Breslav Hassidim keep the faith in Sderot

Was it faith that kept the hassidim dancing in the face of the rockets in Sderot?

wounded sderot 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
wounded sderot 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
People ran for cover as the eerily emotionless voice announced "Color Red" - the coded warning of the imminent impact of Kassam rockets - over the loudspeaker in Sderot, but the Breslav Hassidim kept dancing. The men cheerfully bobbed and skipped to the disco beat of a song about their deceased spiritual leader that pounded from the beefed-up sound system of their huge GMC van - nearly drowning out the Color Red warning - as if they were under the influence of some reality-distorting drug. They danced on the roof of the van and in the street, beards, sidelocks and long hair wild and unruly. It was impossible to ignore the absurdity and the hallucinatory effect created by the contrast between these smiling, hippie men and the fearful Sderot residents huddling inside one of the tiny prefab bomb shelters scattered throughout the town. Was it faith that kept the hassidim dancing in the face of the rockets in Sderot? "We couldn't hear the 'Color Red' because of the music," said Alon, one of the leaders of the group. "But of course if we would have heard we would have made an effort to take cover. You are not allowed to rely on miracles." Alon said he and his friends came to Sderot on a regular basis to "cheer people up." The Jerusalem Post visited Sderot and the neighboring area last week to find out if residents had been drawn closer to religious faith or been driven away from God by the constant barrages of Kassam rockets. Does the feeling of helplessness during those tense seconds after Color Red is announced until the shrapnel-packed Kassam rocket hits its target encourage the Jews of Sderot to turn to God? Or does it make them feel forsaken and abandoned? For the residents of Sderot, is the Color Red warning a call to prayer, like a muezzin reverting to threats, or is it a testament to God's abandonment? No clear-cut answers were found, partly because faith is such an amorphous concept. In Judaism faith is proved by act, and in Sderot there has not been a tangible rise in the number of people who wear kippot, wrap their arm in phylacteries or refrain from driving on Shabbat, according to the residents who spoke with the Post. If anything, fewer people are attending one of Sderot's 35 to 40 synagogues, few of which are either reinforced against rocket fire or located near bomb shelters, out of fear they might be hit by a Kassam while walking to or from the house of prayer or during services. The fall in synagogue attendance has become critical. The Jewish Agency this week began building a synagogue on top of a bomb shelter, to make access quick and easy. In a meeting with Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem last Wednesday, rabbis from Sderot brought up the problem of falling synagogue attendance. Rabbi Ariel Bareli, who leads a congregation in Sderot, asked if it was permitted according to Halacha to remain in the city. Although a Jew is supposed to have faith in God, argued Bareli, Jewish law forbade exposing oneself to needless dangers. Perhaps, asked Bareli, living in Sderot is too dangerous? Yosef has not answered the question. However, Yosef's aide said the rabbi once advised a man who worked in religious outreach with Sderot's population to live outside the city. If faith is measured by the frequency one ponders God or mentions His name, however, perhaps there has been a rise in Sderot. "Hashem protect us" or "Thank God" are commonly heard in the shelters immediately following a Kassam attack. It is not uncommon to see perfectly secular-looking people mumbling prayers as they wait for the rocket to fall. "Faith is one of the ways people here cope with uncertainty and danger," said Dalia Yosef, head of Hosen, an umbrella organization of social workers, psychologists and social activist organizations in Sderot funded by the state. "Believing in something - whether it is God, a world philosophy or something else - gives people a feeling of stability. It brings meaning to the chaos." Sderot's population is overwhelmingly Sephardi and tends, therefore, to be more traditional and faith-oriented than average. As a result, it is natural that many turn to prayer even if observance of Orthodox practice is weak. Surprisingly, despite the challenges it faces, Sderot does not have an active chief rabbi. Rabbi David Bar-Chen, a housebound octogenarian, is the town's official rabbi, but he is ill and inactive. The appointment of new rabbis, both in Sderot and elsewhere, has been frozen since the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry in 2003. Although the ministry was recently reestablished, Minister Yitzhak Cohen has yet to appoint rabbis. In contrast to Sderot, the neighboring kibbutzim are overwhelmingly secular. Few, if any, have synagogues. The vast majority of secular kibbutz members are devoid of faith. But there are exceptions. "Every time there is a Kassam warning I recite 'Shema Yisrael,'" said Tali Simchi, a member of Kibbutz Nir Am. Simchi, who was born and raised on the kibbutz, said she automatically turned to prayer in times of danger even though she grew up "in a home without mezuzot." "The feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that there is no mortal I can rely on, makes me pray," she said. Ofer Lieberman, secretary-general of Nir Am, said Simchi was far from representative of the kibbutz members. "Most people here have not become any more religious as a result of the Kassams. They were brought up secular and they have remained secular," he said. Lieberman is also skeptical about Simchi's religiosity. "She might say Shema Yisrael when a Kassam falls. But if you give her a piece of ham she'll eat it."