(photo credit: )
"Of course I know why we're here. We're here because of tzeva adom ('color red' - the alarm sounded when a Kassam missile is about to explode in Sderot). Somebody invited us to stay here for a few days so we could have a vacation from tzeva adom," says seven-year old Gili, at KKL-JNF's Nes Harim Field and Forest Center
That "somebody" is JNF America, which for the past few summers has sponsored many short vacations for Sderot families at the Nes Harim cabins in KKL-JNF's American Independence Park. These trips to Nes Harim Field Center in the Judean Mountains, allow Sderot residents a short break from the constant tension. During the day, they enjoy nature, touring KKL-JNF sites and other important historical sites in the vicinity. In the evening, they return to the Forest Center, where they have relaxing artistic programs and performances, along with social activities.
Last summer there were also many families who enjoyed this opportunity. The last group, which numbered about seventy Sderot residents, was invited to spend the intermediate days of the Succot holiday at the Nes Harim center, and KKL-JNF organized a rich program of holiday activities for these very special guests. We joined them for their day in Jerusalem, and had the opportunity to meet and fall in love with the sort of people who make you feel like Zionism got it right after all.
Our day began at the Hass Promenade in Jerusalem's East Talpiot neighborhood, which affords a panoramic view of Jerusalem's Old City and the surroundings. Eli and Livnat, our two KKL-JNF tour guides, knew how to tell the story of Jerusalem in a manner that riveted the curiosity of both the adults and also the many children. Livnat asked everyone a straightforward question: "What is Jerusalem for you?" The answers were many and varied: "The center of the world"; "The home of all religions"; "Rocks"; "Gold"; "History"; "King David"; "The Western Wall" - to mention just a few.
A number of the men could not join their families on the vacation, as they had to work. Gabi, who came with his family, couldn't get over the Jerusalem mountain air: "It's so much hotter in Sderot," he kept saying. "Hotter? Who cares about the heat in Sderot?" his neighbor Itzik retorted. "The problem in Sderot isn't the weather, but that we have no life because we're constantly being bombarded by Kassams. No one can live like this."
Itzik had brought everyday Sderot reality back to everyone's awareness. A very heated discussion ensued, in which people expressed their rage and sense of having been betrayed by the Israeli government, which has put up with one of its cities being bombed for over seven years. "What are they waiting for? A direct hit on a nursery school? What country would tolerate such a situation? Doesn't anyone care about us?" we heard over and over again. Sarit, a mother of three, said that she and the other Sderot residents should take action: "We should leave our homes, march on Jerusalem and not leave until the government realizes that they are responsible for Sderot's security. I am sure many Jerusalemites would join us."
After tempers had died down, Etti, mother to Yuval (8) and Ehud (14), said: "Being in a more neutral environment allowed us to express some of the anger we all feel. It's really important for us to get away once in awhile - besides providing us with a short reprieve from the tension and fear we live in all the time, I think being away from our homes gives us a chance to let off steam. It's really nice to know that there are Jews abroad who are thinking of us and decided to sponsor this vacation. One of the worst things about living in Sderot, besides the immediate danger, is the sense of having been abandoned and that no one really cares about us."
Most of the day was spent touring the old city of Jerusalem, which was packed with tens of thousands of holiday pilgrims. The group, baby carriages and all, made the trek from Jerusalem's Mishkenot Shananim neighborhood to Zion Gate by foot. It was no less than a miracle that Eli and Livnat managed to keep track of everyone in the Old City's narrow alleys and show them some of Jerusalem's spectacular sites. Of course the high point of the day was a visit to the Western Wall, where everyone had an opportunity to express personal prayers and emotions.
Shimon Cohen of the Sderot Municipality's Education Department told us that these three days were very different than other vacations that Sderot residents had been taken on: "This is not just about sitting around a pool or watching TV in an air-conditioned room. Don't get me wrong, that's also important sometimes, but this is a real break from daily routine.
As Simon Elbaz, the head of the Nes Harim Center, put it, people tend to identify KKL-JNF with planting trees and forests. Of course that's part of it, but KKL-JNF is also about ecology, 'green Zionism' and Israeli and Jewish history. So this is really an educational activity, and I see that everyone appreciates it. One of the most difficult things psychologically for Sderot residents is the feeling of being seen as some sort of unfortunates in need of charity. An activity like this provides us with intellectual stimulation and a chance to learn new things about our homeland and history; it's not just about getting away from a miserable situation we are not responsible for."
Six-year old Shirel told us that her house was not bomb-proof and that she was afraid: "When I hear the tzeva adom alarm I feel sad and upset. Maybe I would like to live in a quieter city like Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv."
Our guests from Sderot repeated many times that they do not want any special considerations of any sort. All they want is security for themselves and for their children. It will not be easy for them to return to their everyday reality. Walking back from the Western Wall, one of the women quietly took her husband's hand in hers on their way back to the busses. Such a moment of reprieve made the effort invested in planning and facilitating these three intense days in Jerusalem and the Judean Mountains more than worth it.
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