By: Rivka Bennun  | 

Where Do We Go From Here?

To say last semester was difficult would be quite the understatement. 

In the beginning, I was numb; I couldn’t get any work done. I would wander in and out of class, in a stupor, my mind elsewhere. I’ll never forget the trauma of those first few weeks, when we all watched with horror the unspeakable atrocities that took place on Oct. 7, and what followed. I couldn’t remember anything important that had occurred pre-Oct 7. 

But as the weeks wore on and work piled up, I trained myself to maintain focus in class, channeling all my energy into whatever the discussions and assignments were, and I would block out personal thoughts about Israel. In a way, this was my attempt to maintain normalcy at a time when nothing was normal anymore. It was a way of keeping myself occupied. 

Yet as much as I tried, I couldn’t keep those thoughts out of my mind. Late at night, when classes and shiurim were over for the day and I had worked to my heart’s desire, I’d finally have a moment of quiet with myself — and that’s when the war would flood back into my mind. Instead of getting much-needed sleep, I’d obsessively refresh the news, doom-scrolling into the darkest hours of the night. I’d hesitatingly open my WhatsApp to read about soldiers who had been killed that day, and I’d check in on my friends and family, many of whom live in Israel and were called to the reserves. 

As the semester wound down, I realized this was not a sustainable lifestyle. Piles of end-of-term papers loomed over my head, final exams and bechinot were right around the corner and I had to buckle down and get serious. I pulled three all-nighters to study for finals, and ultimately welcomed the winter break with open arms, ready to collapse and spend two weeks catching up on sleep. 

At this point, thoughts of the war were mostly gone. It became part of our reality, something we learned to adjust to. It faded into the background of my mind as sleep overtook me and preparation for a new semester began. 

Which brings me back to the present. Most curiously, life has moved on. Two of my best friends got engaged; I accepted a job for the summer; I submitted applications for graduate programs next year. While it feels like time stopped for three months, we’re back in school and we’re moving forward. How do we proceed? Where do we go from here? How can we press play on our lives when Israel has been on pause since the darkest day in our recent history? 

I don’t know if there’s one answer, or if there’s any answer, to this question which I’m sure has been on a lot of our minds. Perhaps the absurdity of war is that we learn to hold two realities at once: Our people are on the front lines, and our lives have resumed. Things feel normal again, but they also don’t. We find ourselves asking, “Should I feel normal? Is that okay? Should I spend every waking moment thinking about and advocating for Israel?” Realistically, we know we cannot do this, yet we feel guilty doing anything but. 

We don’t know how the semester is going to progress. The only answer I feel comfortable giving myself right now is that I can identify the discomfort, familiarize myself with it and learn to live with it as long as this continues. There is value to the discomfort we feel. I acknowledge that the tension between living my comfortable American life and constantly worrying about acheinu Bnei Yisrael will pull me in different directions at different points in the coming months. 

We can embrace the discomfort. I will continue to tend to my obligations as a student, as right now that is my primary responsibility. And, it goes without saying, I will also continue to advocate for my brothers and sisters in whatever way I can — whether that is through political support, tefillah or even traveling to Israel and volunteering during my breaks. 

There may be deeper, more complex answers. For now, I will accept the dichotomy and learn to live with it. The inner conflict and tension we feel should push us to continue doing good, whether that is in the realm of our studies and personal growth, or in further advocating for and supporting Israel. 

I continue to admire my peers for their countless initiatives, on the most local and also the broader communal levels, as we all try to make sense of our role during this time. We must continue to strive to do good, and we must continue to be students. 

Perhaps this is the new normal, an absurdity which our young minds cannot and have not yet learned to fathom. But we can harness those feelings of discomfort, and allow them to pull us in different directions. We can give of ourselves in whatever ways we can, and we can also continue to attend weddings, and pursue post-grad plans. I have learned that two realities can exist at once. Now I must learn how to properly hold onto them.