East Texas teens return from study abroad program in Israel, eager to share experiences

Vera Banta and Rebecca Katz, daughter of Congregation Bethe El rabbi Neal Katz, are sharing...
Vera Banta and Rebecca Katz, daughter of Congregation Bethe El rabbi Neal Katz, are sharing their stories of their time in Israel at the onset of the Israel-Hamas War. They are now home in Tyler, but they said their time in Israel will forever be a part of them.
Published: Oct. 17, 2023 at 8:43 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 17, 2023 at 8:45 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Vera Banta and Rebecca Katz, daughter of Congregation Beth El rabbi Neal Katz, are sharing their stories of their time in Israel at the onset of the Israel-Hamas War. They are now home in Tyler, but they said their time in Israel will forever be a part of them.

The girls got back last Thursday after taking flights from Israel to Rome to Boston to Dallas. They were given a day’s notice to pack up 50 pounds worth of stuff, but most of them came with two times that amount. However, the things they had to leave behind did not go waste.

“The campus that we were leaving, as soon as we were leaving, some displaced families from the south were coming to live in our dorms, so like a lot of the stuff we donated went directly to them, which was nice,” said Rebecca.

Early in the morning on October 6, the girls were awakened by bomb sirens, just a few hours after they danced and sang at Shabbat services the night before.

“We heard the sirens, and we were looking outside we didn’t – we couldn’t process until we like heard a ‘boom,’” said Vera.

That day, they sheltered seven times before noon, barefoot, confused and scared. They said they did not have any clue when they would be able to come back to the United States, but guessed it would be weeks. Luckily, it was only a few days, and in that time they found a way to give back to hospitals, soldiers and displaced people.

“We made 1,500 bags of soap and food and towels and candy for hospitals ... they went to hospitals, they went to soldiers, displaced families ... so, it was really cool because it was like we actually get to do something, we’re not just sitting on the sidelines watching this happen,” said Rebecca.

Even at the Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, the girls and their group received alerts to take shelter.

“We were all sitting down, just waiting to be taken to our gate, and we got a notification on this app on our phones that lets us know whenever there’s a siren going off in our vicinity and we need to get to a bomb shelter, and I got the notification, and I was really confused, because there was no ... I couldn’t hear anything, and then everyone just started running to the bomb shelter in the airport,” said Vera.

Even once they reached Rome, both said they were still paranoid.

“Just on the off chance that there would be some like antisemitic people near us, we didn’t want to draw too much attention to our group while we were in Rome,” said Vera.

Once they reached Boston, while they were relieved to be back in the U.S., they were heartbroken to have to leave the group of people who shared their experiences and understood firsthand the conflict.

“Once we got back, we like all had to split up in the terminals right after that which was hard,” said Rebecca.

Vera said the shared experiences brought them closer as a group.

“This was at the point in the program when we were all starting to get out of our comfort zones more and really start to get closer to people, and I think that this, that these circumstances really made us want to get to know each other and get close to each other very quickly,” she said.

Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, both girls went to the Friday night service at Congregation Beth El the night after they got home.

“So, we got back Thursday night, and then Friday night we both decided to go to Temple in spite of antisemitism. There was actually a really big attendance. A lot of people came to Synagogue on Friday. Although, we had two cops … so, I felt safer, but it was also scary to see to see that we needed two cops.”

Both girls said they plan on returning to Israel and possibly living there one day. They were supposed to be there until December, but the program ended early and got them home for their safety.

“The experience I had, if anything, it grew my love for Israel, it didn’t diminish it; like, it comes with its challenges, but I loved it,” said Rebecca.

WEBXTRA: 2 Tyler teens return safely from high school program in Israel