Ask anyone who lives there and they'll tell you: Sderot is a place of miracles. One account tells about a doting grandma. Every Shabbat she'd invite her grandchildren and all their friends to come and play in her yard. Every Shabbat - except one - they came. That one Shabbat, the grandma went to visit friends of her own. Since she wasn't there, neither were the kids, so when a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza slammed into the grandma's yard at 4 p.m., no one was hurt, even though grandma's house and several others were damaged.
Or the garden hose story. "My husband was away and only my kids and I were home," one lady, mother of five, remembered. "We heard a boom, saw smoke, and heard people outside talking and shouting. We ran out and saw that a Kassam had landed in a neighbor's garden, where their children had been playing just moments before. But what amazed everyone was that the Kassam hit a garden hose. The hose exploded and put out the fire the rocket started."
Every one of the 25,000 residents of this formerly-tranquil Negev village tells stories of near-misses, near hits, and miraculous escapes. Not one person, they say, remains untouched by terrorist rockets and mortar shells. If they were lucky enough to escape injury themselves, then family members or near neighbors weren't so lucky.
In nine years of bombardment from Gaza - over 10,000 rockets -16 people have been killed. Property damage remains uncalculated, as does the psychological damage suffered by the men, women and children who endured the once-daily onslaught. Psychologists say 75% of Sderot's children suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, although the damage isn't so much "post," as it's ongoing.
The near-decade of rocket fire means that by necessity, children remain inside their homes most of the time. They must be able to reach the family's safe room - assuming the house has one - within the fifteen second grace period the Color Red warning siren permits. If they're outside, they are far more vulnerable to the rocket or the deadly shrapnel with which it's packed.
Thus Sderot's 3000 children - 5,000 in the local area - live as prisoners in their own homes, unable to play outside, swim in a pool, ride a bike or kick a football.
That's the way it was until last May, when the "Blue Box" opened, something many regard as a miracle of a different kind.
The "Blue Box," more formally known as "The Jewish National Fund's Sderot Indoor Playground," gives the children of Sderot something most have never experienced before: a chance to run and play like regular kids. With their tagline, "JNF doesn't wait for miracles to happen - we create them," JNF adopted the Sderot indoor playground as a special project, and set about raising the $5 million it cost. It took just ten months for them to build and equip the facility, starting with a defunct textile warehouse as the base.
"It's amazing, I can hardly believe it," said Claudia Teper, as she watched her own kids and several neighborhood friends jump on the enormous red, green and yellow inflated slide, which is the most notable piece upon entering the facility. "I've never seen a playground like this before. It's totally sheltered - which makes it safe. Unfortunately, that's what we need here."
The Tepers live in a nearby community, and this was the first time they'd come. "We'll be back - there's something for everyone here."
"I hope the kids stay on the jumping structures all afternoon," Teper laughed. "Then when they get home, they'll be all tired out. They'll go right to sleep."
That was exactly the intent, Shahar Hermelin, JNF Director of Tourism, told a JNF tour group who'd just arrived from the US to visit the state-of-the-art facility.
"We asked the people from Sderot what they wanted in the playground and almost every one said, 'Anything. As long as the kids come home exhausted, we don't care,'" he recalled.
"Remember," Hermelin reminded the visitors, "these kids can't go anywhere. They go to school and then they go home. There's no place for them to wear off any of the excess energy and hormones that build up. We set out to build a place where kids could come, play and sweat. A place where they can burn off energy, be with their friends, and for a few hours a day, feel almost like normal kids."
Accordingly, energy-intensive play equipment in many different forms, most of it in bright primary colors, fills the 1951 square meter (21,000 square foot) structure. There's not only the jumping slide, but individual jumping mounts, as well, where kids can bounce to their hearts content. Dozens of kids on playtime scooters race around, and a whole row of punching bags offers older kids relief from frustration. There's a jungle gym and a rock climbing wall that doesn't faze even little ones, since they know there's a soft cushy floor below.
The entire structure isn't fully reinforced against rockets, Hermelin said. Instead, structurally reinforced safe rooms, of varying sizes and utility, line the huge open center playground on all sides. Throughout, the floor feels softer than normal.
"The floors are a little bit soft," Hermelin told his tour group. "It's made of a high-grade polymer over a solid base. When we designed the playground we thought we'd make the floors even softer, so that the kids who fall down while they're having fun wouldn't hurt themselves. But our engineers ruled that out. "You can't have it too soft," they said. "If it's too soft it'll slow the kids down too much. They have only 15 seconds to run for a safe room."
"Everything in this playground meets the 15-second standard," he continued. "That's the design criterion: How long will it take a child to stop doing what he's doing and reach a safe room?"
That solves what was a big problem in allowing kids to play in their own yards, Claudia Teper said. "At home, every time I let them go into the yard to play, it seemed like there'd be a Color Red warning, and they'd have to run inside. We're so close - from our garden, you look right into Gaza. So anytime any of us went anywhere, the first thing we all do is to check to see where we can run if the alarm sounds. That's why this place is so great. We're safe here. We don't have to worry. The safe rooms are right here."
Unfortunately, the 15-second rule forced the designers to scrap the one main attraction they'd most wanted.
"Right from the beginning, the one thing we all wanted was a carousel, a merry-go-round," Hermelin recalled. "Imagine how that would appeal to these kids - the lights, music, all the animals to climb and ride? But again, our engineers objected. They tested, and found it took 25 seconds for the carousel to stop and for the last of the little riders to get off. 'Can't have that', they said. So there's no merry-go-round."
Not only is the playground state-of-the-art in terms of play equipment, it's also hooked directly to the IDF's military warning system. Dirigibles - locals call them 'Zeppelins' - lie tethered throughout the whole western Negev. Each carries a payload including a sophisticated sensory system that, within a fraction of a second, detects a rocket or mortar being launched. Instantly and automatically after a launch, warning signals go out to villages and communities within the expected impact area and in each, warning alarms sound.
"The playground is hooked directly into the IDF's warning system," Hermelin said. "At the same instant everyone else hears it, it sounds in here. You couldn't possibly miss it."
Interestingly enough, Sderot's Color Red system is different from those in other communities. In most, it's a wailing siren, but in Sderot, it's a woman's voice urgently repeating, 'Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom!' ('Color Red! Color Red!'). The reason for this is because in the early days of Kassam bombardment in Sderot, the terrorists timed their rocket fire to the morning hours when children were on their way to school, out in the open and unprotected from the rockets and shrapnel. Back then, the words the anonymous woman repeated were "Shahar Adom!" - "Red Dawn." But after several months of warnings, a little girl named 'Shahar,' Dawn, told officials how painful it was for her to hear her own name being used as a death warning. City officials agreed, and the warning was changed to "Color Red" instead.
IN THE playground, all of the safe rooms stand open all the time, and each serves some full-time additional function. One safe room, at night, turns into a glitzy 'disco' for teenagers. The lights dim, a spotlight comes on, and a mirrored rotating ball on the ceiling creates just the right atmosphere. Two other locations serve as "birthday rooms," available for parties and celebrations. With balloon-covered ceilings and the walls all painted with animals, cheery cartoon kids and fanciful critters of all kinds, the party atmosphere is unmistakable.
Among the most popular of the safe rooms is one that functions as a computer room. A child-height table runs around the perimeter, filled with new computers, all internet accessible. Staffers say this room is almost always packed. Internet access is limited to kid-friendly games and activities, but even so, the choices are almost unlimited.
Another safe room serves as a TV and movie room, and yet another is a "quiet" room, offering a little downtime if it seems necessary. One of the largest safe rooms serves as a soccer field and all-purpose ball court. Three more have an "only in Sderot" function. They're therapy centers, where counselors can meet with children who need a little help.
In addition to all the high-energy options, kids enjoy the opportunity to play act and pretend, too. A highly elaborate play "house" takes up one whole end of the facility. There one can find not only a fully-furnished salon and bedrooms, but even a laundry room complete with a clothes line. In the kitchen, a play stove, refrigerator and pots and pans invite a completely realistic chance to "play house."
Across the way is another fantasy area - half walls section off several other little rooms which beckon, offering even more imaginary games. Most popular are the dress-up boxes, where little girls love transforming themselves into brides, princesses, mothers with babies or glamorously clad women off to a big party. There's a reading room, too, with books to interest kids of all ages.
Even adults enjoy the playground. In the center a large comfortable area welcomes adults with comfortable tables and chairs, right next to a fully stocked cafÃ© serving a wide range of drinks, light meals and snacks. That's where Adiva Chorev relaxes with a book while the five children she brought - their three, plus two neighbors - run and play.
"We live near Netivot," Chorev said. "This is the first time we've been here - I just heard about this place a couple of weeks ago." Chorev sighed with relief at being able to read while her kids are having fun, not having to worry about their safety. "We hear the Kassams all the time - sometimes we smell them, too, the burning aroma.
"I remember the first one. It was Shabbat. My husband was at shul and the kids were still in bed. When I heard the siren, I started to think: If I have to get everyone out, which child do I go to first? How would I choose? That's awful. When it started to get really bad, we just had the kids sleep in the mamad, safe room, all the time. They'd play there, too, during the day," she said.
"This playground is ideally designed," Chorev, who works as a development counselor, said. "It gives kids exactly what they need. A place to run and burn off energy, and then other places, like the computer room, to rest. There are places for fantasy, the games and playhouses, to inspire imagination, and everything is so attractive in such bright colors."
Just a few feet from the cafÃ© seating area are two sets of sophisticated digital game equipment. One set features a row of huge LCD monitors, each fronted by a floor stepping pad. The child - or equally likely, an adult - tries to copy the movements of the person on the screen, thus developing muscle coordination as well as having fun exercising. The other set of LCD screens offers more sedate activities, steering cars or airplanes through increasingly hazardous paths. The waiting line for these seats seems to be permanent.
While they wait, some kids play air hockey or ping-pong, while others work a game that resembles a conventional pinball machine. Shouts of glee or dismay periodically erupt from everyone involved, players and spectators both.
The entire facility is under the supervision of the Israeli Army Engineers for Security Clearances, while the educational arm of the IDF provides after-school tutoring services. Entrance to the playground costs a mere NIS 10 for each child.
"We asked, and the people of Sderot insisted that there be a minimal entrance fee, so that people would appreciate the services," Hermelin said. "In other children's play areas of this type around the country, the entrance fee would be ten times that, but we wanted to keep it affordable since these communities still suffer economically."
Taxi driver Ya'acov Shoshani regularly makes trips ferrying people to the playground. "There's no local bus that stops here, so if people can't walk, they take a taxi," Shoshani said. "It's okay - Sderot has the cheapest taxis in Israel."
"The 'Blue Box' is great for the whole town," Shoshani said. "It was very bad here for many years. Many of the children suffered from psychological problems. Now they can come here to play, and they can get away from it all for a little while and forget.
"For eight long years, no one cared about us down here," he continued. "But now? The Blue Box helps us all."
Shoshani's taxi business benefits from the new playground, but so do the adults who run the center. Liza Torgman works as one of the cashiers.
"I was at home when a Kassam hit our house," Torgman said. "For over three years, I couldn't work. I couldn't stop crying - but that's how it was all over Sderot. I just stayed home. It was terrible."
The Torgman's have four children - 19, 16, 11 and four. "It was hard on all of us, but it was really tough on the baby. In the beginning, we didn't have a safe room. After the Kassam hit, though, we added one. Things are better now that I'm working here."
Merav Asulin, one of the playground's secretaries, considers herself lucky, too. "I worked in a bank for ten years," she said. "When the rocket barrage became so bad that a lot of businesses closed, I lost my job. I've been working here since May, and it's great."
The playground has a capacity of 500 children at a time, Asulin said. "It's open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer, and on school days, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. But no one ever wants to leave."
The Americans on the JNF tour didn't want to leave, either. Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Shulman were especially interested. They raised money to help build the playground.
"We're from Teaneck, NJ," Shulman said. "Several different synagogues got together and had a fundraiser. Sderot had been in the news, it was a prominent story, so when the JNF was raising money to help, we wanted to join in. I think we raised something over $100,000. Now it's fun to look at all the kids having such a great time. What more could you ask?"
One of the most interesting aspects of the playground is that a sizeable chunk of the funding resulted from kids helping kids. About 212 schools all across the US banded together and raised $144,000.
"Inspiring the kids to raise money for this project was easy," said teacher Meryl Ankori of the Solomon Schechter School in Queens, NY. "We raise money for all kinds of things - charities, sickness, hospitals, whatever. But raising money to help the kids in Sderot hit our kids where they live.
"We just got a new playground here ourselves, so our students didn't have any problem at all imagining what it would be like to not be able to go outside and play," she continued. "We raised $5,316. The desire to help just erupted throughout the school. We sold buttons and everything else the JNF sent us. Some kids contributed their allowance, others raised money from family and neighbors, and two Bar Mitzvah boys took the playground on as their special project. It just took on a life of its own. Everybody joined in."
About 450 students, from nursery school to 8th grade, attend the Solomon Schechter School, now in its 53rd year. "We taught some lessons on Sderot, but our 'smart board' presentations helped even more," Ankori said. "Each of our classrooms has a 'smart board,' an electronic blackboard, and they're all connected by computer. We showed all the material we could get - videos, graphics, pictures - of Sderot. Once our kids saw what the Sderot kids were living through, raising money was easy."
The David Posnack Hebrew Day School in Plantation, Florida helped, too. "Children relate to children," says teacher and Jewish Coordinator Camille Benjamin. "They instinctively understood the need to play. We'd ask, 'Can you imagine what it would be like not to be able to play outside? Not to be able to ride your bike?' They all gasped. They understood that perfectly. We raised $4,651."
The school's major fundraising event took place on Tu Bishvat, Benjamin said. "We had all the kids come to school in red, explaining that red symbolized Sderot's Color Red alarm. We scheduled a play day, except that no one was allowed to go outside. Everyone stayed in, and then at various intervals, we'd ring a bell and everyone had to run to another room within 15 seconds. It gave the children a sense of what it would be like to live in Sderot."
Having a school staffed by teachers from Israel helped, too. "I'm Israeli," Benjamin said. "Most of our teachers are from Israel. So for us, teaching this lesson came from our hearts. Many of us have friends or family living in the area. This project was very personal."
Amidst all the fun, there's something incredibly sad about the project, too. Dorit Masarit Benisian, two years old, and Yuval Abebeh, age four, never had a chance to play in the new playground. On September 29, 2004, they were playing in their own yard when a terrorist rocket hit, killing them both. Today, Dorit would have been a little over seven years old.
For Dorit, Yuval and several other children, the miracle of the indoor playground came too late. But for the rest, finally - Sderot kids have a chance to be kids!