The air raid sirens began screaming at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, rousing Representative Daniel Goldman and his family from sleep inside their Tel Aviv hotel room. Then came a voice over the intercom, commanding them in English and Hebrew to immediately seek shelter.
Mr. Goldman had just joined his wife and three young children, who had traveled to Israel a week earlier for a relative’s bar mitzvah. He stayed behind because of the latest crises in Congress. On Saturday, they had planned to spend the day on a tourist trip to the Dead Sea. Instead, they hurried out of their room in their pajamas, bewildered and fearful, to crowd into an interior stairwell in the Hilton Tel Aviv.
“We waited for about 10 minutes till we got the all-clear,” Mr. Goldman said in an interview Monday, the day after his family returned to New York. “That happened maybe three or four more times Saturday morning, where we went back to our hotel room and then sirens came and we had to go to the stairwell.”
Mr. Goldman, 47, who represents Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn in Congress, was among a host of officials from the New York area who happened to be in Israel when Hamas launched its surprise multipronged attack from the Gaza Strip, taking at least an estimated 150 Israeli soldiers and civilians to Gaza as hostages. The conflict has within days resulted in hundreds of deaths on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
For those visiting from the New York region, home to the world’s largest community in the Jewish diaspora, it also provided an unexpected firsthand view of the precarious nature of life in Israel.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, had arrived with staff members in Israel on Friday, ahead of a summit in Tel Aviv on regional economic integration, where he was scheduled to speak Tuesday. In a video posted from Jerusalem Sunday on X, the platform formerly called Twitter, Mr. Booker said he had been out jogging Saturday morning when his chief of staff told him to return to his hotel.
“When I got back to the hotel, I joined others in the bomb shelter or the stairwells of the hotel, frightened faces,” Mr. Booker, who was not available for an interview, said in his post. “There were children and elderly, families, many Americans. There was a sense of fear and worry, and a knowledge to many of us that there were horrific things going on around the country.”
Mr. Booker, who flew home Sunday, said the attacks on Israel were “at a scale that is staggering and really has not been seen in this country for over 50 years.”
At the same time, a contingent of 32 New York area law enforcement officials and staff members were hunkering down in Ashdod, a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea in southern Israel, not far north from the Gaza Strip. They had come for a weeklong seminar sponsored by Israel’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism, which was scheduled to begin Sunday.
The group included police officials and prosecutors from New York City, Long Island, and Westchester and Rockland Counties, said Mitchell Silber, who helped organize the trip. Mr. Silber, a former director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department, runs the Community Security Initiative, a nonprofit-funded group that helps Jewish communities and organizations in New York protect themselves against threats.
Mr. Silber said the visit was intended to “have these law enforcement officials who are responsible for protecting Jewish communities understand the basis of antisemitism: What’s the history? How has it manifested itself?”
Instead, they spent Saturday in and out of bomb shelters, running for cover when an alert indicated a rocket was headed in their direction. They could hear the booming launch of Israel’s Iron Dome missiles, designed to intercept Palestinian rockets, and see the trails of the weapons as they met in the sky. Helicopters and jets flew by, and smoke rose in the distance.
It was shocking even for grizzled law enforcement veterans.
“This was not the plan, to fly into a war zone,” Mr. Silber said.
One member of the group compared it to flying into New York City and checking into a hotel on the night before Sept. 11, 2001.
“For the most part, people kept the stiff upper lip, and they followed directions and you know, no complaints,” Mr. Silber said. “And I think by the time we left there was a general sympathy and understanding that eclipsed the theoretical, in terms of, ‘This is what it’s like to live in Israel.’”
They left Sunday, but could not find a flight directly to the United States, so they traveled home through Dubai.
For Mr. Goldman, his wife, Corinne, and their son and two daughters, ranging from 5 to 9 years old, the day was spent waiting and commiserating with other hotel guests of all nationalities as the sirens sounded and Iron Dome missiles whooshed overhead. One woman in a wheelchair was crying at the prospect of trying to escape if a rocket were to hit the hotel, he said.
Explaining things to their children was among the hardest parts, Mr. Goldman said. Their 9-year-old daughter cried in the stairwelland struggled to sleep that night. She understood the danger but could not comprehend why it was happening or why they could not leave.
“There were a lot of life lessons that I would have hoped to have explained at much later dates that we were forced to explain to them,” he said. “Especially to the little ones, to try to put it in their terminology, was tricky, while also not scaring them, more than they needed to be.”
Mr. Goldman was lucky enough to find five plane tickets out of Tel Aviv the next day, bringing his family safely home. But his children were still shaken. After they returned, his 6-year-old son told him, “I like Israel, just not now.”