Moved by the plight of residents of southern Israel as missile attacks escalated following the Gaza operation, I decided to take action. With the day off from work, I called two organizations in Sderot to offer my assistance.
I teach yoga in my community, and volunteered my services to shaken residents in hope that they could learn some relaxation techniques.
Both organizations quickly agreed that it would be helpful, but as I drove south, accompanied by my son and his two friends, both teenagers, they called to cancel.
The morale of Sderot residents was too low for new experiences, they feared. They hesitated to offer any new programs, and many people felt more comfortable in their own homes with the ongoing missile threat. However, “One Heart,” a community aid organization in Sderot told us there was plenty of cleaning and windows to board up if we wanted to volunteer.
So, together with my 16-year-old son Etan and the two 17-year-old girls, Sarena and Reut, I continued on the hour and fifteen minute drive from the center of the country to Sderot.
Lev Echad’s main office is in Jerusalem, and once every several days it sends a bus of volunteers from Jerusalem to Sderot. Today they were expecting fifty volunteers on the bus, and we planned to join them.
On the way down to Sderot we passed through several checkpoints and saw groups of Israeli soldiers with duffels boarding buses. The mood was somber — this was war. We noticed how quiet the roads were. Vehicles were coming up from the south, but few were going in our direction.
The two girls, Sarena and Reut, had been to Sderot before. As we entered the city they pointed out the bomb shelters that line the main road. I’m glad they did, because it reminded me that there was a new level of alertness I needed to have.
It was far from a ghost town — people were out walking, cars were driving — but as we drove into the center of town, we noticed that stores were closed. We were told to find the police station and to wait there for instructions. After several minutes of waiting, I decided to park the car so we could walk where we needed to go.
Within split seconds of parking outside the police station, the alarm went off warning of incoming missiles. I only knew it was an alarm because Sarena and Reut had heard it before. I knew we had 15 seconds to find a bomb shelter. Luckily, we found one, and within less than five seconds I heard the loudest explosion I have ever heard go off. The bomb shelter, no bigger than some people’s bathtub, shook and it took several long seconds before anyone was interested in checking outside. Quickly it was obvious, due to smoke, yelling, sirens, and hundreds of people appearing on the scene that the Kassam rocket fired from Gaza had hit less than 50 meters away from us.
We stood and watched everyone around us get busy doing their jobs — police, army, ambulances, neighbors, journalists, photographers. It was like watching a beehive, with everyone having a specific task. We quickly reviewed how fortunate we were not to be in the car, and doubted whether we would have even heard the siren in the car. Being the sole adult in our group I had to put up a brave front, but inside I was trembling.
The representatives of Lev Echad, in the end, could not meet us due to the road blocks following the explosion, so we walked and found our way by ourselves. Slowly, more people came outside. As we walked, only several blocks, we kept our eyes on bomb shelters or staircases we could enter in case another alarm was to go off. Never before had I experienced the panic and vulnerability that I felt during that walk.
Lev Echad’ “headquarters” is a bomb shelter, converted into an afternoon day care center for children and a place for volunteers to sleep. Here the operation is run by several hip-looking 20-somethings.
We were briefed by them regarding our responsibilities as volunteers and their responsibility to keep us safe. Communication is key, texting by cell phone is essential. The organization wanted to know where we were, and that we were OK all the time. They gave us white shirts with a red heart logo, requested a small donation in exchange for them, and sent us with two other volunteers back to the police station area to help clean the apartments of shattered glass, comfort trauma victims, and seal windows with masking tape.
There was still activity around the apartment area where the Kassam fell so close to us. Gas was leaking from a tank and that was being fixed. Journalists and photographers, police, soldiers, social workers, and other volunteers were everywhere. Every apartment was covered in layers of shattered glass and rubble and dust. Most of the occupants were Russian immigrants who did not speak English or Hebrew. Hugs and smiles were the universal language. Every apartment had a broom, a dust bin, and a mop.
We had no gloves, no other equipment — just adrenaline and a will to help. This was the first time a Kassam had fallen so close to this complex. The reaction from the people we met was panic and faith in God: many thanked God for remaining alive.
Unfortunately, none of the apartments in this complex had bomb shelters. When they hear the siren — and there isn’t always a siren — they run into their very small bathroom. I shudder imagining what it is like to be in there longer than a couple of minutes.
As we left the complex to drive back to our home, we felt good having been part of the effort — that we were able to do something.
We had less than a three minute walk to our car. As we walked I said to the teenagers, “Gosh, when you look out and the sun is shining and the streets are busy again, it’s easy to forget what happened this morning; how can people think about it all the time?”
That second the siren went off, and once again we found ourselves in the same bomb shelter we had been in less than four hours before.
My question now isn’t how can people think about it all the time; it is “how much longer will they have to?”