Hope Amidst a War Zone: OU’s Israel Center Offers Support and Comfort to Sderot Residents

by | in Inside the OU

imageThe synagogue was packed as members of the Sderot community turned out for a sefer Torah dedication in commemoration of the yahrtzeit of Ziva Ben Shitrit’s late father. Ben Shitrit’s entire family and the hundreds of others who joined in the festive celebration danced, ate and socialized before the event drew to a close. Ben Shitrit and her family stayed behind to clean up when the familiar sound of the warning siren blasted. Tzeva Adom, Tzeva Adom. She grabbed her children and frantically fled from the synagogue, knowing that a Kassam missile would strike the area in seven seconds. A moment later, the rocket fired by Palestinians in nearby Gaza hit the synagogue, but Ben Shitrit and her family had escaped serious injury or death within seconds. Shaken, the family members made their way back home, only to find the windows shattered and the electricity out.

Ben Shitrit’s life is plagued with anxiety and uncertainty, and in this regard, her life differs little from the other 8,000 Israelis living in the town of Sderot, just one kilometer from the Gaza Strip. Once a bustling city, Sderot is frequently attacked by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants using homemade rockets, known in Hebrew as Kassamim, that are fired from the Gaza Strip. Fear is rampant among the residents as they lose hope that the government will defend them against the incessant attacks that have turned their city into a ghost town. Residents, often with nowhere else to go, lock themselves in their homes, afraid to go outside. Schools repeatedly close due to the onslaught of rockets striking nearby. Businesses are shutting down, and the economy is collapsing, leading to mass unemployment. By 7 PM, radios and televisions are set to barely above a whisper so warning sirens can be readily heard and heeded. Amazingly, despite the ongoing attacks, Yeshivat Hesder of Sderot has maintained a steady enrollment of about 500 students.

Sderot has endured thousands of rocket attacks over the past seven years since the Second Intifada started in late 2000, and the attacks have increased dramatically since Gaza was turned over to the Palestinians more than two years ago. The sounding of sirens is a daily occurrence on a “good day.” On worse days, eight or more Kassam rockets will blast through Sderot. By all accounts, Sderot was a pleasant city before it was transformed into a front-line battleground that lacks a defense force. Residents there haven’t had too many positive experiences since.

Ben Shitrit endures daily distress, which was only exacerbated when her husband’s business was hit by a Kassam rocket and her children’s anxiety levels skyrocketed. Nowadays, she will only shower for two minutes for fear that the siren will sound and she will not be able to grab her four children and flee to the ground level of her home to hover under a table and pray to the Almighty for salvation.

Ben Shitrit sees no way out. She feels that she cannot leave her home and job because she will not have money to rent another place or to purchase necessities. She cannot even visit her mother because the apartment building in which she lives does not have a bomb shelter, and Ben Shitrit is afraid to be there with her children in the event of an attack.

Though thousands of residents of Sderot have left town, many of those who remain plan on staying. Shoshanna Cohen, a fifty-year-old resident, has lived in Sderot her entire life and doesn’t intend to leave, no matter how dire the situation becomes. “We have no rest and no quiet from the Kassam rockets,” Cohen exclaims. “We don’t go out or even leave our home. We’re afraid.”

Some months ago, rockets showered down upon her son’s home, completely destroying it. As a result, her son and his family had no choice but to move in with her, where they will remain indefinitely.

“Life here is hell,” says Eli Zagzag, a resident of Sderot for thirty-six years. “People here go about like the dead. Their legs move but they don’t care about anything anymore.”

Zagzag wants the Israeli government to respond to these attacks in a manner that will show the Palestinians that there is a price to pay for each attack on his city. “The country should do what it is supposed to do,” he asserts. “I just want to sit in quiet. Just the minimum. I want to leave my home for the makolet [local grocery store] and arrive [there] in peace. I want to be able to invite my kids’ friends over.”

He sometimes considers moving to another city, but decides against it because his family’s entire social network, as well as their employment, is in Sderot. “Besides, what would it look like to my neighbors if suddenly I’ve disappeared and moved? The whole neighborhood would feel disheartened [that I’ve given up],” he adds.

Zagzag, a former soldier in the tanks division who was once stationed in Gaza, cannot understand why the State of Israel will not defend Sderot. “I call upon my government, “Why are you not defending me? Where is the Israel of the days of yore?” he questions, reminiscing about the time when Israel would respond to its enemies “just for thinking about attacking.” Zagzag admits to losing more and more confidence in the State of Israel, and says he solely puts his hope in the Almighty.

Taking Action
imageWith rocket attacks persisting, this past May the Orthodox Union’s Israel Commission, the lay leadership arm of the OU’s Seymour J. Abrams Jerusalem World Center (the Israel Center), convened an emergency meeting and determined that it was imperative for the OU to intensify its programs and services in Sderot. For starters, the OU expanded its youth group in Israel, Makom Balev, to provide services to all the children in town free of charge. Makom Balev also began organizing spiritual and religious retreats for entire families. Recently, the group took families on a weeklong retreat that included visits to holy sites throughout the country. “It was tremendously successful,” says Rabbi Avi Berman, director general of OU Israel. “It was a five-star spiritual experience.” Makom Balev also operates a two-week summer camp for families, enabling them to enjoy some quiet time elsewhere in Israel.

Makom Balev’s youth center in Sderot attracts some 200 kids daily, where they can relax and unwind in a Torah environment. Ironically, the center is actually a bomb shelter equipped with activities and games.

Additionally, the OU established Lev Yehudi, an informal adult education program, which offers ongoing classes and shiurim to Sderot residents. “We find that the more rockets that fall, the more people want to say more Tehillim and have another shiur,” says Rabbi Berman. “Based on that need, we continue to offer more classes in people’s homes.” The OU has also created a Hillel-type program to address the particular needs of college students college students.

Rabbi Avi Baumol, associate director of OU Israel, explains that Sderot residents tend to feel abandoned by their government, so when OU representatives come to the town to conduct programs, they are greeted with warmth and appreciation for their efforts. “People in Sderot are living in a war zone, yet this war zone is their hometown,” says Rabbi Baumol.

One of the OU’s most important initiatives in Sderot is the OU Israel Trauma Team, a group of psychologists and social workers that enters schools to provide counseling to children. The team’s therapists offer crisis therapy, one-on-one counseling and art and drama therapy.

Debbie Gross, head therapist of the OU Israel Trauma Team, admits that much of the therapy is painful because children must re-live terrible events that have shaken their lives. They discuss witnessing someone’s feet being blown off or coping with the loss of friends to terror; they share their fears of being alone and babysitting younger siblings when their parents go out.

Gross has noticed a difference the program has made in the lives of some Sderot kids. “In the beginning, a lot of teenagers talked about [engaging in self-] destructive behaviors because they figured they’re not going to live anyway. They [assumed] they might not make it to eighteen or to twenty, so they wanted to try everything out now,” says Gross. “I think that as a result of [our] workshops, they started having more faith that they could survive.”

To support the various programs, this past June the OU Israel Commission launched the “Sderot Shabbat” Emergency Fundraising Campaign, with the goal of raising $250,000 from communities across the US. Within a few months, the OU surpassed that goal by more than $100,000. “It was gratifying to see how OU member shuls everywhere vigorously promoted our campaign,” says Israel Commission Chairman Stanley D. Hillelsohn.

In the meantime, the OU plans to continue to serve as a support system for the heroic residents of Sderot. “The same respect we have for soldiers, we should have for [residents of Sderot],” says Rabbi Berman. “They are on the front lines and they are the ones with the courage and the strength to endure the ongoing attacks.”

The OU “Sderot Shabbat” Emergency Fundraising Campaign is ongoing. For information on how to donate to this worthy cause, contact Allyson Gur-Aryeh at 212-613-8124 or e-mail allysong@ou.org.

Soriya Daniels is a regular contributor to Jewish publications in Canada, Israel and the US.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2007.

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