TAMPA — Judy Lisi traveled to Israel this month to learn about that nation's culture and performing arts scene.
She didn't expect to get such a large dose of reality.
"I was reminded that we in America live in a bubble most of the time," she said. "I just think it's so sad that people here have to go through this all the time."
Lisi, chief executive of the David A. Straz Center for Performing Arts, was one of about 20 people from the Tampa Bay area who traveled to Israel on Nov. 5. The trip was led by the Tampa Jewish Federation, and included the dedication of a bomb shelter that the group funded last year.
During the last few days of the trip, some members of the group got an up close look at the violent conflict in the Gaza Strip that has shaken the Middle East.
Lisi and her husband were staying on the 24th floor of the Hotel David in Tel Aviv, a city they were told would be unaffected, she said. Then the sirens suddenly warned of a missile attack, and she and her husband rushed downstairs to a bomb shelter on the lower level.
"It made us very, very sympathetic to what everybody has to go through on a daily basis, on both sides," she said.
During the attacks, she said she could hear the launching of Israel's Iron Dome antirocket system. And for a while, she and her husband were afraid they wouldn't be able to get to the airport for their flight home on Saturday, she said.
They were afraid of getting into trouble driving to the airport, or that their plane would be a target on the runway.
"Everything ended up fine, but things that you would normally never think about, you were thinking about," Lisi said.
She and her husband made it back to Tampa on Nov. 17.
Farther south, Jack Ross, an attorney and the executive director of the Tampa Jewish Community Center, was with his elderly mother-in-law in the city of Ashdod, Tampa's sister city in Israel.
Ross once lived in Israel and visits the country twice a year. It isn't uncommon for the city to be hit with rockets on an almost daily basis, he said, but during the 36 hours he was there the city was hit about every 30 minutes.
"The arts are often bridges to peace," Ross said. "Here we were exploring different vehicles often used to advance peace, and all of the sudden we were slammed by indiscriminate rocket fire."
He said it was almost like a game of Russian roulette. He could hear the rockets firing and felt the walls and windows rattling, but he couldn't tell where the next rocket was going to hit.
"It creates a psychology of terror," Ross said.
David Scher, another member of the Tampa Jewish Federation, was in the same Tel Aviv hotel with Lisi when the first attack occurred.
He said everyone in the city carried on the best they could, though they were ready to run for cover if necessary.
Scher, who has relatives in Israel and makes frequent trips there, called it "surreal."
"It was pretty scary, and just taking off from that Tel Aviv airport, the plane was very quiet," he said. "I think there was a big sigh of relief when we hit 10,000 feet."