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Sderot is thriving, says mayor, while visiting Montreal

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Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, right, poses with his Côte-St-Luc counterpart, Mitchell Brownstein, beside the Sderot Menorah, at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem on March 4. (Janice Arnold photo)

Sderot is booming. The northern Negev town that has for years been the target of thousands of missiles launched from Gaza, is now one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Israel. It’s undergoing a revitalization that’s making it more attractive to young families, in particular, and property prices are soaring, as a result.

So says its upbeat mayor, Alon Davidi, who was in Montreal at the end of a Canadian tour organized by Jewish National Fund (JNF).

The former development town’s population now stands at 28,000 and new residential neighbourhoods, with schools and parks, are under construction, he said. (Six years ago, it had 20,000 residents.)

An acre of land only four years ago cost about US$50,000 ($67,000); today, the same plot is worth US$200,000, said Davidi, while visiting Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Côte-St-Luc, Que., on March 4.

His goal is to boost the population to 50,000 by 2025. It would be a show of confidence, despite Sderot being just one kilometre from the Gazan border. Indeed, while the rocket fire reached its peak in 2014, Sderot remains on the frontline, near clandestine tunnels and weekly demonstrations on the Gazan side.

“The terrorists want us to leave, they want Sderot to close,” he said. “We know that if terror wins (there), it will just go to another place.”

All this is not to say that Sderot is blissful. “Ninety-five per cent of the time, it’s like a paradise, and five per cent a hell,” said Davidi, who has been mayor for six years.

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Born in 1973 in Beersheba, the largest city in the Negev, to Iranian immigrants, Davidi has lived in Sderot for 22 years, in which time he has raised seven children.

As bullish as he is on his city, Davidi does worry about its kids, who number some 6,000. Many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being under heavy rocket fire. Up to 80 per cent are believed to have at least some symptoms.

One of the mayor’s daughters was especially affected and is undergoing treatment, after two missiles landed very close to their home.

Davidi’s mission in Canada was to raise funds for the construction of a new “resilience centre,” where those with psychological issues related to the conflict will be cared for.

JNF Canada has also pledged to support an animal-assisted therapy program there. Davidi’s young daughter, Emunah, has benefited significantly from this form of therapy over the past year.

Before engaging in animal therapy, she was fearful of going outside, constantly clinging to her parents. When the air raid sirens sounded, she would become petrified and had to be carried to a shelter.

Through an animal-therapy program, the family adopted a dog, which Emunah has become very attached to. Now, when the sirens wail, she heads to the shelter immediately with her pet, because she feels responsible for its safety, he related.

More than 12,000 missiles have rained down on Sderot since 2001, the most intense attacks coming during military operations in 2007, 2008 and 2014. After a relative calm, there was an uptick in 2018, when 500 rockets landed on the city, according to Davidi.

“It’s a very tense situation now,” he said.

More than 1,100 residents of all ages sought treatment for serious psychological problems related to the conflict last year.

The cost of the new resilience centre is $1.5 million, of which $500,000 is being sought from private sources.

Israeli Consul General David Levy agreed that Sderot, despite its perilous location, is “a special place with wonderful people.”

Set amid beautiful scenery, Sderot has a vibrant cultural scene, including producing some of the country’s most popular rock bands, and an active academic life surrounding Sapir College, he said.

Welcoming Davidi had special significance for Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem. The congregation led a fundraising drive last year to help farmers in the region whose fields were set ablaze by kites and balloons bearing incendiary materials. With contributions from other synagogues, enough was collected to buy two firefighting trailers that farmers use to extinguish fires before emergency crews arrive, as well as to support mental health services.

In 2017, the synagogue purchased an unusual candelabra created with fragments of Qassam rockets that were fired into southern Israel. Displayed in the synagogue lobby, the piece is one of only 50 of its kind made by Israeli artist Yaron Bob, who lives in the small moshav of Yated, near the Gaza border.

It’s inscribed with the biblical injunction, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares.”

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