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Studying abroad and staying alive: Israel 2012

Published: January 24, 2013, 12:54 am ET
Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Ostrom
Richmond junior Kaitlyn Ostrom in Jerusalem with a unit of the Israel Defense Forces. The unit was on break for the day and was about to head to the Golan Heights. The picture was taken overlooking the Old City.
Collegian Reporter

The Thursday before Thanksgiving, junior Kaitlyn Ostrom decided she wanted to travel. The weekend was approaching and her group of friends decided to plan a trip. Ostrom was studying abroad for the semester, and traveling on weekends was standard procedure. Unfortunately, that night, Ostrom received news that would change her plans. Her intended place of destination, Tel Aviv, had just been hit by missiles. Retaliation and fatality would be soon to come. Ostrom would have to do something else with her Saturday.

Ostrom grew up in a military family. Her mother, Lt. Col. Evelyn Ostrom, is retired from the U.S. Army and her father, Lt. Col. Joel Ostrom, is in the Army Reserve. For Ostrom, a study-abroad adventure is simply an extenion of her childhood. She was born in Belgium. She has lived in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Garmisch, Germany and Kiev, Ukraine– and has never lived somewhere for more than six years. One could understand why she decided to make something different of her abroad experience in fall 2012.

“Once I discovered Israel in my decision process, it was just perfect,” Ostrom said. “It included my majors and my minor — religious studies, international studies, Russian studies and Jewish studies respectively — and was safe in my mind, but still adventurous.”

Michele Cox, study abroad director at the University of Richmond, said although Israel had seen terrorist incidents in the past, it was in fact one of the safest and most stable countries in the Middle East. The department is confident in Israel’s strong intelligence and security to allow students to study there, she said.

Richmond Rabbi Andrew Goodman said the origin of the political tensions between the Jewish and Palestinian people in Israel came down to the question of home and who had a right to be there.

“It’s a very emotional situation and a very complicated issue for the record,” Goodman said. “When the U.N. divided the land, you had these invested parties — the Jews and Palestinians — who acted and reacted differently.” On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence and created its own political structure, Goodman said.

When Ostrom first arrived in Israel at the beginning of September 2012, she said she had not suffered a culture shock or noticed tension, but it had been the first time she felt as though she had been the minority. Even in her group of friends, Ostrom said, she was one of the “token Christians.”

“It was the first time I was aware of an ‘us vs. them’ aspect in my life,” Ostrom said. “It was totally fine. I didn’t feel judged or anything, but it was interesting to feel like part of the ‘them’ side.”

Ostrom was not concerned for her safety when she first arrived in Haifa, she said, because the university was near the northern tip of the country. Most of the violence people heard about occurred in southern areas, such as Gaza, she said.

What made it seem much more real was the proximity within Israel, Ostrom said.

“Coming from the U.S. — where you hear about something halfway across the country — you’re distanced from the situations,” Ostrom said. “Israel is about the size of New Jersey, so when you hear about these incidents, it’s actually 50 miles away.”

In September, the nightly news became Ostrom’s reality when she visited Tel Aviv for the first time. Ostrom and her friends thought they had picked a great hotel to stay at for the weekend because it was next to the American embassy, she said.

Upon arrival, they unpacked and put the news on the TV. Around the world, Islamic regions were protesting a highly offensive YouTube video called “The Innocence of Muslims.” Then, breaking news emerged on the screen. Protests had begun at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv — just 20 feet away from where Kaitlyn was standing, she said.

“It was calm relative to the other protests around the globe,” Ostrom said. “But it really showed the tension there underneath the surface.”

Ostrom faced other tension as her semester continued in Haifa. She shared a flat with Arab-Israeli students who didn’t seem to like her, she said. One day, Ostrom walked into the room, greeted the other students, asked how their days were and was met only with their cold exit from the room, she said.

Ostrom said she could remember a conversation with her madrichim — residence assistants of sorts — about the other students. The madrichim said: “Don’t worry. It’s not you. They just don’t want to be friends with the Westerners.”

Joel Ostrom said it had been both shocking and disappointing to hear about the Arab-Israeli students shunning his daughter. He said Ostrom had been lonely there and struggled with the cold reception. She moved out halfway through the semester, he said, and her outlook had improved after that.

Ostrom said after that, she moved in with students who treated her no differently than anybody else.

Goodman said this behavior was not out of the ordinary for these students because, in the Middle East in general, Westerners can be viewed as “interfering.” In Israel, a portion of the people feel that the U.S. is their only ally but another portion, he said, feels isolated, alone in global affairs.

Goodman was in Israel from 2002 to 2003, where he said there had been bus bombings on a weekly basis. The attacks instilled the Israeli people with an underlying anxiety and subsequent hyper-vigilance, he said.

Armed guards patrolled most restaurants and shopping malls. If more than one ambulance rode by, he said, an attack was the assumption. Everyone knew where the bomb shelters were, how to get there and how they worked. Gas masks were no different, Goodman said.

After what transpired on that Thursday in November, Ostrom described a very similar Israel as Goodman.

“That was such a huge turning point in general,” Ostrom said. “There was a huge chill because everyone always said to me, ‘there’s no way Tel Aviv would ever be hit.’”

From there, Ostrom’s surroundings, began to change. Israeli males — forced to enter the military at age 18 and be on the reserves thereafter — disappeared from Ostrom’s life one by one. In the night, madrichim and friends from other dorms had packed up and vanished. Those nights, Ostrom slept in her dorm — the bomb shelter on her hall — as fighter jets whizzed by overhead.

Around Ostrom, anxieties were rising. If a bus was stopped too long at a traffic light or had to slam on the breaks, some passengers would begin to cry with panic. One time, a friend of Ostrom’s became excited when bats flew by. The friend pointed up at the bats, yelled and watched as a second friend ducked her head, assuming the worst was coming from the sky, she said.

“It was more of a waiting game at that point,” Ostrom said. “Is something going to happen today, tomorrow or maybe in ten minutes?”

Meanwhile, Ostrom’s parents and Office of International Education officials were keeping as updated as possible in the moments since the Tel Aviv attack. Cox said she had been in close contact with colleagues in the field, Haifa and the Richmond insurance company, MedEx, to gain perspective and advise Ostrom.

Joel Ostrom said he and his wife had remained in close contact with their daughter through Skype and were able to get the “ground-truth.”

At that time, U.S. Embassy warnings increasingly warned U.S. citizens to avoid public places, stay off public buses and plan for their own personal safety,” Joel Ostrom said. “Kaitlyn’s experiences were becoming more disturbing there.”

Ostrom said that there had been no crystallizing moment when she had realized she needed to leave. She knew her parents supported her whether she stayed or not, and the insurance company had informed Richmond staff it would cover her financially if she wanted to come home early.

Out of the main cities, Ostrom said, Haifa was the only one that hadn’t been attacked yet. She said it just seemed “headed in that direction,” that it would be next. She wanted to get out soon rather than wait until it was too late. On Monday, Nov. 19, she did just that.

Joel Ostrom said he and his wife had been relieved to hear Ostrom had decided to come back from Israel earlier than she had intended.

“No need to become a victim before it’s time to evacuate,” Joel Ostrom said. “There’s no need to have combat experience.”

Even as the military background had made goodbyes seem normal, Ostrom said it had still been hard to leave Israel and the relationships she formed.

“It was just very uncertain,” Ostrom said. “Who was staying? Who was going? Were we going to come back at some point? It was just a very weird end to a very positive and enriching experience.”

Goodman said he hoped that Ostrom’s challenges would not be a deterrent in the future for other prospective travelers. He said he would hate for this situation to be taken out of a “particularly frantic context and always look scary.”

“I would love to see more students go back to Haifa,” Goodman said. “For all its issues, it really is a fantastic place.”
Now that Ostrom is back in the U.S., she has more challenges tied to her semester in Israel. She is still working to earn her credit hours after leaving more than a month early from her class term.

Cox said her office had been appreciative of the professors who, upon Ostrom’s return, had decided to help through independent studies to let her receive some credit.

Religious studies professor Frank Eakin has been one of many professors who has helped Ostrom with her remaining assignments. He said his reasoning for helping was simple: He didn’t want her to lose out on her abroad semester in an academic sense.

“It was the obvious thing,” Eakin said. “I don’t see our university as the type to turn its back on a student who falls on bad luck.”
Ostrom is now writing her final papers for those remaining classes while in the midst of her semester back at Richmond. When asked about potential future adventures, she said she planned to travel throughout her life.

“There is too much to experience in this world,” Ostrom said. “Once you start traveling, it’s hard to stay rooted to one place.”

Contact reporter Scott Himelein at Scott.himelein@richmond.edu

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