Just one hour away from chilly Jerusalem there is a sunny small town surrounded by green fields, with spacious affordable apartments, fresh air and virtually no crime. The people are friendly with a unity rare in other Israeli communities. It sounds like a delightful place and in many ways it is. However, there is one catch. The name of this pretty little town is Sderot.
Although many people have not even heard of the place, those who are familiar with it know that Sderot, just over the border from Gaza, has hostile neighbors. Terrorists have besieged this town with Kassam rockets for almost eight years, killing and wounding tens of people and terrorizing many more.
Many residents have left, no longer able to bear the constant fear, the 15-second warning siren to run to a bomb shelter, their children unable to walk safely to school or the park, and businesses closing down. The people who remain often have no choice, unable to sell their homes. Yet some decide to stay on, despite everything. One woman, a nurse, explained she has lived in Sderot for the past eleven years and will remain because “there is no place like home.”
Last Wednesday, via Connections Israel, an Israeli solidarity organization, a group of us visited Sderot. When we first arrived, we saw the parking lot of the police station, piled high with the ugly pieces of metal that were Kassam rockets. Then, walking past the fire station, the warning siren called Code Red, sounded. We were told to crouch down on the floor for a few moments until the all-clear signal. With pounding hearts, we felt a tiny hint of what daily life is like for the residents.
At the trauma center, one of the staff explained how victims are treated. From the backyard of the center we viewed a strange sight - bus shelters which had been removed from all over town and left there. Because, unlike other communities, the bus shelters in Sderot needed to be replaced by concrete bomb shelters. Just as we were about to leave, another siren went off and we were quickly herded back inside the trauma center. A teenage girl was brought in, crying and in shock. At that moment, she symbolized for us all the trauma victims of the town.
We met a man who chose to live in Sderot, part of a 150 member group called Doresh-Tov, who came to the town to show their support in the most tangible way possible.
Stepping into the back yard of his office building, we viewed the field where Kassam rockets often explode. Apartment buildings, houses and a school all surround this ‘open field,’ which is how it is described by the media, implying there is no threat to the residents.
Then we saw his family home, where his children were playing in the backyard. A family backyard, like so many others, yet next to the rabbit hutch and children’s toys, stood the frightening remains of a Kassam rocket.
Nearby we visited a new synagogue, created in a former store of an abandoned shopping center. Congregation Doresh-Tov envisions a communal spiritual center here, with Ashkenazi, Sefardi and Ethiopian synagogues, plus recreation and play areas for all the children. The goal is to strengthen the connections for all the neighborhood residents and enable the children to play normally like children everywhere.
The next stop on our journey was a poignant one, to see the memorial stone of the two small Ethiopian children killed by a Kassam rocket while playing outside their homes on a quiet residential street. At a different time, another little four-year-old boy had been killed on the way to his daycare center with his mother, who had waited ten long years to have a child. Ten years and one terrible moment – and then her precious little boy was gone.
At the outskirts of the town, we observed the frightening reality of how close the border to Gaza really is, just one mile away. We could also see the smokestacks of the city of Ashkelon, unfortunately now in Kassam range too.
Returning to the center of town, we distributed the Chanukah gift baskets Connections Israel had arranged for the residents, the most enjoyable part of our whole visit. They were surprised and delighted to receive them. Just as important to them was the knowledge that Jews around the world care. We bought snacks and lunch from the small stores still struggling to survive here, despite the odds. Everyone thanked us for coming to give them support. And we in turn thanked them for being there, for all of us.
Just before we left we saw an abandoned playground, destroyed by a Kassam, with just the small broken piece of a children’s slide still remaining. But then on the side of a bomb shelter, we noticed the triumphant words, “Am Yisrael Chai!” The Jewish People Live! And yes, we do, even in the brave, besieged little town named Sderot.
This article was written just before the current situation in Gaza began. Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s response to almost eight years of rocket attacks in Sderot and its surrounding environs, is now in full gear. The sounding of the Code Red alert now screams through additional communities on a constant basis, followed by loud booms, smoke and fire.
Adults and children huddle in crowded, depressing bomb shelters; stores are forbidden to open; schools are closed indefinitely and people are at their wits’ end. Being cooped up in small spaces drains them of their coping abilities and adds new levels of stress.
Connections Israel is sponsoring full day respite trips - Operation Take-a-Break - for the people of Sderot and nearby communities. Busloads of children and adults will be given one normal day to engage in enjoyable, age-appropriate activities out of the line of fire.
For more information, please visit www.connectionsisrael.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org