By Deb Silverthorn
A once-in-a-lifetime experience was what Mikayla Kaliser was hoping for when she registered for the Masa Destination Israel internship program last summer. She had spent part of her high school years in Israel and participated in Birthright, but before going out into the working world she wanted another experience in the land she loved.
Then, on Oct. 7, she woke up to app notifications of rockets landing. She and her mother, Kim, who was visiting for the Sukkot holiday, had been “glamping” at the Dead Sea and otherwise wouldn’t have known the magnitude of the situation.
They called their cousins in Tel Aviv, who told them to get in their car and just drive. Headed for Tel Aviv, they stopped in Jerusalem, where a co-worker of Mikayla’s was staying at the King David Hotel with her mother. Like the rest of the guests, they then took cover in the hotel’s bomb shelter.
“Once in the shelter, I saw Shabbat services going on in one area while my phone was getting notifications of friends being called to their bases,” said Mikayla. “We didn’t know everything, but leaving Israel was the last thing on my mind.”
However, that is exactly what happened. Within 60 long, stressful hours, she and her mother were home in Frisco.
“We left the hotel and drove straight to Tel Aviv to Mikayla’s apartment. But once we were on the road, we found streets blocked off, (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers everywhere. We were learning of the terrorists and more about the day’s horror,” said Kim. “We made it to our cousins’ home as one or more rockets landed nearby. I knew I wasn’t going home by myself.”
Mikayla made it to her apartment and retrieved her passport and a suitcase which, ultimately, she left behind.
“I didn’t want checked bags to stop us from changing flights if we had to and I didn’t want to do anything but keep going,” said Kim. “She ended up with her purse and a backpack.”
It took hours on the phone and eight reservations before the two made it home. First flights on El Al, then a change to a flight to Cyprus, but not before running into the airport bathroom as warning sirens blared.
“I don’t even know (what) airline,” said Kim. “I only know we were scared and we prayed. The man in front of me was having a drink and the man next to me was video chatting with his child, reassuring him that he was on his way home.”
One night in Cyprus, then the mother and daughter made their way to London. After changing airports and spending a night, they were home.
“We got home and couldn’t believe the antisemitism that was so rampant here and around the world,” said Kim. “I thought we could decompress, but I couldn’t turn off the news. Over the next month, now months, it only got worse.”
Back home, Mikayla woke up trying to process what was happening. Though she was safe in North Texas, after a month at home she longed to return to Israel — to her friends, her internship and her future. The conversations between her and her parents were not easy.
On Nov. 14, Kim was one of nearly 300,000 in Washington, D.C., for the March for Israel. After returning, she and her husband, Merrill, talked about how they’d raised their children to stand up for others and fight for what’s right.
Mikayla’s first visit to Israel was a month-long summer family vacation as a young child. The memories lingered and, after her sister Victoria spent high school in Israel, Mikayla chose to follow her. The Akiba Yavneh Academy middle school graduate spent two-and-a-half years at Mosenson School in Hod HaSharon before returning to Texas. She graduated from The Einstein School in 2019.
After graduating last year from the University of Texas at Austin, she went on Birthright. During that trip, she called her parents and asked if she could extend her stay. Before those weeks were up, she called again asking to do Masa.
“I came home in August long enough to pack,” she said. “I love my family and I love home, but I couldn’t get back fast enough.”
A day in her life, before Oct. 7, meant taking public transportation to her internship at 365Scores, an Israeli-based live scores service mobile application with more than 100 million users. After work and on weekends her time was split among beach volleyball, working out and enjoying Israel’s culinary treats.
After Mikayla returned at the end of November, Masa extended the program for a month. She’s since worked with her supervisors to extend further; she decided to make aliyah and is now looking for a permanent job.
“It didn’t seem fair that most of me felt I was home in Israel and yet I could just pick up and return to America while others were serving in the army,” she said. “While I knew it was dangerous there, Israel was suffering and I didn’t want to be away. They let me return and when I did, it was with a duffel bag of supplies, of winter clothing and more. That was just the beginning.
“Since I’ve been back, I am back at work and I do see my friends. But in the morning before work I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering at J17, a vegan restaurant supplying about 3,000 meals a day to soldiers,” said Mikayla, who is in the minority of her peers on Destination Israel. Most returned to their homes around the world; close to a third returned in the aftermath of the war. “We’ve packaged meals, written letters of support to the soldiers, whatever they need — it’s what I wanted to be a part of,” she said.
The Kalisers created holiday auctions with friends and colleagues donating sports memorabilia, jewelry, gift baskets and more. Since the end of November, they’ve raised more than $27,000. Donations have been used to buy hundreds of helmets for a unit going into Gaza, as well as to support the work of J17 and Liran Team, which provides transportation to soldiers by civilians. They also adopted a unit on the front lines, sending supplies as needed.
“I love how I feel when I’m here and I love how Israelis look at life — to live to the absolute fullest,” she said. “My smile is more genuine here; I am happier and I am connected.
“Something in me changes when I’m here in Israel and it changes for the better. It’s not always easy, but this is my place,” she added.
Anyone wanting to donate to the Kalisers’ efforts should send Zelle payments to 214-274-9515.