TEL AVIV, Israel—For my last undergraduate summer, all I wanted was a memorable adventure and a meaningful experience I could carry with me to the “real world.” So when the decision came to either take a corporate internship in San Francisco or to work in Tel Aviv for the summer, I knew in my gut what I wanted.

Of course, in March 2014, security was more of a consideration that inherently comes with travel to the Middle East than a high-priority debate. I had visited Israel in May 2012, two months after tensions had last come to a boil enough for widespread violence and media coverage. The relative calm in Israel this time around encouraged me and assuaged my parents’ concerns. My mom, typical in her Jewish-parent worry, insisted that my participation was contingent upon two conditions: that I’d call to check in frequently and that I’d leave the country as soon as “anything happened.”

The program, called Excel, is funded in full by Birthright, an organization that sponsors trips to Israel so that Jewish young adults can connect with their heritage and become lifelong supporters of Israel. Typical Birthright trips are 10 days, 40 people and consist of a jam-packed itinerary where a bus transports the group around the country to see some of its historical, religious and cultural highlights.

Excel, by contrast, was 80 people, 10 weeks and based in Tel Aviv, with weekend trips organized by the program and high-profile speakers, events and lectures nearly every night. In between, we all worked full-time in internships across the city and in nearby Herzliya in startups, consulting, investment banking, venture capital, law and then some. Each participant was assigned an Israeli peer roughly their age with similar interests and professional goals. Outside of the program, the peers either study at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private university near Tel Aviv, or serve in an elite intelligence unit in the Israeli Defense Force.

The calm Elissa Levine came to love in Tel Aviv did not last long—the city soon became a target for Hamas rocket fire.

The first few weeks in Israel were incredible, in a honeymoon-phase study-abroad kind of way. We traveled as a group of 80 during our first weekend to Ein Gedi, an oasis in the South on the Dead Sea and near the Jordanian border. We got to know our new city—its beaches, the park and river that run through it, its street-side cafes and brunch spots, its bars and clubs. Tel Aviv has an identity as a European-style city with incredible nightlife and more sushi restaurants per capita than Tokyo. We played key roles in one of the world’s most innovative cities, the economic heartbeat of a nation with more high-tech startups and a larger venture capital industry per capita than any other country worldwide. But most of all, we felt at home in Tel Aviv’s day-to-day normalcy—quiet and calm.

Then Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah were kidnapped by Hamas militants. That evening, Avia, my Israeli peer, picked me up for a sushi and froyo night in her convertible Fiat blasting Taylor Swift. Talking over the day’s events, she suddenly changed the subject and asked if I’d heard what happened. It was still a developing story; we expressed concern for the boys’ safety, but not for our own. We kept driving and chatting about other things, completely unaware that this moment was the trigger that would prompt the subsequent chain of events.

It was our new idea of normal. The primary consideration for choosing a restaurant was the presence or absence of a bomb shelter, not its Yelp reviews.

On June 30 they found the bodies. On July 2, Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered in retaliation by far-right Jewish extremists. On July 3, we traveled to Jerusalem for the weekend as a group of 80 again on a pre-planned trip. While Tel Aviv’s population is largely comprised of secular Jews, Jerusalem is twice as large and more diverse. We spent the July 4 weekend amid protests by Jews mourning the three boys, protests by Arabs mourning Abu Khdeir, and some not-great press on both sides.

I kept a blog this summer, and after that trip, I reflected:

July 9: I couldn’t stop thinking about how differently the United States and Israel deal with the concept of nationalism—the frivolity of Independence Day was made immediately evident among the “price tag” (in essence, an eye for an eye) attacks that spread around Jerusalem. In a country where obligatory military service is as ingrained in cultural identity as education, political beliefs, or religion, an unfortunate consequence is how right-wing extremists interpret nationalistic responsibilities. I spent a day that normally celebrates freedom in America with barbecues, fireworks and trips to the beach reflecting on the fact that in the Middle East, a sense of nationalism is too often the filter that justifies violence.

On July 7, Hamas fired 80 rockets toward Israel. On July 8, the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge. The directors of Excel called an emergency security meeting with all of us to discuss the implications of the military action and procedures for if a rocket made it to Tel Aviv. They emphasized that it had only happened once before, in 2012, and that it was incredibly unlikely that it would happen now. Tel Aviv’s geographic location usually insulated it relatively well from attacks compared to the living hell people in the South were enduring (according to Natal—the Israel Center for Victims of Terror in War—between 70 and 94 percent of children in Sderot suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder). Hamas lacked the technology and resources, they said, to launch rockets that could reach Tel Aviv from Gaza, 43 miles away.

Our meeting ended at 6:30; at 7:03, I found out what a rocket siren sounds like.

This Iron Dome interception was captured on film by one of Elissa Levine's coworkers in Tel Aviv.

More bewildered than scared, we filed into our dorm’s bomb shelter. We waited there for about five minutes, were told it was safe to leave and returned to the lecture that had been interrupted by the siren. Since 2012, Israel has invested heavily in Iron Dome, the world’s most advanced mobile defense system, which intercepts missiles in midair over populated areas. Thanks to this technology (developed largely with American funds), the damage caused by rockets to cities like Tel Aviv has been dramatically reduced; small pieces of shrapnel falling from the sky pose a much smaller threat than an explosive rocket.

In that moment, returning from my first visit to a bomb shelter, I was livid. It sounds dramatic but it’s also true: this was the first time in my life that someone had tried to kill me. The news I had been reading, always just distant enough to matter but not apply to me, was suddenly personal; my home was under fire, my friends in danger. My grandparents—Holocaust survivors—suffered so that I would live a safe and secure life, and yet the cycle of generalized violence targeting the very same group had circled back two generations later.

Per my parents’ requests, that night I called home to check in and assumed they’d seen the news—they hadn’t. When I told them, it became the first of many calls where my mom told me it was time to come home.

For about a week, the tone of the program completely changed. We had security meetings almost daily to discuss changes in the situation; we had bomb shelter visits even more frequently, sometimes multiple times in a day, as the rocket sirens became routine. Each time, our directors posed the option for anyone to go home early if they wanted to. They assured us that if we’d just say the word, they’d book us on the next flight home. But they also reiterated that there was no need to cancel the program, and that for those who wished to remain, we’d continue as normal. Iron Dome’s 90 percent success rate gave us the confidence to simply shift our idea of normalcy and continue living our lives.

This, to me, is the essence of Israeli resilience. When your home is under fire, such a mentality is key. But to friends and family back home, it was incomprehensible why I’d want to stick around.

July 23: But the real reason I’m still here is that in just over a month and a half, I’ve turned into an Israeli. Israelis are often called sabras, paradoxically known for being outwardly tough and inwardly sensitive. I have adopted this mentality (though I like to think I already had it to an extent) and my peers have as well. I can name off-hand at least 10 people I know and care about that have been called back to serve from the reserves, and I worry about them daily. I have a job. I have coworkers that depend on me. I have taken ownership of this city. I take it personally when Israel is criticized in the media; I hurt for the people we have lost. My life here and this conflict are inextricable and my support for Israel is forever changed, solidified.

When the sirens sounded and I was already indoors, I became accustomed to calmly shuffling into the nearest shelter, sending a few friends and my family a quick text to say I was okay and returning to what I had been doing. An app called Red Alert notified users of localized rocket sirens in real-time. My family and I developed a system: they’d get a Red Alert notification of a rocket in Tel Aviv, I’d text them, and within 60 seconds they’d usually know I was okay. When sirens sounded at work, I’d appreciate the unity it fostered in the office—I’d notice the CEO of my company standing alongside the custodial staff and for a few minutes, workplace dynamics, hierarchies and meetings didn’t matter.

It was our new idea of normal. The primary consideration for choosing a restaurant was the presence or absence of a bomb shelter, not its Yelp reviews. Wearing headphones was no longer an option, as we’d risk not hearing a siren. We cut out some frivolities, like late night trips on foot to the gelato shop just far away enough to make us uneasy. But we still went to work each day as normal and were expected to remain as productive despite the inevitable daily interruptions.

TIMELINE: Tensions boil over between Israel and Palestine

I was caught outside when the sirens sounded three times this summer. While in the South the impact is nearly immediate, in Tel Aviv they say you have up to 90 seconds from the initiation of the siren to when the missile is overhead. Ninety seconds is roughly how long it takes me to realize my alarm is going off in the morning—that’s not the amount of time you want to have to make a decision when you’re in danger.

The first time, I was driving back from a Thai restaurant with two Israeli friends, bagged leftovers in hand. We’d just remarked that we hadn’t had a rocket all day, an inconvenience we’d come to expect. Like clockwork, we heard the quiet wail over the car radio, pulled over, ran into the nearest building (an ice cream store), and huddled in the bathroom with a crying baby and her mother because the building did not have a shelter.

The Israel portrayed (or betrayed) by the American media this summer was a battlefield I never saw.

The second time, I was in a cab on my way to work. We were on a sort of highway on-ramp, dense with cars in rush-hour traffic, and the entire road just came to a standstill. The only building nearby was a gas station and adjoining convenience store. I’ll be honest: it wasn’t until after I got back in the taxi (he kindly stopped the meter for us) that I realized the danger of standing in a gas station for shelter when explosives might have hit.

The third time was a few days later and a little further along the same road, on the same commute, at the same time of day—but this time there was no building nearby. My roommate and I sprinted to an overpass bridge and huddled beneath it along with nearly a dozen young children and an elderly couple. We felt the boom reverberate within us, indicating that the Iron Dome successfully intercepted the rocket right overhead, right as we arrived to our makeshift shelter. In that moment I felt deeply for the elderly couple who might not have had the agility to make it to cover had they been in my position.

These three moments together comprise no more than five minutes of my summer, but they’ve come to define it. These stories are the ones I tell most often when people at Duke ask me how Israel was and remark, incredulously but quite obviously, that I’m alive. These are the stories that I also deliberately did not share with my family until now. My summer was so much more than running to shelters, and I resent that my 10-week experience is so frequently boiled down to those moments.

I want to write about meeting former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres and stumbling on my words, struggling to spit out “Duke University.” I want to share about meeting American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, worth $4.5 billion and a major benefactor behind Birthright and my summer. I’d rather discuss standing on the Lebanese border overlooking beautiful Rosh Hanikra with family members I had never met before and remarking that I was closer to foreign Beirut than familiar Jerusalem. I’d rather talk about how a project I did at my internship was picked up by Forbes. I want to brag about our exclusive tour and night-long hackathon on the 26th floor of Google’s Tel Aviv offices. I want to gush about my Israeli and American friends, the truly incredible people I was surrounded by for the summer. I want to emphasize, again and again, that the Israel portrayed (or betrayed) by the American media this summer was a battlefield I never saw.

But the highlights of my experience fall by the wayside, and I share instead that my heart still skips a beat each time I hear an ambulance siren.

As the situation deteriorated, 82,201 reservists were eventually called back to serve in the IDF. This amounted to a considerable portion of our Israeli peers, some of whom were on the ground in Gaza. Five days before our program was set to end, one of our peers was badly hurt in the conflict. He served in the unit that transports injured people to hospitals via ambulances and helicopters, a unit Hamas frequently targets. They were hit, and five of the wounded soldiers in their ambulance lost their lives.

My friend was on a respirator and in critical condition for a few days, with shrapnel in his lungs and abdomen. He underwent surgery to remove the metal pieces and made a remarkable recovery.

Each time I spoke to my parents in the last five weeks of the summer, they tried to convince me to come home early. My mom would plead: “What else has to happen over there for you to realize that you have to get out?” I’d push back my criteria, each time citing a more distant and unlikely hypothetical event that would convince me to leave early.

The first time rockets came to Tel Aviv, I was still okay. The first time I almost didn’t find shelter, I was shaken but still okay. But when someone I knew was nearly killed, the conflict had literally hit too close to home—I was finally ready to leave. The timing coincided with the program’s end, but I don’t know what I would have done if we still had time remaining.

No one from our group chose to leave early because of the conflict. We had transformed from Americans to Israelis—the conflict became a part of me.

SLIDESHOW: Elissa's photos from her summer in Israel

While it changed how we went about our lives in a myriad of subtle ways, our day-to-day lifestyles remained mostly the same. On weekends, we lounged at the beach and swam in the Mediterranean Sea, went to restaurants and bars and had picnic dinners in Park Hayarkon. But our interactions changed. At dinner, we talked exclusively about that day’s news. At work, the receptionist would wish me a quiet evening on my way out. The word “beseder,” Hebrew for "alright" and the standard response to casual how-are-yous took on a different meaning.

When I tell friends at Duke that this was the best summer of my life, the confession is usually paired with guilt for feeling that way and being unable (in a reasonable amount of time) to articulate why. I read the puzzlement on my friend’s face each time as he or she decides not to challenge my enthusiasm, deeming it better not to spark a debate.

But I got so much more than an adventure from this summer. I’ve deliberately tried to keep this piece apolitical and nonreligious, because, albeit paradoxical, that’s also a big part of my own identity as an American Jew. Ten weeks in the Israel I saw not only immersed me in this world, it nearly drowned me in it. Though it was a reality I accidentally inherited, I regret nothing.

This submission was one half of a two-part Towerview series dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Click here to read Steven Davidson's account from his summer in Palestine.