Retail Therapy

It's a glorious sunny Friday morning as I get into my car to do my weekend shopping in a war zone. I pull out of a public parking lot in Modi'in, along with another 50 or so cars, all headed in the same direction: Sderot. We are part of a convoy that will bring thousands of Israelis from all over the country to this battered town in the south that has taken the brunt of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza. The idea is not only to show solidarity with Sderot's 20,000 residents, but also to help boost business by buying everything we can in this economically disadvantaged town. Ilan Cohen, 33, an energetic man from Modi'in who runs chess clubs and camps for children, says the idea of forming a convoy came to him last spring when the barrage of Qassams began intensifying. "I couldn't sleep seeing the terrified faces of the children of Sderot on the newscasts. I began asking myself why their distress isn't our distress," says Cohen "I decided to get some people together to go to Sderot to show the residents that we haven't forgotten them." The first convoy, in May, consisted of about 30 cars, all from Modi'in. In July, Cohen mobilized about 1,000 people from all over Israel to join him; their shopping spree brought an estimated half a million shekels to businesses in Sderot. An August convoy of 4,000 shoppers spent an estimated 2 million shekels in the southern town. As the latest - and largest - convoy winds its way south, the radio announces that two rockets fell in an open field outside Sderot; there were no injuries. The convoy continues. A half-hour later, a traffic jam some five kilometers long has formed at the entrance to Sderot. A truck driver leaving town stares at the sight in disbelief before breaking into a broad smile and honking repeatedly. Military helicopters hover overhead, but in town, there is a carnival-like atmosphere as parcel-laden shoppers clog the streets and fill open-air cafÖ¸s. "It's really encouraging," beams Shimon Chen as he watches out-of-towners file in and out of his stationery and toy shop in the center of town. "Sderot residents don't shop here much - they're afraid to go out of the house. Who can blame them? A rocket landed five meters from this spot in May and killed someone," says the father of twin babies. "The Qassams make life hard, but if I can at least make a living then maybe I still have a future here." Chen estimates he has raked in five to 10 times as much as he normally does on a Friday. "This will help me stay here - if," he adds, "it's not a one-time thing." Nearby, inside the Tnuvele CafÖ¸ in the town center, a huge crowd has gathered. Suddenly there is a high-pitched sound and a boom; faces are frozen in fear, until someone adjusts the crackling PA system. Nervous laughter follows, and the merriment resumes - with the visitors belting out Israeli folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Ronit Abukrat's eyes well up with tears. The 30-something-year-old with streaked blond hair has been passing out business cards for her Sderot events hall, and several out-of-towners have expressed interest in booking. "It gives you strength when you don't feel so alone," she says, as the crowd continues singing oldies-but-goodies that recall an Israel of another time. "We've lost so much business because people are too afraid to hold an event in Sderot. But maybe things will pick up a bit now," she says, eyeing the crowd hopefully. The initiative to shop in Sderot gives a new twist to 'retail therapy.' But it is also something more than that. For a long time, Sderot, a peripheral working-class town of immigrants, seemed like another world to Israelis living in other parts of the country - its people worthy of pity, but not empathy. A few weeks ago, something in that attitude seemed to snap. Maybe it was the story of the Twito boys - two brothers from Sderot who were injured by a rocket as they left their home to buy a birthday present for their father. Eight-year-old Osher Twito, reportedly an avid soccer player, had to have his leg amputated. Suddenly, the people of Sderot no longer seemed so far away. For the first time since the shelling began seven years ago, Army Radio began interrupting its programs with live broadcasts of the Color Red alerts that warn of an imminent Qassam attack; schools began soliciting food and toy donations; and Ilan Cohen struck a chord, this time galvanizing over 10,000 Israelis to join the convoy. Many of the shoppers who have converged on Sderot express deep disenchantment with the government. "Our leaders seem impotent - either unable or unwilling to do anything for the people of Sderot," says Ramat Gan resident Ruti Armoni, sitting with her sister Yami in a cafÖ¸. "It's time for us, the people, to do something, to take some responsibility." Cohen hopes that sentiment will snowball into a broader movement for social change. "Sderot is the symbol of neglect of every kind - military, economic, social, educational," he says. "By fixing what is wrong in Sderot we can perhaps redeem ourselves." At Tnuvele's, someone grabs the microphone and bellows, "We are here today to show that we have the strength to be decent human beings." A middle-aged shopper from Tel Aviv nods. "It's like the stories you hear of city people who walk by a man lying bleeding in the street - too busy to stop. Sderot is like that man. And, until now, we've all been too absorbed in our own lives to stop." At the end of a rare, Qassam-free day, the shopping spree ends and we return to our homes. The residents of Sderot brace themselves for the next barrage - and wonder vaguely whether they'll ever see us again.