Yuval Zonnenschein recently moved to Tel Aviv in Israel
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
An Ashland High School graduate lives in Israel and was in Tel Aviv last Saturday during the surprise attacks by the terrorist organization Hamas.
Explosions could be seen and felt from Yuval Zonnenschein’s fourth-story apartment in the city of about 500,000 people. The 31-year-old son of a Havurah Shir Hadash employee moved to Israel in mid-September. He’s a 2011 Ashland High graduate and dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel.
“I wanted to experience what life was like here and I always knew that … the violence and the war was a possibility, I knew that coming here,” Yuval said in a WhatsApp phone call with Ashland.news Tuesday evening, which was Wednesday morning in Israel. “I just didn’t know it would happen so quickly after I got here.”
Last Saturday morning, Yuval was in his apartment alone, as his two roommates, one from the U.S., the other Israeli, were away.
“Saturday morning I was woken up by air raid sirens at 6:30,” he said. “I’ve heard it before but this was much closer this time.”
Yuval noted that in Tel Aviv, residents have about a minute and a half to get to a bomb shelter, due to the distance from the Gaza Strip, from where Hamas launches its missiles. Other smaller cities near Gaza have about 15 seconds to find refuge.
His apartment was built before bomb shelters were required in Tel Aviv, so has none.
“We’re the top apartment, so it’s completely unshielded from any kind of attack,” he said.
While holding both U.S. and Israeli passports, he didn’t have residency in Israel until after arriving on Sept. 14. The move made him closer in proximity not just to his country of origin but to his father’s side of the family and to those who would better understand his heritage.
He started to share more about becoming oriented to his country of origin, but paused first to check his phone for war-related alerts.
“I’ve been glued to my phone and the TV since Saturday,” he said. “There’s constant updates
about what’s going on … I’ve never been on my phone so much in my life.”
“We’ve never seen barbarity like this since Isis,” he said, of Hamas terrorists.
“I’ve seen pictures that I can’t unsee,” he said. “It’s the most people in our history that have murdered in a day since the Holocaust.”
“Civilians were killed waiting for the bus, dancing at a festival, doing chores and hiding as best they could,” the New York Times reported.
“It’s horrifying … You can’t even imagine what has happened,” Yuval said.
Before last Saturday’s attacks, he’d been busy exploring Tel Aviv and doing things that need to get done, like securing health insurance.
“There is a crazy amount of bureaucracy, nothing happens quickly here,” he said.
During his reorientation into the city, he’s also been enjoying celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, which was just wrapping up when war broke out.
During the High Holy Days, driving isn’t allowed, so the streets are full of people.
“It was great to be in a place where everyone is like you, ya know?” he said. “I’ve never experienced that before.”
He’s become accustomed in the U.S. to feeling like many couldn’t relate, especially on Fridays, where a sabbath greeting is standard and welcomed in Israel.
“It’s nice to be in a place where people are wishing me ‘Shabbat Shalom’ every Friday,” he said. “Every Friday is our sabbath — Friday night and Saturday.”
The most recent sabbath will likely be something he’ll never forget.
During a previous visit Yuval had made to Israel, he’d experienced a rocket attack in Tel Aviv, but nothing like the magnitude of those on Saturday. He had heard the sirens then as a visitor, and he heard them clearly now, as a resident.
Many rockets were blown up by the Iron Dome system, a defensive system intercepts incoming rockets.
“It sounded like huge explosions like right over us because the Iron Dome was shooting down the rockets, but it’s still like terrifying, you know?” Yuval said. “It’s a huge explosion right over you.”
The Iron Dome system detects the hostile weapon’s trajectory, shoots a projectile and blows up the rocket before it makes impact, he said.
“It’s really saved a lot of civilian lives,” Yuval said.
At the time of the attack, he headed for the stairwell. It’s not very protected from attacks, but is the strongest part of the building.
“It’s not the safest place to be, but it is safer than being in my apartment,” he said.
“I waited there for like 10 minutes,” he said, noting he waited a bit longer after the sirens stopped. “Just to make sure there’s no more rockets coming.”
He emerged from the stairwell and proceeded to the rooftop to get a clear look around.
Luckily, he said, a friend of his mother lives just a 5-minute walk from his apartment.
“She doesn’t have a bomb shelter in her apartment, but the stairwell is much more protected, so I stayed there that (afternoon),” he said.
More rocket attacks came that morning, but the Iron Dome shot them down, keeping him and his apartment mates safe. But he decided to relocate to stay with his family.
“I was on the phone with my dad and my mom, and just like letting them know that I’m OK,” he said.
“Since Saturday … the middle of the country and the south have just kind of been getting constantly bombarded with rocket attacks,” he said.
Growing up in Ashland
Yuval’s mom is Ayala Zonnenschein, who has worked for Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland since 2001. She is also Israeli and moved to Israel during her 20s. Ayala and her son moved to Ashland from the Bay Area three days before Sept. 11, 2001.
“The shock of it is just so deep, kind of like 9/11 was for us here,” Ayala said.
“This has never happened in all of Israeli history,” she added. “It harkens back to the Holocaust. We’ve never lost that many people in such a short span of time, in such horrific ways. I mean, they found 40 babies beheaded and burned. This is evil, this is pure unadulterated evil. Israel’s been dealing with terrorism since before its inception, but nothing like this.”
“If you know anyone whose Jewish, you know they’re suffering right now,” she added. “Be really sensitive to that.”
Ayala learned about the attacks from Yuval, who called her in Ashland from Israel.
“I didn’t know anything had happened,” she said.
She pointed out that, while her son has experienced what could be seen as a cruel initiation into returning to his country of origin, he’s also witnessing unity.
“The people have come together to help,” Ayala said.
While he was in the stairwell at his own apartment, a couple befriended Yuval, a display of unity he has since seen many times in Israel.
“The whole country has been so divided politically, it almost parallels the experience going on in the U.S. politically, like how divided it feels there,” Yuval said. “Families are like not talking to each other, because of the political situation. Like people have lost friends, so I really feel like it’s very similar to what people are going through. But despite that, now, the whole country is unified and coming together and there’s an incredible effort to support the troops and to send food and clothing and supplies.”
Yuval’s cousin is one of another 360,000 reserve soldiers who have been called up to serve, many without time to fully prepare for duty.
“There’s an incredible movement of civilians to buy and ship out all kinds of supplies and food and everything and have it sent to the soldiers. There’s no doubt in my mind that everybody’s together on this,” Yuval said.
He traveled to Israel many times before officially moving to the country, including taking a “birthright” trip to Israel at the age of 22.
His dad is Israeli and her mom lived in Israel for 14 years.
“They met a little bit before the Gulf War, but they spent the Gulf War together in bomb shelters with gas masks and everything,” Yuval said.
Yuval traveled extensively after high school, then worked several years at Higher Power Raw Foods in Ashland. He also lived and worked in Portland before finally moving to Israel in September.
He now lives with roommates in Tel Aviv and works for an Israeli-based agricultural tech firm.
“It was always like a thought for me that I would like to come back to my ancestral land because as Jews in America, we’ve been in diaspora (scattered from their original geographic location) for hundreds of years … but thousands of years around the world,” Yuval said. “I also did feel like a minority growing up in Southern Oregon, even though there are quite a lot of Jews in Ashland and the surrounding areas.”
Growing up in Ashland, there aren’t that many Jews in the schools, he said, and it was uncommon for his peers to celebrate, for instance, High Holy Days.
“Not a lot of people can identify with my experience,” he said.
Israel has been different for Yuval. First, his dad’s side of the family, including an aunt and uncle and his 90-year-old grandmother, live there, as well as three cousins.
“My grandmother’s a Holocaust survivor and she’s 90,” he said, noting she lives in a town bordering Tel Aviv.
“She’s legally blind and getting old, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” Yuval said. “We don’t know how much longer she has and I wanted to be able to spend more time with her.”
More of his family lives in a small town east of Tel Aviv, about 30 minutes from the West Bank.
He’s currently staying with his aunt, who lives in an apartment that has a built-in bomb shelter.
“The other reason I came here is just because I felt like a minority,” he said. “Somebody would probably categorize me as Caucasian, living in a dominantly Caucasian area in Southern Oregon. But I don’t feel Caucasian, I don’t feel white, I’m not Anglo at all.
“So I felt like a minority, I didn’t feel like people could identify with my experience there, being Jewish but also being connected with Israel.”
Yuval said that it’s “mind-boggling” how, as a people, Israel is heartbroken, but he’s seeing a revived spirit in response to the tragedy.
“Last night, after this country has just been dealt this incredible blow to our morale, to our spirit,” he said. “People last night were out on their porches cheering and singing and flashing their porch lights. Incredible videos are out showing we aren’t broken, we’re still strong — together — And we’re going to overcome this.”
Wednesday morning, Yuval messaged Ashland.news with more sad news from Israel.
“Israel is an incredibly small country,” Yuval said via the WhatsApp platform, an international messaging app. “We are over 9 million people. When over 1,200 people are
murdered and over 3,000 wounded, literally every single person here has friends or family who have been killed or have sustained life-altering injuries.”
On Wednesday, Yuval found out he’s one of those who knows someone personally who has perished in the attacks. A 26-year-old friend of his who moved from England to Israel to escape antisemitism, was killed in the attacks.
“He was an incredible person who supported and advocated for Israel any chance he got,” Yuval said. “He was loved by many and will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace.”
Following the attacks by Hamas, Yuval is now thinking through every move, whether he can get to a bomb shelter in time.
“I wasn’t wanting to take a shower in my apartment because I didn’t know if I’d be able to get out of the shower … and get to the stairs,” he said.
He said social media has become rife with false rumors of what might happen next, keeping some in the community on edge.
“There’s a lot of fear-mongering going around,” he said.
So far, he doesn’t believe that’s going to happen, but he does feel cautious.
“Because of what happened on Saturday, I feel exposed when I’m outside, when I’m just walking around the city,” Yuval added. “Based on what happened, it feels like at any moment, somebody could be just like on a motorcycle or just on a car and just start shooting at you …. I know that that’s likely not going to happen in Tel Aviv, but that’s what happened in these communities that are closer to the Gaza strip.”
Do you have family members or friends in Israel? Reach out to Ashland.news if you would like to connect us with them. Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oct. 14: Corrected spelling of Yuval Zonnenschein’s name.