When I heard the news that a Gaza missile struck a school bus in Shar HaNegev, a small Israeli community near the Gaza strip, the faces of three wholesome teenagers flashed through my mind. Because I was at that school just last week, touring the campus with those beautiful students as my guides. I gaped at the photos of the mangled bus and the pooled blood and prayed that they were not on it.
I was in Israel representing the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago as part of a national trip coordinated by the Jewish Federations of North America. Two students had escorted us around the Shar HaNegev High School campus to see the school grounds, and to watch students using the interactive technology that we’d helped to fund for their classrooms.
The girls were a study in opposites, one tall, tawny and artistic, and the other petite, dark and athletic. Both talked a mile a minute, so excited about their studies and their extracurricular activities. Their most recent art project? Painting the school’s bomb shelters. ”We made something beautiful out of something ugly,” 15-year-old Yahel explained.
The school is in the midst of building a new, rocket-proof campus, but for now, if there is an incoming missile, students must run to one of these shelters, or one of the reinforced classrooms, where the internal walls are painted blue.
I didn’t think to ask what they did if they were on the school bus.
At the entrance to the Fine Arts building, we came upon an enormous, circular patch of grass, paler in color than the surrounding field. The girls explained that this was where a rocket had landed years before.
“It’s hard to have a rocket in our school, in our safe place,” Yahel admitted. “The kids are going to this building to learn about music, and suddenly you have a rocket. It’s scary, okay? But we don’t want the feeling to stay.” And she firmly guided us away from the awful sight and directed our attention to the programs inside.
We met the teenage boy at the end of the tour, one of several students to discuss why this school, and its focus on open dialogue as well as arts and technology, was important to them. Asher was 13, a Justin Bieber lookalike, with tousled hair and a ready grin, eager to discuss his outlook on life.
“I don’t hate anybody,” he said. “I wake up in the morning and think about what the other side is thinking. It’s not the little kids or the mothers doing this. It’s a couple of terrorist organizations. There are millions of innocent people and we know that.”
He believed peace would soon be at hand, he said, and looked forward to helping to bring it about.
The early news reports were that a 13-year-old Israeli boy was badly injured in the rocket attack on the school bus. My heart was in my throat all morning as I thought about Asher. Midmorning an update included a correction: the teen fighting for his life was 16, not 13.
But I felt no sense of relief.