By Talia Richman
Alexandra Lewyn rushed through the cloud of smoke coming from an overturned bus and ran towards the dozens of screaming people who lay injured in the wreckage.
Once she moved the victims into the ambulance, she took a moment to thank G-d this was just a drill.
Lewyn, a freshman Jewish Studies major, spent a gap year in Jerusalem before coming to the University of Maryland this fall. While overseas, she volunteered twice a week with Magen David Adom, Israel’s national ambulance service.
She learned how to respond to all emergencies from strokes to miscarriages to terrorist attacks.
“Fortunately, this past year was relatively quiet and I wasn’t called to the scene of any terrorist attacks,” Lewyn said. “But the bus bombing drill we had was very realistic. They hired actors to play the victims, had plastic organs lying around, and brought in real police and media.”
Lewyn attended a Jewish day school for junior high, but graduated from a public high school in Atlanta, Ga. She said taking a gap year in Israel was not the norm, but she felt like she needed a break from school after a stressful senior year.
“I still had more to see in the world than just the inside of a classroom,” Lewyn said. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
Lewyn’s transition into Israeli life was difficult at first.
“When you go to Israel as a tourist, you just see the beautiful scenery and go to the places that present Israel in its best light,” she said. “But when you’re a local, it can be very confusing trying to figure out things like language, mannerisms and transportation. Where I’m from, southern hospitality is a real thing, but Israelis are generally much tougher. It was a big attitude adjustment.”
She went to Israel knowing only the basic Hebrew she learned at Jewish day school four years earlier. The rest she had to pick up on the street and on the ambulance.
“When I was at Magen David Adom, they only spoke Hebrew because they’re working on an ambulance, not running an American tourist attraction,” Lewyn said. “I really learned 95 percent of the Hebrew that I now know just being there and forcing myself to speak it with them.”
Problems like being unable to find organic food – Lewyn is a self-proclaimed health nut – and dealing with a seven-hour time difference between her and her friends back home were just minor inconveniences in an otherwise amazing experience, Lewyn said.
“For hundreds of years my ancestors have said ‘next year in Jerusalem,’” Lewyn said. “To actually be in Jerusalem and feel the weight of all that history and culture and beauty created a bond that was bigger than any bad day I had there. It wasn’t an immediate love affair, but ultimately I just feel a very strong sense of connection to the land because it is the pinnacle of the experience of being a Jew.”
On days she worked on the ambulance, Lewyn needed to be at the station at 6:45 a.m. That early hour was the only part of her day that was consistent.
Some days, her unit consisting of Lewyn, a driver, a medic, and a national service member was called to respond to medical emergencies. One time that sticks out for Lewyn is when they picked up a young boy with Crohn’s disease who was having an attack.
On slow days, they would transport patients between hospitals. They once moved an Ethiopian refugee with a severe head trauma from the main hospital in Jerusalem to a specialized center in Tel Aviv.
Other days, Lewyn and her team were able to relax at the station and watch “How I Met Your Mother” and “Seinfeld.”
“It can be annoying to have to wait around at the station because you want to be working,” Lewyn said. “But it’s also a good thing to be bored because it means everyone in Jerusalem is okay.”
One of Lewyn’s jobs was to sit in the back of the ambulance and comfort patients.
One of her favorite experiences was when the team was doing a transport between the children’s hospital and the main hospital. The patient was a young Palestinian boy who had broken both of his legs. His father spoke very little Hebrew and his mother, who Lewyn said was visibly on edge, spoke none.
Although Lewyn had no way to communicate verbally, she sat with the mother and held her hand throughout the ride. When they arrived at the hospital, she gave the little boy a huge high five.
“It was a really cool moment where I just felt like going, ‘See, look! Israelis and Palestinians can get along,” Lewyn said.
When Lewyn wasn’t volunteering, she was interning at the Jerusalem Post and studying at a Jewish women’s seminary. There, she took classes about Jewish law, women’s role in Judaism, and the history of Israel.
One of Lewyn’s main goals while living in Israel, however, was to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She said volunteering – and having experiences such as with the Palestinian boy and his family – taught her more about the conflict than any class or news report ever did.
While aboard the ambulance, Lewyn got to travel to East Jerusalem and other places in the country that are usually off-limits for Jews. She was able to speak to, and serve, a wide variety of people.
“One of the coolest things about Magen David Adom is that they pick up everybody,” Lewyn said. “I had patients who were Palestinians, Israelis, Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, etc. Medical emergencies don’t discriminate. The one non-partisan thing you can do is save someone’s life.”
By spending time with her patients, Lewyn said she gained a deeper understanding of both peoples. She started to realize that the two groups weren’t as different as they’re made out to be.
“A huge part of the conflict is that you have two populations being forcibly segregated from each other,” she said. “That separation creates animosity and fear. The only Israelis that Palestinians know are soldiers and the only Palestinians that Israelis know are terrorists like the ones who blew up the pizza factory nearby.”
Each time Lewyn got into the ambulance, she was confronted with sickness, pain, and even death. Staying positive was only possible because of the constant movement.
“The thing about being on an ambulance is you don’t have time to think about things and process them because as soon as you’re done with one call, it’s on to the next one,” Lewyn said. “Life happens – the most I could do was be there when it did. By the end of the day, you’re exhausted and emotionally drained but it also hits you that what you’ve been a part of that day is just beyond anything.”
Freshman Sarya Genet, a business major, also said he gained invaluable experience from his gap year in Israel.
This Yom Kippur, Genet fasted while he attended services at the University of Maryland Hillel dressed in slacks and a button-down.
Last Yom Kippur, however, Genet was unable to fast while he patrolled the Israeli-Lebanon border dressed in his olive-green Israeli Defense Force uniform.
Genet spent the past three years in Israel. He had only planned on living there for one year to study at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, but he ended up enlisting in the army as a paratrooper.
“After my first year in Israel was over, I went to orientation at UMD, paid the down payment and everything,” Genet said. “But a couple weeks before I started school, I decided to stay in Israel.”
On Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers, two years ago, Genet was attending a memorial service in Jerusalem where an IDF General spoke.
The General talked rapidly in Hebrew – Genet said he barely understood what he was saying – but at the end of the speech, as soldiers fired off three shots in to the air, he knew what he had to do.
“It just struck a chord in me – I knew in that moment that I needed to join the army,” Genet said.
Genet said he was raised in a Zionistic family and his parent’s understood his choice.
“My dad was proud and scared and my mom was scared and proud,” Genet said.
Genet’s basic training was filled with intense drills – running, push-ups, pull-ups, marching with heavy weights, target practice and more.
“Our workouts were determined by what kind of mood the officer was in – if he wanted us to cry or just go to bed completely exhausted,” Genet said.
The most difficult part for Genet was jump-training. He spent a week learning how to jump properly, land properly, and roll properly after leaping out of planes 1,200 feet in the air. He said you never feel prepared enough to make that first jump, but you do it anyway.
“You’re falling at 20 mph so you get down before someone shoots you out of the air,” Genet said.
It was on his second jump during training that Genet injured himself. He said he fell into a weird wind, messed up the landing, and ended up on his back.
But when Genet tells the story about his injury, he doesn’t list his own fall as the most terrifying part.
After Genet landed, he felt a shooting pain in his back and couldn’t get up. Five minutes later, however, he heard a huge crack and scream as his friend’s landing also went awry.
Genet sprinted to his friend, detached him from his parachute and called a medic. He ended up with a broken leg.
“That was the scariest moment because I was so afraid for this kid’s life,” Genet said. “I didn’t notice my injury again until a few hours later because of the adrenaline.”
While deployed, Genet dealt with many situations where getting killed was a possibility.
“It’s wasn’t one of those cliché things where my life flashes before my eyes and I think about my family,” Genet said. “I only thought about what I’d been trained to do. You can’t think about anything else.”
It was hard for Genet when he had a chance to look at Facebook during his few moments off. His friends, who had taken the traditional post-graduation route, would post pictures of parties and football games while he was in basic training.
“I loved being in the army, but sometimes it sucked seeing these kids go out and party while I was stuck getting my ass handed to me all the time,” Genet said. “I have never regretted joining the army, though. Not for a second.”
Now that he’s back, Genet is working on adjusting back into civilian life, which he says is kind of boring. He’s trying to get back into the groove of going to school and living on a college campus – a transition made more difficult by the fact that most of his classmates are three years younger than him.
Lingering memories of his time in the army still haunt him. A few weeks ago, an alarm went off on campus and Genet immediately flashed back to the alarms that go off every time a rocket or missile is shot into Israel.
Genet said he misses Israel and the friends he made there every day.
“It’s hard being away because of the escalating situation in Israel,” he said. “I don’t like it that I’m not there. I don’t know how much difference one soldier would make, but I’d rather be there with those guys than chilling here in a dorm with TVs and food everywhere and living this luxury life. It’s hard being in a situation where I’m not able to protect my friends.”
Genet said the three years he spent in Israel changed him forever.
“I learned to be mature when the time calls for it,” he said. “My love of God, and Israel, and Zionism grew.”