Reflections on a day in Sderot – Witnessing Anxiety, Resilience and Courage

This posting was provided by Michele Levin, a member of the UJC National Young Leadership Cabinet from Philadelphia who recently returned from a solidarity mission to southern Israel.

It was one week ago that I spent a day in Sderot. The experience has yet to leave my thoughts.

Sderot is a pretty town from what I could see from the bus windows. You see, this was not a “walking tour”; that would have been too dangerous. After all, the cease-fire has not meant the rockets have ceased, and one must constantly be mindful of that. We were told never to stray from the group and to get off the bus and into buildings quickly for our own safety. Although I did not exactly feel like I was in danger, the thought of kassam rockets was never far from my mind. The idea of thinking about them 24/7 for eight years is unimaginable. When I reflect back on the time spent there I realize how eerily quiet the streets were. Although it was a beautiful, sunny, Monday morning, post-war, there was very little movement in the area. There were no mommies pushing strollers or kids playing in the streets. I equate living in Sderot to living in a neighborhood where gangs rule the streets. Instead of gunfire, it is rocket fire, but the fear remains the same. Sderot is fortunate, I guess you could say. All the bus stops are shelters and the schools have new roofs for protection. By this point in time, most homes have a shelter. Sderot was much more prepared for this escalation then the other towns that were affected, like Ashkelon.

To me, the most disheartening fact that comes to light through this situation is how little weight our society puts on mental injuries and their effects on people and communities. During the intifada when suicide bombers were killing 5-10 people at a time, Israelis as well as the world community were more “engaged to act.” A perfect example of this focus on physical injuries is the media mantra – “if it bleeds, it leads.” Because, thankfully, very few people have been injured by Hamas attacks, there is no front-page story in the situation. However, no one seems to be measuring or valuing the mental injuries that Hamas missiles have been causing for the last 8 years.

Visiting Gan Tze’elon, we saw a kindergarten that took a direct hit during the war, and looked into the angelic faces of young children who, conditioned over time like Pavlov’s dog, now automatically raise their arms to be taken to safety when they hear a ‘code red’ siren. The constant fear they were born into will mark them for the rest of their lives. We walked to the top of “Tatzpit Kobi” for a panoramic view of the northern Gaza Strip from a site that could be a lovely place to stargaze but actually offers a view and understanding of just how close the enemy is. We toured the Anxiety Relief Site, hearing from site director Dr. Adriana Katz and Dalia Yosef, the Director of the Resilience Center, about how the Sderot population is “mentally crippled.” Over 300 people were treated for stress-related injuries in this one center during the war. On the bright side, the residents of Sderot finally feel like other Israelis care about their situation. Dalia also spoke of how empowered the staff felt during the war because they were so much more prepared for this escalation than previous attacks.

The day I returned to my home outside Philadelphia, there was a snowstorm. The schools my children attend were closed for the day because of the weather. Although it was a thrill for my kids, it was an inconvenience for me. They got to enjoy a day of snowball fights and sledding and I reschedule my appointments. They returned to school the next day, made up the work that was missed and life goes on. The children of Sderot were out of school for over three weeks during the war. There was no playing outside and all the community centers were closed. How do you make up three weeks worth of missed school work? What do you do with children who are forced to be home for that long. Who cares for your children if you still have to go to work? And if you can’t work, where does your income come from?

I hope I can return to Sderot in the not-too-distant future and enjoy the town not as a town under siege but just as a great place to visit.

Personally I want to thank the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon and all of the communities affected by this situation. By living your lives and choosing to stay in the region, you are protecting the State of Israel and for that we are all eternally grateful.