Sderot is a ghost town. The streets are empty; the parks are barren; the stores are closed, and for sale signs are on some of the homes. Only ‘some’ of the homes because many residents are resigned to the notion expressed to them by representatives of the government of Israel, that in the near future there is no solution to the constant barrage of Kassams which have plagued the city for the past six years. So why bother putting up a for sale sign? Who’s going to buy? Those who couldn’t stand it and managed to sell did so with a loss of 30-40 percent of what they paid. Sderot is in trouble.
Sderot is a beautiful city, with lots of trees, parks, and some magnificent homes; it was created as a peaceful alternative to the cities of Beer Sheva and Ashkelon, with the air of small town permeating the roads and market places. People who came there had high hopes, big dreams. Now, those dreams have turned into nightmares, as families are paralyzed by their socioeconomic condition and their feelings of abandonment from those who should have been with them on the front lines.
A city of 25,000, it is a typical story of a development town which attracted lower income families and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the Eastern European countries and from Ethiopia. Before any rockets fell it was in need of many services for this diverse population; social welfare, psychologists, programming, and job placement were all crucial factors to make this city as beautiful and pleasant on the inside as it looks from the outside. Unfortunately, when the bombs started falling the first things to go were the extra services. A team of six psychologists slated to cater to the 4000 students undergoing trauma, quickly depleted to two! Social programs came to an almost complete standstill, as no one would venture outdoors into unprotected areas. And as for jobs, well, one can imagine how much the industry was hit in the city. It is literally a ghost town!
Where do you start in the process of rehabilitation? Kids? Seniors? Special needs? Kiruv? And how do you offer rehabilitation to citizens of a city who are fully aware that tomorrow or the day after they will receive more rockets, and endure more suffering?
Into this malaise I visited last week with two goals: first, to experience being in Sderot and wondering when I might hear the alarm and have to run for cover. Secondly, to see some of our OU programs that are running here which attempt to provide support, sanctuary and spirituality in the midst of the melancholy which pervades the town.
My first stop was to a co-ed Amit high school where 600 kids try to maintain focus and get through exams, assignments and social pressures, while always keeping an ear out for the alarm and an eye on the nearest safe structure. The kids are a multitude of secular and religious, boys and girls, each with his/her own issues and struggles, but all united in their frustration and despair.
I come there to watch and experience the amazing work of our Crisis Intervention team headed by Debbie Gross the Director of the Crisis Center for Religious Women. She created a unique program with psychologists, social workers, and trained counselors to come into day schools and high schools and offer trauma therapy to kids who had not had a chance to express themselves openly and deal with the stress, emotional confusion, and pain, in a professional way.
For the past four months OU, together with a grant from the UJC, has sent Debbie and her team to the northern region to rehabilitate the students of the north; to support them, offer guidance, and most of all, to let them know we Jews care about each other. Over three thousand kids were touched by the team which gave group sessions and then detected which kids scanned were in need of additional counseling. Debbie is still working with several kids in the north who were suicidal but are now on the road to recovery.
I asked Debbie how the team would handle the difference between a post-war therapy of the northern kids versus the mid-war feeling which resonates in the kids minds at every moment. I was astonished at the success of this program despite the challenges. I learned the importance of making sure that each kid in a school has at least once talked to a professional about their feelings, and allowed them the chance to deal with their emotions.
One Session Evokes Tears and Laughter Simultaneously
The class of 30 split into three groups, each counselor created an environment of comfort and trust and started to develop a rapport with the students. I couldn’t believe how quickly it took place. Nechama, an extremely warm and personable yet highly professional therapist, asked the girls what emotions they felt during the past year. The first general response was perhaps the most frightening. “I have become resigned to the fact that I might not wake up tomorrow morning. Today, I might be killed,” states almost matter-of-factly a young 16 year old girl named Yafit. Miriam, a passionate girl incredulously speaks of the shocking realization that Kassam rockets have become part of daily life in Sderot: “We are used to it…how crazy is that?” She goes on to state:
“We are becoming conditioned to kassams to the point where my little brother in kindergarten draws kasaams instead of firetrucks!”
Nava adds another foreboding thought: “Maybe they are going to uproot us like they did with Gush Katif.”
They then begin to share stories of friends of theirs who were victims. A father of one of their friends Batel had a heart attack and died from the pressure; another one of their friends is in the hospital with his toes blown off; a third left the school and is undergoing psychological treatment…the list goes on and on.
“A few months ago I was in a depression; I didn’t care about taking chances, risks, because I figured what’s the use? I shut out the world and God too from my life and my reality. So much stress, so many twisted realities. Today I no longer am resigned to dying; I want to live, but I don’t know what will be with my future!”
Asked how she feels inside, Nina closes her eyes, takes a breath, and says “help us, we are drowning”! she starts to cry (and then laugh a little, and cry some more).
Nechama explains to the group that with Nina they achieved a breakthrough; her outburst, her tears, her feelings must be let out to deal with those raw emotions. It is important and courageous of her to express herself and reveal her emotions, she tells the group. A friend of Nina’s named Paya says I don’t feel like I’m drowning I feel like I’m suffocating. I can’t breathe.
Nechama feels the girls are in such stress that she asks them if they want to do a relaxing exercise. They close their eyes and breathe and she goes through an exercise to relieve the stress and almost all of them do it. Imagine a place that is safe, warm and comforting. The exercise takes a few minutes and they emerge with a smile on their faces. Nechama tells them when you feel like you are drowning and you can’t breathe, you can go there to that place and be rejuvenated.
The girls listen, follow her instructions and indeed relax, but just for a moment…
During the session Nechama handed out trigger worksheets to provide a different avenue for self-expression. All the girls filled out the sheets and a discussion ensued. At the end of the activity Nechama hands out a questionnaire which asks them if they want more help. Many of the girls ask for continued sessions and thank Nechama for being a source of comfort in a time of great anxiety.
Debbie and her team have the desire, the skills, and the ideals to go to Sderot and offer their services in this warzone. But what they don’t have is the budget. Crisis Intervention is an important component of our Sderot campaign,
Rabbi Avi Baumol is Director of Communications for OU Israel
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.