"I haven't been the same": U of M student worries from afar as cousins fight Hamas in Israel
The University of Michigan is home to one of the largest populations of Jewish students in the country.
Some of those students have close, personal ties to Israel: They have family living there.
One, Ella Krumerman, is in her third year at the university, majoring in economics and minoring in business.
She grew up in New Jersey, but she spent every summer of her life in Israel, she said. It’s where her mother’s side of the family is from. And now, it’s the place one of her high school classmates was taken hostage. It’s the country her cousins are fighting to protect, and her grandparents had to flee due to a surge in violence in the past month and a half.
This year will be her first-ever Thanksgiving with her grandparents. The thought is bittersweet, she said.
“My grandparents are at home waiting for me and I'm so excited to see them. But I fear for just their complete displacement of their entire life,” she said. “It's very hard to see them in a place where they don't know the language and they're completely, entirely dependent on my parents for any need they might have.”
Krumerman's grandparents — her Meme is 87 years old, and Pépé is 92 — fled their village in northern Israel, near Lebanon, a month ago.
The simmering violence that rapidly intensified with a Hamas attack in southern Israel last month has been threatening to expand to the north, and Krumerman said her grandparents had only hours to gather their things and leave.
Krumerman said everyone who lived in her grandparents' village has fled, either out of Israel or further south within the country.
“It's now empty, and my uncle and three of the other older men in the village are protecting just the premises, along with some other soldiers who have been stationed there,” she said.
Krumerman said the adjustment to American life is not easy for her grandparents.
“They had to leave, left their entire life to a country where they don't know the language, they don't have health insurance,” Krumerman said. “They pretty much had two hours to pack up and barely have winter clothes for the U.S.-sort of winters compared to Israel. So it's definitely been a huge whirlwind.”
She said at their age, they’re probably never going back to Israel.
Krumerman said now she fears she’ll lose some of her friends and family in the war that’s been escalating since the October 7 Hamas attack. Israel says the group killed 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostages. Many of those hostages have not been released.
Ella knows one of them, she said. She went to high school with the 19-year-old, and, as far as she knows, no one has heard anything about where he is.
“It's traumatic for me to even think about what he could be going through. We're hearing of more and more hostages that are no longer hostages, but are gone. I'm not even sure if he's still with us, which is really scary. I'm not sure where he is. I can't even imagine what his sister, his mom, his dad is feeling,” she said.
And Krumerman said she has cousins fighting on the front lines of Israel’s military response against Hamas.
Every time she gets a phone call from her mom, she said, she shakes in fear, nervous about what she's about to hear. And she knows her mom is scared too.
“I think she fears for me, who has friends fighting right now, for my cousins who have friends (fighting), and themselves.”
Usually her Mom is just checking in. But last week, she also called to say that a rocket fragment had hit Ella’s uncle's farm — the one she usually visits in the summer. The farm caught fire, and Ella says her uncle lost a lot of his crops, which means he lost a lot of his income.
Hearing about the turmoil and violence from afar is taking a toll.
“I haven't been the same Ella that I was before October 7. I haven't slept the same as I've slept before October 7,” Krumerman said. “Every sound that I hear in my apartment, I'm just on edge a little bit more than I was.”
International organizations including a group of United Nations experts said Israel has committed “grave violations” of international law.
The Palestinian Health Ministry says more than 13,000 people have died in the attacks.
Krumerman said she knows Palestinians are feeling pain and trauma too.
“I think forgetting about whatever conflict, whatever political beliefs you've had, a life is a life and people are dying,” she said.
She wishes she was in Israel right now, so she could volunteer or help. But she’s not. She’s been in Michigan, away from both her family in New Jersey and her family in Israel.
She feels it’s her duty, though, to keep her head up, do well in school, and check in on those around her.
Before this attack, Ella was already super involved in Jewish life on the University of Michigan’s campus, leading two student organizations and being in community with other Jewish students.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in Israel advocacy because it's my home and makes me feel comfortable and safe,” she said.” And I really wanted to help in any way I can. And I joined. And ever since then it's been one of the most amazing communities I’ve found.”
She’s stepped that up in the weeks since the Hamas attack. She was one of almost 1,000 Metro-Detroiters who went to Washington D.C. last week for the March for Israel.
“I don't think I've ever felt safer, more proud, and more united as a Jewish nation and Israeli nation,” Krumerman said. “And despite how hard the past couple of weeks have been and despite the news and all the stories I'm getting from my cousins and my grandparents and everything, that was two hours of my life that I'll never forget. I felt so happy and proud to be a Jewish person.”
She also organized a fundraiser selling sweatshirts that have a little bear holding an Israeli flag. She said the $6,000 in sweatshirt sales went to Magen David Adom, Israel’s ambulance service.
Despite this pride and support though, Krumerman has been nervous about being visibly Jewish on campus.
Every day she wears three necklaces, she said — one with pearls that she made with an aunt in Israel, and two that she got for her bat mitzvah: a star of David, and her name in Hebrew.
She never thought twice about riding in Ubers before or worried about walking on campus. But these days, she does.
“I walk across campus sometimes and find that there are a lot of rallies or student groups that sometimes de-legitimize the existence of Israel,” Krumerman said.
"I know that I don't feel as represented or supported with these large mass gatherings who aren't in support of a place where my family and I have grown up and lived in," Krumerman said.
She said she's also seen spray paint near friends' homes saying that the United States is contributing to Israel's acts of genocide, signs on campus comparing Israeli government officials with Adolf Hitler, and others bearing the slogan, "from the river to the sea."
That slogan has been common at rallies advocating for a ceasefire in the current war. It refers to the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — a region that Israel occupies.
Its meaning is hotly debated.
Some Palestinians in Michigan have said it's a call for recognition of Palestinians as a nation. But to Krumerman and some other Jewish Michiganders, it carries a different meaning. "I oftentimes don't think people understand the severity of this statement ... which supports the idea that my homeland and my Jewish ancestors' homeland should not exist," she said.
Despite the violence and anti-semitism Krumerman has feared and faced, she’s also felt a sense of strong support from the Jewish community around her.
But what she’s most looking forward to, is being surrounded by family at Thanksgiving — to hug her parents and her grandparents, and grieve those they’ve lost. Together.
Michigan Radio is collecting stories from people who are directly affected by the war between Israel and Hamas. You can find all of those stories here, and you can submit your own by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 313-307-5146.