Sderot yeshiva fights despair with faith

In the last two years, 50 young religious Zionist families have moved to the town.

kassam attack 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
kassam attack 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A day after an estimated 20 Kassam rockets struck this beleaguered town and hours before a 40-year-old woman was thrown against a wall by a Kassam blast, the study hall at the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva was evacuated. About 300 young men who combine Torah study with army service calmly left the hall - but they weren't running away, just following instructions. A civil engineer had ordered them to temporarily step outside while construction workers finished the expansion of a four-story education and prayer complex. The yeshiva is building additional facilities on two sides, and there are more buildings housing another 125 students, all part of an inadequately financed multi-million dollar expansion program. Over the past several years the yeshiva has grown 15 percent annually, said administrative head Michael Siman-Tov. There about 550 students enrolled, 80 of whom currently serve in the army. The signs of growth - building cranes, cement mixers, tractors - are all the more conspicuous against Sderot's backdrop. According to Sderot municipal spokesman Yossi Pinchas Cohen, over the last two years around 300 families, each averaging four members, have left Sderot. That is more than 6% of a town that numbered 19,000 at the end of 2006, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. But Cohen's figures are conservative. Media reports have estimated that 3,000 people have left Sderot in the past few years. Tired of living in fear, residents are heading for places beyond the range of Gaza's rockets and mortars. However, Cohen says that there is a parallel countervailing migration. According to his estimates, around 50 young religious Zionist families have moved to town, with most of the men graduates of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva. David Avikar, 23, is one of them. After finishing his army service, Avikar returned to Sderot with his wife, Yael. They moved into the town's Kasdor neighborhood, which has lost at least five families in recent months. Avikar is involved in "morale strengthening" activities such as tutoring children, teaching in the local school and giving lectures on his combat experiences during the Second Lebanon War. He spent a month fighting in Lebanese Shi'ite towns such as Bint Jbail, Aita al-Sha'ab and Maroun al-Ras. "When I came back to Sderot after the war, it was weird," he said. "It was as if nothing had changed. In a sense I was still in the line of fire." The Israeli concept of a people's army, which normally refers to mandatory conscription, takes on a new meaning in Sderot. Here, civilians are on the front line. Why would a young man like Avikar choose to live in a working-class town an hour's drive from Tel Aviv and even farther from Jerusalem, one that has become a bull's eye for the crude, shrapnel-filled rockets and the mortar shells? "Me and Yael are on a mission," said Avikar. "We are here to strengthen the Jewish people. That's the education I received at the yeshiva." Sderot Hesder Yeshiva and the dozens of religious Zionist yeshivot like it around the country teach that it is a religious obligation to settle the Land of Israel. Any act furthering this goal, be it army service or strengthening the morale of Sderot residents, is also a religious obligation. Yeshiva head Rabbi Dovid Fendel is resolved to stay put. "The Palestinians are determined to turn Sderot into a ghost town, while we are making it a place of Torah and Zionist ideals. They are trying to destroy, while we are building more everyday. They are trying to break our spirit, but we will continue to provide hope," he said. However, Fendel, 46 and a father of seven, admits that while he is optimistic, he also has fears for the future. "True, there is a religious obligation to be here and to strengthen the residents, however, we are not suicidal either. The government is going to have to decide whether it wants to protect Sderot or not. It cannot continue to ignore our plight," he said. "The mood of despair here is very contagious. There is a strong feeling of hopelessness. When I wake up in the morning, and I hear 'Color Red' [the siren warning of incoming rockets] I pray to God to give me courage to go on."