Schupak: Siren warning put life into perspective

Fans attending the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game on Thursday night unfurl an oversized Israeli flag and sign in Hebrew that says , "People of the South and soldiers, we are with you."

Fans attending the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game on Thursday night unfurl an oversized Israeli flag and sign in Hebrew that says , "People of the South and soldiers, we are with you."

JERUSALEM – The first sirens warning of rocket fire blared Thursday night as we sipped drinks and ate passed hors d’oeuvres before the Tel Aviv Maccabi basketball game. Fortunately, the room we were in doubled as a bomb shelter. Still, it felt as though time stood still. Some expressed fear, others began to panic, and then there was golf instructor Sean Foley, father of two young boys, who coolly smiled at his wife, Kate, and me and said, “I think we’re going to be here for a while. How about I get us all another round of drinks?”

At that moment, I could’ve used a double. I never expected to be christened Golfweek’s war correspondent. No matter when you go, a trip to Israel is bound to be an experience both deep and mysterious. Those of us participating in the Arn and Nancy Tellem Goodwill Mission to Israel got more than we bargained for. Earlier that day, I had been playing golf trying to avoid Caesarea’s 123 bunkers while not far away in Gaza people hid in bomb shelters. In a word, surreal. The day before, I had never felt more hopeful for peace in the Middle East. I listened to Israeli and Palestinians teenagers talk about their summer camp experience in Maine and how it had rocked their perspective. Maybe we can all get along. Change, I believe, must come from the younger generation and I could see how sports could be part of the solution. I felt as though there’s no end to what these kids can do together.

Yet those feelings of optimism were washed away. Now, for reasons out of our control, the Goodwill Mission was about to take on a whole new meaning. It all began to change a day earlier. On our way to Tel Aviv, former NBA players Brian Scalabrine and Will Perdue led a clinic with Israeli and Palestinian participants in Peace Players International. PGA Tour pros Hunter Mahan and Michael Thompson assisted. When I went back to the bus to grab my camera, the driver of our coach bus waved me over and pointed at me to look at the news report on his tablet. An Israeli assault in Gaza had assassinated Ahmed al-Jabari, the top military commander of Hamas.

Instantly, I had questions: “Should we be worrying about retaliation? The outbreak of war? Getting the hell out of here?”

The conflict in the Middle East is a way of life here. Many Israelis referred to it simply as “the situation.” For instance: investors shy away from building a golf resort in the region because of “the situation” in Israel. It’s an easy catch-all for the political unrest that seems ever-present and ready to boil over again.

Here’s all you need to know about the Israelis and how they handle the conflict: an hour after the sirens brought the realities of the conflict to our group, the Nokia Arena was nearly packed with fans of all ages. They unfurled flags and banners supporting their troops and the people in Gaza and made more noise than at a rock concert. It reminded me best of a cross between a Duke basketball game at Cameroon Indoor Stadium and an English Premier League soccer match.

“This is the spirit of Israel,” Shalom said.

That spirit was palpable, but for us Americans a sense of "safety first" emerged. The tour of the Golan in Northern Israel and an afternoon of spa treatments suddenly seemed trivial. We were supposed to stay through Nov. 20, but a decision was quickly made to cut the trip short. Tellem, with the assistance of the indefatigable Meirav Atias of the Jewish National Fund, spent the entire basketball game and a sleepless night attempting to coordinate flights to get his clients and his friends on the trip, some of whom he had known since law school, out of Israel as soon as possible. He and his wife took full responsibility for the group’s safety. One minute we were headed to London, the next to Frankfurt, Germany. “Cool. We can rent a BMW and race the Autobahn,” suggested Will Perdue of the German motorway known for having no general speed limit.

That idea was quickly shot down by Brian Scalbrine, who said, “If I wanted to die, I’d just stay here in Israel.”

Yes, we kept our sense of humor intact.

After the game, we rushed back to our hotel, packed quickly and departed Tel Aviv for Jerusalem. The theory being that Jerusalem, home to one of the holiest mosques and a large Palestinian population would be spared of any attack. That night, while I was writing my latest correspondence, flights were arranged to get Mahan, Thompson, and Scalabrine and their wives out of the country early the next morning. Amy Alcott, who had called this a trip of a lifetime at our opening night dinner, was the most concerned and she left too, along with several other couples on the trip. Foley and his wife, the Tellem’s, Perdue, and your intrepid war correspondent were among a group numbering 13 that stayed behind.

Truth be told, I wanted to get out of dodge. My concern was less for my immediate safety than my fear that if the conflict escalated into war the airport might be closed and then we would really be in harms way. If you listened to the news reports, it seemed like the region could explode into battle at any minute. It was now Friday morning and with Shabbat approaching, seats on El Al Airline were scarce. (The Israeli airline honors the Jewish Sabbath and doesn’t fly from sundown Friday until after sundown Saturday.)

So there I was late Friday afternoon walking the streets of Ein Kerem, a quiet village a few miles southwest of the Old City. You didn’t think we sat in our rooms for the next two days huddled in the fetal position, did you? What we witnessed was very different than the images beamed around the world by the likes of CNN. The streets were bustling with people as if this was nothing out of the norm. We saw Israelis just going about their business. It’s part of the DNA of the Israeli people, I was told. We had dinner one night with Arnon Perlman, chief spokesman to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who may have said it best: “This is a tough neighborhood. It always was and always will be.”

I truly felt safe in this tough neighborhood as I toured the church said to be built over the home of John the Baptist's parents. We passed an outdoor cafe and listened to a group of young people singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” not far from a war zone.

The height of irony? No that was still to come. We climbed the steps to The Church of the Visitation, a Franciscan church originally built in the 19th century. In the church courtyard, one wall is covered with ceramic tiles bearing the words of the Magnificat in 42 languages. Inside, we happened upon a group of Zimbabwean parishioners conducting a service. Their voices were angelic. It was a beautiful moment no matter your religious beliefs. And then their beautiful voices were interrupted by the wail of sirens. In Jerusalem. At twilight. It wasn’t the call of Shabbat either. I turned to Foley, the color obviously drained from my face, and he stole the moment. “If this keeps up,” he said, his head spinning to the left, “I may need that confession booth over there.” He twisted his head back at me and he smiled. The whole scene of events was surreal. Some people count their money. I count my experiences. This is one of those stories I’ll be telling the grandkids someday.

Soon the sirens stopped. We sat on the pews, and in a show of respect for the parishioners, waited for their impromptu service to finish and for them to exit. There was a long patch of silence.

“I heard no booms,” Shalom said. “We can continue.”

It turned out that the Hamas airstrike over Jerusalem had been largely ineffective. From there, we walked back to our hotel. My nerves were frayed yet again when someone thought it would be funny to shoot off fireworks. Shalom, pulling our leg, said, “That’s the signal to fire the cannons.” Nervous laughter ensued.

On our final day in Israel, most of us eschewed the cable car and hiked the snake path to the palace of Masada, built by King Herod the Great. Afterwards, we floated in the Dead Sea and snapped the obligatory photos reading the newspaper and caked in mud. We can check those off the bucket list. Later on, Tellem pulled me aside and he said to me, “Aren’t you glad you stuck it out with us?”

Yes, I was. Yet at the same time, when I made it through customs and my flight took off, I felt the same sense of relief as the hostages in the movie “Argo,” when they departed Iran. I wanted to hug the passenger next to me.

And still, I can’t help but feel that each of us has returned home a different person for their experiences. I know I have. I feel my perspective sharpened, a new sense of identity with my heritage, and of what’s important in life. I don’t know what will happen next in Israel but I do know this: I will return there some day. As an old Jewish saying goes, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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