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 neighbours. Terrorists have besieged the town with Qassam rockets for the past eight years, killing and wounding dozens 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 being unable to walk safely to school or the park, and businesses closing down. The people who remain often have no choice, as they are unable to sell their homes.
Yet, some decide to stay on, despite everything. One woman, a nurse, explained that she has lived in Sderot for the past 11 years and will remain, because “there is no place like home.”
Recently, 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 Qassam rockets. Then, as we walked past the fire station, the warning siren went off. We were told to crouch down on the floor for a few moments until the all-clear signal came, thus giving us a tiny hint of what daily life is like for the residents.
At the trauma centre, one of the staff explained how victims are treated.
From the backyard of the centre we viewed a strange sight – bus shelters that had been removed from all over town and left there. Unlike in 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 centre. 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 backyard of his office building, we viewed the field where Qassam rockets often explode. Apartment buildings, houses and a school all surround this “open field,” which is how it is described by the media, implying that 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 Qassam rocket.
Nearby, we visited a new synagogue, created in a former store in an abandoned shopping centre. Congregation Doresh-Tov envisions a communal spiritual centre here, with Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Ethiopian synagogues, as well as recreation and play areas for all the children. The goal is to strengthen the connections for all the neighbourhood residents and enable the children to play “normally,” like children everywhere.
The next stop was a poignant one – we went to see the memorial stone of two small Ethiopian children killed by a Qassam rocket while playing outside their homes on a quiet residential street. At a different time, another four-year-old boy had been killed on the way to his daycare centre with his mother, who had waited 10 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 just how close the border to Gaza really is, a mere two kilometres away. We could also see the smokestacks of the city of Ashkelon, which is now, unfortunately, within Qassam range too.
Returning to the centre of town, we distributed the Chanukah gift baskets Connections Israel had arranged for the residents, the most enjoyable part of our whole visit. The residents were surprised and delighted to receive the gifts, but 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 Qassam, with just the small, broken piece of a children’s slide still remaining. But then, on the side of a bomb shelter, we read the triumphant words, “Am Yisrael Chai!” (The Jewish People Live!) And yes, we do, even in the brave, besieged little town named Sderot.
For more information on how you can show your support for the courageous people of Sderot by helping them build their community centre, please visit the website: www.connectionsisrael.com.
Menucha Levin is a former resident of Toronto who made aliyah a number of years ago.