Students march in solidarity with Sderot

Volunteers travelled to the Kassam-hit town this week for a day of shared activities and work. Events were capped off with, what else, a rocket attack.

sderot metro 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Roman Protzki, Im Tirzu)
sderot metro 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Roman Protzki, Im Tirzu)
University and college students countrywide arrived in Sderot early Sunday morning to offer muscles and merriment to the rocket-scarred city's residents. Organized by non-profit organizations Im Tirzu and Lev Ehad, approximately 200 volunteers eagerly climbed aboard buses at 7 a.m. during the Hanukka break to help out the Gaza periphery community that has absorbed the majority of Palestinian rocket attacks for the last seven years. Groups of volunteers were dispersed throughout the town, whose population has decreased by 4,000 residents over the last three years, to complete several tasks chosen by the city. Work around the town included painting and cleaning a large sports hall, cleaning the local cemetery and renovating the petting zoo. The sad reality of the town's 20,000-strong population was indeed felt by volunteers who spent a large portion of the day carrying tens of thousands of text books from the library of the Mekif-Amit National-Religious School - soon destined for destruction because of inadequate protection from Kassam strikes - to another building. Worse yet is the fact that the second location of the books was not their final destination, as a fortified library is to be constructed in place of the old one, meaning that all the work done by volunteers would likely repeated by another group. The Defense Ministry has subsidized costs of construction but the school's logistics manager, Ilan Mashiach, told Metro that "if there were no volunteers to clear out the books, frankly, it wouldn't be done." Faring only a little better than the library in regards to protection, were the partially fortified classrooms. Instead of only one door, children were provided with two exits to reach the fortified hallway within 15 seconds of hearing the Red Alarm siren. Sadly enough, even this minimal level of protection is 100 percent more than many citizens of Sderot have at home. The few residents who can afford building a fortified room inside their homes may do so but the majority has to rely on shelters located in their neighborhoods, which are impossible for most to reach in time, Mashiach added. A second activity offered to volunteers was work in 'The Green House,' a unique place where victims of emotional trauma - not difficult to find in this town - discover treatment through art and gardening. The Green House, run by local social workers, was recently reopened after being closed two weeks after its establishment due to heavy Kassam barrages on the town. In addition to the Israeli students who had taken the time to come to Sderot was a group of international students from the US and Canada studying at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. Communications student Natalie Sutton Balaban told Metro that she joined the effort in response to a phenomenon of "people forgetting about Sderot." Other students shared a similar approach to the subject, adding that it was important for the younger generation to return the town to the attention of the country. Im Tirzu, composed of students from six universities and colleges, was established in January of this year to counter receding Zionism among Israelis, Im Tirzu Chairman Ronen Shuval told Metro. Its three main objectives are to offer Israelis Zionistic ideals in the form of briefings and pamphlets, to carry out projects within the community in order to bring awareness to students of other populations, and finally, to provide an answer to anti-Zionist propaganda and actions. Last month, Im Tirzu organized a rally to call for the dismissal of an Arab-Israeli lecturer who refused to teach an IDF officer who had arrived to class in his uniform. The main difference between this organization and others, said (?), is that Im Tirzu aimed to establish an ongoing connection with various communities rather than opt for a one-time volunteering stint. The volunteers of Lev Ehad - established to help evacuees after the implementation of the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria - aim to rescue various civilian communities in times of crisis, representative Illy Zur said. The Sderot project was the first joint effort by the two organizations, but there are plans to continue working together in the future. Volunteers were given a tour of the city to increase their awareness of what exactly residents experienced on a daily basis. Although participants were well aware of the current events which brought them to the town, the tour, provided by the Sderot Media Center, focused on locations which sustained direct rocket attacks, including homes and shops. Students were taken to the spot at which Fatima Slutsker, 57, was killed in November 2006. Also seen by volunteers was the local police station, where Sderot Media Director Noam Badin briefed guests on recent rocket attacks, emphasizing the deficiency of coverage provided by the media due to a "lack of interest in repetitive events." Asked by Metro what the general feeling among residents was as a result of the almost daily rocket attacks, Badin replied that "people no longer had faith in any government institution." Equally important as helping residents in physical tasks around the city was the holiday cheer brought by volunteers during a touching Hanukkia-lighting ceremony. Volunteers and Sderot residents alike watched while various representatives quietly lit the menorah. The calm atmosphere was broken immediately afterwards as students began dancing feverishly to a trance version of Banu Hoshech Legaresh (We came to expel the darkness). Residents seemed at first hesitant to join the fun but volunteers were not intimidated by their shyness and began pulling people out of the crowds. Soon small children were perched atop wide shoulders of individuals who had come to make them smile. The day's activities were sealed with an emotional march around Sderot by torch-and-flag bearing residents and students to mark the holiday of lights and the love for their country. Sderot residents who did not participate in the walk cheered on the passers-by and did not become weary with the blocked streets caused by the hordes. Almost inevitably, minutes before students prepared to board the buses back to their home towns, a Kassam rocket was fired by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip. The rocket hit a toy factory, causing enough damage to bring about its closing, temporarily hampering the livelihoods of 30 local families. Students left the city, where the sound of helicopters hovering above was a regular occurrence, with more than just a feeling of giving back to the community, but also with more knowledge of the situation which in turn could be shared with their fellow peers. For further reading on Im Tirzu in English see; Contact Sderot Media