Transformed, she adds Israel to her strengths

Trip to Israel provides new perspective

September 06, 2006|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun Reporter

When Stephanie Lerner's parents encouraged her to spend time in Israel before her senior year at Park School, she didn't want to go.

Despite her faith, Lerner said she never felt "any true visceral connection" to the Jewish homeland. Mark and Traci Lerner, however, knew from their own experiences in Israel as teenagers that being there likely would evoke strong feelings in their daughter, too.

Her curiosity grew and she decided on a six-week cultural immersion program that fit between field hockey camp at Wake Forest and a family vacation in Spain. The Nesiya program, named for the Hebrew word for journey, offered a blend of American and Israeli teenagers and toured throughout the country.

Lerner left in July, and it didn't take long for her to feel that connection with Israel. It would soon be enhanced in a way the family could never have predicted.

Two weeks into her trip, on July 14, Lerner arrived in Tiberias, about 22 miles from the border with Lebanon. A few hours later, Hezbollah began raining Katyusha rockets on northern Israel.

The bombs were far enough away that Lerner couldn't hear them exploding, but she said everything quickly turned chaotic at the youth hostel.

She grabbed her cell phone and called her mother in tears.

"I didn't know exactly what was going on and I didn't know exactly how far away everything was," Lerner said. "I could just watch the TV and see different places being exploded and watching the Katyushas hit different areas. I guess it just all seemed really real. I knew my life wasn't really at risk, but I just had such a feeling that I'd really never had before."

Not long after the bombing started, around midnight, the teenagers were given 10 minutes to pack up and board their bus, Lerner said. Over the next four hours, they were whisked away to safety, 93 miles south to Ein Gedi, on the Dead Sea - well out of range of the Katyusha rockets.

"We never went back up north," Lerner said. "The morning after we left, a Katyusha hit six kilometers away from where we were staying in Tiberias."

According to an article in The Sun on July 16, Hezbollah rocket attacks injured eight people in Tiberias on July 15. Lerner and her peers were glad they fled the tourist city of 45,000 on the Sea of Galilee.

Determined to stay

Her mother told her a plane ticket would be waiting anytime she wanted to come home, but the choice was up to her.

The 17-year-old who didn't want to go to Israel in the first place now didn't want to leave.

"I would never have thought I'd want to stay if something like that happened, but where I was was completely safe," she said. "There was no way a Katyusha could have hit where I was staying, and I wanted to be there.

"It wasn't like every day I woke up and thought, `Oh my gosh, today I could die.' I was not scared at all."

Lerner continually reassured her parents that she was safe. Mark Lerner, president of the board of trustees at Park School, made sure by keeping in touch with leaders of the Nesiya Institute.

"We actually always felt if she wanted to stay, it was her choice," Traci Lerner said. "There were times we questioned letting her stay, but she was very strong in how safe she felt. The hardest thing was the amount of people who criticized our decision."

Attitude adjustment

With news of the bombings all over American television, the Lerners took many calls from their daughter's friends, reassuring them that she was fine.

One friend and field hockey teammate, Tessa Emmer, worried because Lerner didn't answer her e-mails. When Lerner called Emmer to wish her a happy birthday, Emmer was surprised at her friend's reaction to what was going on around her.

"She was totally calm," Emmer said. "She sounded the way we always hear Israelis are. They live with this every day, and she sounded like she adopted that mind-set."

Lerner said she did begin to think more like the Israeli teens she got to know as they traveled, studied religious text, performed community service, participated in art workshops, hiked and talked about their lives.

"The Israeli mind-set is completely different from the American mind-set," Lerner said. "I think they have to make kind of a joke out of [the bombings] to continue on with their lives, because things like this - they don't happen all the time - but they're more used to having to fight for their land and their country."

Some of the Israeli teens in the program had families staying in bomb shelters and some had brothers drafted into the army. One of the Nesiya counselors was drafted and had to leave the program.

Changed woman

Watching 18-year-olds go off to war had a profound impact on his daughter, Mark Lerner said.

"I think one of the things she came away with and is still working through is what that kind of sacrifice means and where it comes from within you to value things to such an extent that you're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "That's a pretty heavy thing for a 17-year-old to wrestle with."

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