Long Day's Journey into Sderot

This posting was written by Richard Friedman, Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, who is blogging from southern Israel during a solidarity mission for UJC National Young Leadership Cabinet members and alumni and members of NYL's Ben-Gurion Society (read more about BGS).

SDEROT -- There are places in the world, where a city's name has become synonymous with something larger than itself: Munich, New Orleans, Chernobyl. So, too, is the case with Sderot, a modest city in southern Israel about two miles from the Gaza Strip.

Sadly though, for all that has happened to the residents, there are many who've not heard Sderot's story. It's a story that involves eight years of lives lived around and despite more than 10,000 rocket attacks. Lives where 15 seconds -- the time you have to get to a shelter -- can be the difference between survival or death.

Monday, I, along with 13 others on a United Jewish Communities solidarity mission, experienced one day of life in Sderot.

***

Traveling to Sderot from Tel Aviv, I find myself thinking about my last visit to Sderot. The barrage of rockets was already taking its toll on the residents in 2005, particularly the children, and here I am again and the suffering continues.

I find myself wondering what life had been like for these young kids and their families the past three and a half years. I can't fathom it; it is too depressing. The only thing that makes me feel good is the knowledge that over the past few years UJC/Federations has provided millions of dollars to help the people  of Sderot.

As we arrive in Sderot, our guide, with staccato rapidity, begins saying "there's one" over and over. I quickly realize he is talking about bombshelters that have been constructed throughout the city. Every bus stop is fortified, schools are reinforced. Life centers around how far from the nearest shelter you are at any given time and when the next "Red Color" alert will come.

Our first stop is at a facility known as the "Anxiety Relief Site," supported by UJC/Federation funds. This facility provides the primary treatment for those mentally traumatized by life under constant attack. "After eight years, the population is mentally crippled," a doctor who works there explains. She also reflects on the recent cease-fire and its failure to stop the attacks. The people of Sderot had hoped their nightmare would be ending, but now "everything's coming back -- it's very frustrating."

The impact on the children is the hardest to heal. It's a hard reality as we are reminded that children eight and under have never known any other situation. The continued stress is manifested in behavioral and developmental issues these children will deal with the rest of their lives. They have lost faith in their parents' ability to protect them; they won't sleep alone; they won't go to the bathroom alone.

To punctuate what we heard at the relief site, we walk a short distance to a pre-kindergarten hit recently by a rocket. I watch a group of young children playing and it makes me realize these are the kids the rockets are meant to kill. The caregivers describe how despite their young ages, the kids know what to do reflexively when given a warning that a rocket is headed their way. "It's almost a Pavlovian response," says an adult at the center. "They raise their hands in the air, anxious for us to take them to a shelter."

INSTRUMENTS OF DEATH

We cross back across the street to our next stop, the Sderot Police Station, where we see a collection of 200 Qassam and Grad rockets that have landed in Sderot the past few weeks. They are hideous-looking instruments of death. Even as we view the rockets, the Israeli army official with us reminds our group that "the only way to understand is to be here during a rocket attack and even then you can't understand."

From the police station we continue on to a local hilltop for a better view of the area. As we climb the hill and face the Gaza Strip, this same army official asks us to turn around. Behind us the city of Sderot is perched below. We're reminded that almost 1,000,000 people throughout southern Israel are within 15- to 60-second range of incoming rockets.

Descending from the hill, everything seems so quiet and normal. Yet, we all know this serenity could be pierced any minute. We are only here one day; in that time it's impossible to even get a hint of what life's really like for our brothers and sisters in Sderot.

STORY OF SDEROT

To truly begin to digest what we're seeing today, faces need to be put to the situation. Those faces become very clear and memorable as we sit in the home of Laura Bialis, an American filmmaker living in Sderot.

As we watch the trailer for her upcoming documentary, "Sderot -- Rock in The Red Zone," we are struck by images of places we've been to, and seeing through Laura's lens, the realities of life in Sderot. The sound of Israeli army artillery fire a few miles away as we watch the clip reminds us that this is not just a movie, Laura's work is the reality of Sderot. (read a posting from Laura on this blog)

Our day culminates after 11 hours, by learning of new attacks in southern Israel shortly after our departure. We had avoided the "Red Color" alert. But how had the people we met today coped with it? We are able to return to our comfortable, safe hotel in Tel Aviv to regroup for Tuesday's visit to Ashkelon, another Israeli city under siege.

The people of Sderot deserve their own safe retreat, and this is where you and I come in. While UJC/Federations cannot stop the rockets, we can make a difference. By supporting the UJC/Federation campaign,  we can provide badly-needed services and facilities, safe schools for children, counseling for  parents and trips away from the conflict zone for these youngsters during the tough times.

(Appreciation is expressed to fellow traveler Pam Ingram, of St. Paul, MN, for her help with this story.)

- Richard Friedman

Give to UJC's Israel Solidarity Drive Now.