A letter from Sderot: We forget the people

As you certainly know, last Tuesday millions of Israelis, among them my family and I awoke to an instruction by the Home Front Command announcing a state of emergency.

Aharon Ben-Porat’s office in Sderot following a rocket hit (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aharon Ben-Porat’s office in Sderot following a rocket hit
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We  are all amateur strategists. “The big picture”.... “We must keep our attention on the Northern Front.” We all second-guess our military analysts, the specialists in the security services and the Intelligence Branch of the IDF.  
We forget the people.
The following is a translation of a letter from a friend in Sderot. 
“Thanks for your concern about our situation. 
As you certainly know, last Tuesday millions of Israelis, among them my family and I awoke to an instruction by the Home Front Command announcing a state of  emergency.  We are already used to emergency. We woke up the children and calmly told them that we would spend the day in our secure room. 
At about 7:30, while I was praying the morning service [Shaharit], we heard the powerful explosion of a rocket that – it turned out – had landed in my office. I went to the office to clean it up and to see what had happened to important documents. I stayed there a few hours cleaning the room.  The children were with my wife, and by evening they were climbing the walls.
Wednesday morning my wife and the children went to their grandparents in B’nei Ayash (though there they also had rocket alerts). I went to the office again to continue cleaning away the shrapnel, and restoring order. The same for Thursday.
Today, Sunday, we returned to routine.  It’s not easy. Our hearts are not quiet, the fear and trauma have not disappeared.
The words of my friend, Liron, of Sderot, express very well what I feel:
Ah/ Great/ Back to routine – just fold everything up/ in an orderly but swift way.
Gather up the anxieties/ the thoughts/ the fears/ the nightmares.
The pounding of the heart/ its skipped beats, mine and yours,/ to crush like paper/ and throw into the trash.
And who will explain to the kids/ that the roar of a passing motorcycle/ does not herald a rocket/ that a door slamming/is not part of a barrage.
And who will find a remedy / for the child who returns to bedwetting,/ or to a mother/ who, exhausted body and soul/ is not able to make a simple decision.
 What is harder?/ the passage from routine to emergency,/ or from emergency to routine?
There were tens of thousands of children – or, more likely hundreds of thousands – in the “secure rooms” or shelters, or in some cases huddled on the floor covering their heads with their hands – in kindergartens and schools. For some it may have been a game; for most, there must have been fear and dread, once old enough to absorb the knowledge. Rockets can maim, rockets can kill, shrapnel can … and what other terrifying thoughts one has as sirens sound, rockets explode within earshot, Iron Dome booms and intercepts, and who knows what is incoming and what is outgoing as our jets and ships and drones hit targets a few kilometers away,
That was in Israel. Children are children.  In the crowded Gaza Strip, children  hear 400 outgoing and – how many incoming? – booms.  Sure, we know Hamas is to blame, and Jihad even more so. But children are children, and dread and fear know no boundaries, have no border fences.
Aharon Ben-Porat, who wrote that email to me, is a staff member of Gvanim, a non-profit for the social and educational advancement of people in Sderot and the northern Negev. It was founded by the members of Migvan, the urban kibbutz based in Sderot.  The poem was written by Liron Tzedaka and its final accord rings in my ears, in Hebrew even stronger:
What is harder?/ the passage from routine to emergency,/ or from emergency to routine?
I have had a connection with Sderot ever since the first Gaza War 12 years ago. In the year before the war, Hamas had fired over 3,300 rockets at Israel’s Gaza periphery towns. With Sderot a bare kilometer or so from the Gaza border, it suffered a hefty proportion of them.
One of my grandsons, Noam Avihai-Kremer, dropped out of his last few months in Grade 12, and took off to Sderot, which was under steady fire and barely had some concrete box-like air raid shelters scattered about the town. Somehow, as happens in Israel, young people from all over Israel came down to Sderot. During the day they found old people whose families had left them behind or who were alone or housebound for other reasons. They washed their dishes, cleaned their houses, shopped and brought them groceries. And in the afternoon they would parade through the streets, singing, to keep morale up. 
How could I let Noam volunteer and I not? I established contact with the young man who dealt with volunteers and he  introduced me to some families and individuals who needed help. During the first ugly round of shelling that preceded Operation Cast Lead (the first Gaza War), when I was on my weekly visit, the siren sounded. I was caught in the open air, together with one of the Sderot mothers. Home Front instructions then were to speedily get into the nearest stairwell. I walked swiftly, but she ran.  She had seen the results when a friend of hers was wounded by shrapnel.  We heard the dull blast the rocket made blowing up in an open area. The rockets have improved since then, and even with the Iron Dome defense, when dozens are fired simultaneously, a few come through.  
 
Those weekly visits  began a long-term friendship with some families, leading me to Gvanim, which was doing exemplary work in so many social and educational fields.  We began working feverishly to help those families, although we did supply all the starting pupils with school backpacks.  The money came mostly from family and a few close friends, and was sent to and administered by Gvanim and continues into the present. Because of a long-standing family tradition of “secret giving,” this is the first time we have made this public. 
And it is through this chain that Aharon, in the beginning a friendly functionary, became a separate person, and a telephone and email friend.
His wife, their three girls and three boys aged 16 to six – eight people in a safe room of perhaps nine square meters (less than 100 square feet). And with furniture, food and drink… In and out, in and out, as sirens sound and as silence falls. 
Naftali Bennett will probably be minister of defense for at least a few weeks, and possibly  for much longer if the nation is forced into a third round of elections.  I know there is a lot to learn in his new role, and there are other pressing priorities, but I would urge him to spend a Shabbat in Sderot, to pray in different synagogues and speak to many people.  Perhaps then too, he will see the Aharons and the Bayetzishes, Zamirs and Shovals, and not just “the residents of the Gaza envelope.” 
I even urge that all ministers and political leaders live within close range of rocket fire for at least a month each year.  A few already do in the Ashkelon area: Avi Dichter, Israel Katz and Benny Gantz come immediately to mind. And while dreaming, let me hope that someday soon, a solution will be found so that our Israeli children, and theirs, the Gaza children, may play and study in quiet and safety. 
Yes, I know it is a dream.  But so was the Jewish state.
Avraham Avi-hai has served in senior positions in Israel’s early prime ministers offices.  As World Chairman of Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal,  he had been in touch with Sderot because of projects built there and aid given to help start Sapir College