Cyclamen, the Israeli national flower, is known to thrive in harsh con­di­tions. | Heidi Yacoubian

I didn’t expect to see my boyfriend on one knee by the Sea of Galilee, where Christ once walked on the water, calmed the storms, and filled Peter’s nets full of fish — but my engagement was not the biggest shock of my ten-day journey in Israel this month.

When I first applied to Pas­sages, the tour of Israel hosted by The Philos Project, I had a rather shallow mental picture of Israel con­sisting wholly of sand dunes and camels, and a dis­torted, West­ernized view of the political sit­u­ation. Yet, last summer, after I visited a con­cen­tration camp and six Holo­caust museums across Germany, I desired to under­stand the history of Israel and, more specif­i­cally, the Jewish people. Espe­cially as a German citizen, I felt as if I owed it to the Jewish culture to visit Israel and express my honor to this tiny country whose people endured such hor­rific hardship at the hands of the people of my her­itage.

On Sabbath, I shared my inten­tions of coming to Israel to expe­rience a true Shabbat dinner with the Jewish family who was hosting me and several other stu­dents at the time. With tears in her eyes, the grand­mother of the Jewish family shook my hand, thanking me for my words and the honor I had shown by coming to Israel. At this moment, the extent of the pain the nation of Israel has, and still endures, struck me afresh.

This was not the only reminder we received of the intense real­ities Israeli cit­izens face. The pop­u­lation of Israel, which is the size of New Jersey, is more than 75 percent eth­ni­cally Jewish.  But the global Jewish pop­u­lation makes up only 0.02 percent of the world reli­gions.

Israeli cit­izens learn to toughen up at a young age. Because of Israel’s small size and hostile borders — such as Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza strip, and the West Bank — mil­itary par­tic­i­pation is mandatory. Over the course of the short trip, it became normal to see groups of 18- to 21-year-old men and women walking around with mil­itary-grade rifles.   

Perhaps the most chilling site our group visited, however, was the small Kibbutz near the town Sderot, oth­erwise known as the “bomb shelter capital of the world.” This small town was less than a mile away from the Gaza strip where Hamas-led Pales­tinians launched mis­siles as often as ten times a week into the Kibbutz. The people living there have a maximum of ten seconds to run for a bomb shelter after hearing the “Red Alert” warning siren.  Only six weeks ago, 370 mis­siles were launched into Israel in a span of thirty-six hours, by Hamas on the Gaza strip. One res­ident of the Kibbutz said that cre­ative ter­rorists soak tampons or condoms in gasoline, attach them to a long string and a balloon, and send it into Israel to burn the houses and crops.

The most dis­turbing Hamas tactic was to send col­orful ‘Up’-style bal­loons into Israel, with bombs attached to them. Launched by Pales­tinian children so that the Israeli sol­diers would not shoot them, the bal­loons tar­geted young and curious Israeli children, so that as soon as the balloon is dis­covered and tugged at, the bomb explodes.

It sent chills down my spine to walk past the kibbutz’s bomb-shel­tered kinder­garten school­house and see the little children’s rain boots, lined up per­fectly at the door, knowing the chaos those young children con­tinue to live with.

Despite these horrors, I was com­forted and encouraged by a small pink flower which grows across Israel. Cyclamen, the Israeli national flower, is known to thrive in harsh con­di­tions, and stands as a symbol of the Israeli people.

Israel has long endured these harsh con­di­tions.  Yet, time after time, the people con­tinue to per­severe, and hold true to their eth­nicity and religion. Despite the pain of the Holo­caust, anti-Semitism, or the bombs that threaten the people of Israel today, the Israeli people stand their ground. My ten days in Israel brought per­spective to my life, as now I am inspired to live my life like a cyclamen — thriving under harsh con­di­tions.