From left, Vardit Shterenbach and Meitav Menachem
by Richard Friedman
The Israeli people are made of steel. They carry with them a collective experience forged in fire, which at times of conflict sustains and strengthens them, propelling them forward in the face of daunting challenges.
This was evident in conversations this week with two Israeli women with ties to Alabama and Tennessee.
Despite the anxiety they are grappling with, and the barrage of deadly rockets being fired at their country, they remain unflinching, each saying there is no other place they’d want to live.
That’s the message you hear in lively-accented English from 26-year-old Meitav Menachem and 38-year Vardit Shterenbach.
Menachem lives in Ramat Gan, which is adjacent to Tel Aviv and has been under attack. Shterenbach lives in Haifa, which has been relatively unscathed during the conflict.
“As someone who has lived in the U.S. and traveled to many places in the world, the past two weeks have made me feel even more deeply that Israel is our country,” said Menachem. “Israel is the state of the Jewish people. This is where we belong and I feel connected to this land and country more than ever. Especially during the past ten days.”
Said Shterenbach, “In my heart, I feel Israel is the best place to live. It is our homeland. I love it.”
However, Shterenbach, mom to boys ages seven and three, is realistic. “Having Israel comes with a price. We have to prepare for our sons being in the army.”
Still, knowing that, this Israeli mother remains steadfast: “I want to be able to promise my kids, honestly, that they will have a better future here.”
Sons and Daughters
There are a lot of sons — and daughters — defending Israel at the moment as Iranian-backed terrorists in the nearby Gaza Strip fire death rockets into Israel, trying to mow down civilians, such as these two women and their families.
The serenity of the American South, where they each had great experiences, seems like a distant dream.
Menachem was a shlicha — an Israeli emissary and resource — in Memphis, living there from 2018 to 2020. Today, though back in Israel, she serves as a shlicha for a group of smaller community Federations in Alabama.
Shterenbach lived in Madison, near Huntsville, for six months in 2010 when her boyfriend (now husband) was a football coach at Madison Academy. Today, she combines a career in Israel’s tech industry with writing. He is one of the founders of the Israel Football League.
Interviewed in separate Zoom calls, both women had that “Israeli spark” about them. They were passionate and animated, particularly when talking about their country; energized and determined.
Yet they were sad as well; bedeviled by the Jewish-Arab tensions and violence that has exploded in Israel, anguished over the fracturing of their country’s unique civic mosaic.
In fact, these two women talked more about this disconcerting eruption within Israeli society than they did about Hamas and the external security threat.
“The tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel always existed and we just learned how to coexist with it,” said Menachem. However, the current situation, especially the violent riots, caught her off-guard. “It feels like this hatred and violence came from nowhere. I didn’t expect something like this to happen. Maybe I was naive.”
Joining her on the Zoom call was her boyfriend, Max Abraham, who at the end of February immigrated to Israel from Memphis. As in America, he sees the media and public figures in Israel promoting divisiveness.
“A lot of media outlets and public figures are picking sides and are not leaving room for any open discussion,” he said. This “paints a box” around Israelis and Palestinians.
What Menachem wanted her friends in Memphis and Montgomery to remember about the current conflict with Hamas is this: “People in Israel want to have peaceful lives. We understand we have to defend ourselves, but we want the fighting to end. There are many people here who want coexistence.”
Shterenbach wanted people to especially remember that the Israeli army notifies civilians in Gaza before a building is bombed, striving to give them time to get out of harm’s way. “We protect their kids and civilian population more than their own leaders do.”
Nonetheless, the deadly fighting has compelled Israelis and their friends abroad to balance idealism with reality.
“I feel bad about kids dying in Gaza. I send my condolences to their families,” said Shterenbach. “But as long as they are being used as human shields, they are going to be in the line of fire.”