last night i led a group of nine friends on a trip to sderot. the trip to sderot was born out of a desire to show solidarity with the people of the community. sderot has been pounded with kassams for the past five years, but in the past year since the disengagement, it has intensified tremendously.
i have wanted to visit sderot for several months. initially, before gilad shalit was kidnapped, there was the extra layer of wanting to protest the government's inaction in halting the daily kassams that disturb, disrupt and sometimes destroy the lives of israeli civilians. however, following gilad shalit's kidnapping the government finally sent the army into gaza in an effort to both rescue gilad shalit and to destroy the kassam launching infrastructure. at this point, we thought, we were traveling to sderot to let the people of sderot know that we continue to think of them and pray for their well-being and for the success of the army operation in gaza.
in israel, the experience begins from the moment you board the bus. i reserved a ten-seater nesher and a driver named sabari sabari (- from the word "sabra," the word used to describe a native Israeli, after the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which is prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside). our drivers first and last name can be translated as: "my cactus!" obviously, someone with a name like that has a personality to match! sabari was friendly and talkative from the moment we alighted his bus. he was impressed with our group and referred to us over the radio as an "achla," awesome, group of kids. as we left the hills of jerusalem behind us, someone from our group began reciting "tefillat haderech," the traveler's prayer. immediately, sabari turned off the radio and placed a kippah on his head.
after driving for just over an hour we reached sderot. i found this remarkable. only one hour outisde of jerusalem and we were as close as you can get to the border with gaza! only one hour away from our comfortable lives in jerusalem and we were standing in sderot, a place where kassams fall at random intervals throughout the day!
we met with rabbi fendel, the head of the hesder yeshiva and an american oleh who arrived in sderot twelve years ago. rabbi fendel gave us a tour of the yeshiva, which cuts through the middle of the town and took us to the edge of sderot. we followed him up the stairs of an abandoned building and emerged on the roof in time to watch an exceptional sunset.
as we gazed at the beautiful sun slipping away, rabbi fendel gave us a brief history of the town. sderot was found in 1955 as an immigrant town. the israeli government settled persians and then morrocans in sderot. in more recent years, russian immigrants have also been settled there.
rabbi fendel arrived in sderot twelve years ago as part of a large-scale program to bring torah and judaism to development towns and communities throughout israel. to his credit, rabbi fendel turned a kollel of nine guys into a yeshiva that today boasts 400 students. the yeshiva has implemented several worthwhile programs in the community, including a pensioners kollel for retired men.
after telling us about the yeshiva and the community, rabbi fendel pointed toward a lone tree, the golani tree, on a hilltop only a half-mile distance from where we stood. "behind that tree, behind that hill," rabbi fendel told us, "is beit hanoun. it is from there that the kassams are fired." i was taken aback at the proximity of this terrorist breeding ground to the beautiful town of sderot. he pointed out that the israeli government promised peace and quiet once israel evacuated gaza and handed it over to the palestinians. contrary to the empty promises, the palestinians have been working more diligently than ever at creating a "ghost town" out of sderot, as rabbi fendel describes it. this is even more striking as sderot is within israel's pre-1967 borders. rabbi fendel left us with the following: "it is immoral for the israeli government to not wipe out the kassams and terrorists of beit hanoun. there is a moral obligation to protect the citizens of sderot. we cannot live like this."
standing on the rooftop of that building, taking in the beautiful sunset, i looked back at the city of sderot. there were young boys playing on a basketball court not far from us. we saw the yeshiva boys behind us in the distance rushing to their classes. and sderot looked stunning in the sunset. i felt serene taking in the scene. it was hard to imagine the fright that must paralyze the people of sderot when they hear the blaring sound of "shachar adom," red dawn, which gives a 15 second warning for incoming kassams.
as rabbi fendel bid us goodbye, his wife, mechi joined our group. mechi, also an american-born olah, spoke with us a little while longer about life in sderot. she told us about a family who sleeps in their living room because there are no windows in the living room and that way they can be safe from kassams. she told us about children who have trouble sleeping at night. she told us about ella abukasis, who was killed by a kassam while shielding and saving the life of her brother (please see the following link to learn more about ella's tragic death and about other sderot citizens who have been killed by kassams: http://www.zionism-israel.com/vic/sderot1.htm).
we walked with mechi back to our bus so that she could show us around sderot.
before we arrived at the bus, we stopped by the protest tent next to the municipality. the protest tent was erected several months ago by residents of sderot wishing to send a message to the government: put an end to kassams falling on sderot. i had assumed that the protest tent would be empty following the idf's incursion into gaza. however, we discovered about 10 people, secular sderot citizens, sitting in the tent.
approaching the tent, one is greeted by several different homemade posters. one reads: "government of israel, you have failed!" another states: "security does not exist for us." after entering the tent, we met with the local sderot citizens. i asked one of the men sitting there, who told us he would be sleeping in the tent that night, "now that the army has entered gaza, what are you protesting?" he responded: "we are happy the army is in gaza, but that does not change the fact that six kassams fell on sderot today. in fact, one kassam fell in my very own yard today. until kassams stop falling in sderot, we continue to protest." he explained that sderot citizens have banded together to create a 24-hour a day presence in the tent.
we met another woman in the tent who told us that she had heard the red dawn siren, looked up, and saw the kassam veering toward her. she stepped aside, and thankfully, avoided the kassam. one of the men sitting in the tent thanked us for coming, saying, "with everything going on in the north, it is so special to us to know that you are still thinking of us and that you came all the way here to support us."
we left the protest tent touched by the two teenage boys, the women, the men, the russian woman and her daughter. these are the people who live in constant threat of kassam rockets!
before heading to a local restaurant, to offer a little financial support as well, we pulled over by an elementary school. our guide showed us a dip in the concrete road where a kassam had fallen not long ago. the kassam fell at 7am, just fifteen minutes before students would have flooded that very street to begin their school day. we learned that when a kassam falls in the middle of the street, even if it's just several feet from a school yard or a house, it is reported in the news as having landed in an "open area." we saw and understood very clearly that this is a gross misnomer. the term "open area" conjures images of an abandoned, large field and yet, in this case, the kassam had fallen just feet from a school yard!
we ended our trip to sderot with dinner in the local dairy restaurant. once again, we were received warmly. we enjoyed dinner and boarded our nesher to return to jerusalem. i left sderot feeling torn. part of me felt relieved to leave the city unscathed and looked forward to returning to the "safety" of jerusalem. part of me felt very reluctant to leave this beautiful city and its inhabitants who live with a constant fear of kassams. one thing was clear: i'm happy i went. i'm happy i was able to tell the people of sderot: we're still thinking about you and we continue to daven for you.
may the idf mission in to gaza be swift and thorough and safe!