Quiet streets at noon. Damaged buildings. Residents living as emotional, if not literal, refugees. The crisis in Sderot is a slow-motion Katrina, playing out over seven years and thousands of missiles.
I don't know what you do or don't know about Sderot, a town that's a little over an hour from Tel Aviv but, more importantly, within crude rocket range of the border with northern Gaza. Before I spent two days there last week, I thought I had a pretty good picture of the toll that the almost daily bombardment of Kassam and Grad rockets had taken on this one-time development town. I had heard the stories of the tseva adom ("code red") sirens that warn of an incoming attack and the 15-second scramble for shelter in safe rooms and makeshift shelters.
I had heard of quiet efforts to staunch the slow but steady exodus of residents with the means to get out, and the services, funded in large part by Diaspora Jews, that help those who stay cope with their fear and emotional trauma.
I knew that Sderot residents - many of them new immigrants and their children - feel ignored by a government and fellow Israelis who might otherwise be forgiven for being distracted by the cultural pulse and economic vitality of the country's center.
I knew all this and was still drawn up short by the nearly empty streets of a weekday morning. It's a time when a typical Israeli town is alive with commuters setting off to work, shopkeepers rolling down their canopies and children marching off to school under the weight of their backpacks. Sderot is much bigger and much less scruffy than I imagined, which made the ghost-town atmosphere only more poignant.
BUT THERE is life in Sderot, and the next surprise was the deep wells of resilience being tapped by the residents I met. I visited Sderot as the guest of United Jewish Communities, which, together with its partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has allocated some $26 million from its Israel Emergency Campaign for services to the region. (The fund was launched in response to the Second Lebanon War, well to the north, but philanthropists need to be as flexible as Israel's antagonists.) UJC and JDC officials introduced me and a number of my colleagues in the Jewish media to the therapists, psychologists and volunteers who are helping residents cope. Most talk of post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis that loses its utility when the trauma never seems to become "post."
"There is no safe place in the neighborhood," said Talia Levanon, director of the UJC-backed Israel Trauma Coalition, which brings together some 45 NGOs. "Therapists and patients can run for shelter three times in a session."
At the Alon Mada'aim elementary school, a JDC-funded "Havens of Calm" program leads kids through daily stress reduction exercises that can include yoga and pet care, held behind the blue doors of one of the school's safe rooms. Six- and seven-year-olds talk with uncanny fluency in the language of self-help, fully aware that the fun and games are techniques to reduce stress before the next siren interrupts their lessons.
AT THE town's community center, Nitai Schreiber, a self-described "social entrepreneur" who helps organize local empowerment efforts, showed off the art projects submitted as final exams by his twin 17-year-old daughters. Nitzan's shows a typical teen's room shattered into fragments out of a Dali landscape. Shaked's depicts a bright globe, full of light, threatened from all directions by black shards. Shaked once asked him, "If I get wounded, will we leave? And if the answer is yes, what are we waiting for?" But Schreiber said he has a responsibility to stay. The urban kibbutz he helped found is his life's work, as are the 2,000 people touched by the various projects he helps coordinate.
Dan Pe'er, 24, a gym manager at nearby Sapir College, offers a more prosaic response when asked why his Ukrainian immigrant parents stay, despite the alarms that reduce his mother to tears each time she hears them. "My parents are almost 62," said Pe'er, a gentle athlete who spent a recent summer as a counselor at summer camp in Pennsylvania. "They can't leave at this stage of their lives. They own their house, and no one will buy it. They have no choice but to live with the situation."
For all this frustration, I was surprised at how few people spoke with the violent emotions that often characterize Mideast debate in the Diaspora. Again and again, I heard residents demand that the government do something to end the bombings by Hamas and its affiliates. Like others, Pe'er is convinced that were Sderot closer to the country's center, a solution would have been found "three to four years ago." But when asked what the solution might be, Pe'er said he doubts that there is a purely military solution, and despairs that "there is no one to talk to" on the Arab side.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, who briefed us one night, didn't have a solution either, but talked about the current policy. The IDF pushes Hamas infiltrators and rocketeers back from the fence, "kidnaps" (Harari's word) and interrogates Gaza Arabs, sends helicopters to hunt rocket launchers and imposes blockades on goods and services, like cigarettes and electricity.
I SLEPT one night at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, a few hundred yards from the Gaza fence, and heard the crackle of gunfire before sunrise. My host, a 45-year member of the kibbutz, shrugged, saying it was a nightly occurrence. Three of his grown daughters had moved to the country's far north. His youngest daughter will soon join them as a student at the University of Haifa. The day after my visit, a rocket fired from Gaza seriously wounded a Palestinian worker at the nearby fuel depot; on June 5, Amnon Rosenberg, a father of three, was killed when a mortar hit the paint factory at Kibbutz Nir-Oz. Hamas claimed responsibility. This week residents of Nahal Oz have been told to sleep in their "safe rooms."
A hilltop outside Sderot offers a clear view into Gaza City, across the yards of patrol road and hi-tech fencing that separates Israel and the Strip. On Tuesday morning, we crowded into a control room at the Nahal Oz military base, where female soldiers stare into video screens monitoring every inch of the northern fence. A hand-painted poster in the room announces they are the "eyes of Gaza." Of course where Israelis see a border patrol, the Palestinians and their supporters see the "siege of Gaza."
I couldn't look across the no-man's land without imagining the lives of the Arabs there, trapped by history and their own self-destructive choices. And don't think this is a hopelessly American empathy. At the Sderot elementary school we asked if the kids ever talk about the "enemy." Said a nine-year-old named Eden, "I am not angry. They feel they have a reason, just like we have a reason." The principal quoted another child who wanted to know, "How can we solve the problem without hurting the kids on the other side?"
That Thursday evening at Ben-Gurion Airport, I stood on line among the thousands of American kids who had just wrapped up their free 10-day trips to Israel with Birthright. One recent Columbia University graduate asked what brought me to Israel. When I told her about Sderot, she said, "Oh, I'm not familiar with that. We didn't talk about that this week."
The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.