and she said, ‘I don’t want to go outside, it’s not safe outside.’
Hochman says despite the danger and potential for destruction in Israel, their group has decided to stay. Since they can’t return to their schools, they’ve decided to go to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) base and volunteer by helping pack medical supplies, starting Sunday.
“We’re all like, ‘Oh we’re fine, we’re not scared.’ You know, the alarm goes off, we know what to do,” she said. “But at night we have nightmares…none of us really want to be alone, so I think we’re more shaken and fearful than we want to admit.”