09/11/2014 11:04 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

A College President's Visit to Israel: The Unshakeable Sense of Home

In May 2014 my wife Sara and I were honored to visit Israel with about 30 other travelers from Maryland, Alaska, and Hawaii. War in Gaza had not yet broken out. Throughout my trip I witnessed the passion and devotion that Israelis have for their nation -- perhaps a level of passion we do not have here in the United States. Despite the threats and hazards of living in one of the most volatile regions of the world -- or perhaps because of it -- there is a deep-rooted sense of commitment to the nation as their home.

The trip was sponsored by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the United States. For many years the foundation has sponsored opportunities for diverse leaders to visit Israel. Our trip included visits to unique and sacred places such as the Dead Sea, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. Our visit to Yad Vashem, the national memorial dedicated to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was an especially powerful and emotional experience.

Yet perhaps the most touching visit was to a preschool in the city of Ashkelon -- a sister city to Baltimore, my home -- located by the Mediterranean Sea. We visited a class of 4- and 5-year-old Israeli and Ethiopian students who were working on craft projects, playing games, and singing songs. As you would expect, they were cute, earnest, and playing happily but also paying careful attention to their visitors. It was delightful and reminded us that children are all the same regardless of where we are in the world.

There is one distinct and haunting difference between Israel and the United States that we noticed wherever we went: the immediately visible security and safety protocols that are part of everyday life in Israel. Of course, we in the United States have our own security challenges as well; even Stevenson University experienced a three-hour lockdown in the past year. However, the security issues in Israel are very different; the Israelis are stoic about the dangers in their lives. They want to be in Israel because it is their home, and things happen, but life must go on despite years of ongoing terrorist activity.

One of the instructive opportunities we experienced regarding the security issue was visiting the Moshav Netiv Ha'asarah on the Gaza Strip. A moshav is an agricultural collective where the individuals own the land. We had lunch at a community center where we were served by a lifelong resident. The speaker that day was a young mother, Moran Shmilovich, who had brought her 6-month-old child. A resident of Mushar, she described her family's life near the Gaza Strip. Her husband had grown up on the moshav, and she told us that they had two other children. The children attend an elementary school where they are subjected to frequent air-raid drills, sometimes as many as 20 per day. She noted that rockets are launched to and from the Gaza Strip and have lethal capacity. We learned that about five years earlier a nearby house was directly hit by a rocket, killing a woman inside.

Shmilovich went on to say that she and her family get psychological support to deal with the constant barrage of air-raid warnings. It was clear to our group that this was a stressful experience for the parents, and especially for the children.

Yet through the years the residents have grown to accept these security dangers because this is where they want to be. Life must be lived, enjoyed, and cherished regardless of the dangers. Home is not just a noun but a verb expressing actions that give us courage before life's challenges. We enjoy relative peace and safety in America and take that for granted in a way that many of the world's people cannot.