Calling it a day

About 10,000 southerners have been hosted in Jerusalem during the current war. But unlike the Second Lebanon War when many northerners took refuge in the capital, most have come for a brief respite.

bar mitvah sderot rabbis 248.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
bar mitvah sderot rabbis 248.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
The throngs of teenagers congregated in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency's Jerusalem headquarters offer up an appreciative shriek as pop star Shai Gabso concludes his final number and extends some encouraging words to his audience before disappearing from the spotlight. But as they begin to leave, some of the audience members find themselves sought after as the subject of the proverbial limelight. Reporters vie for their attention, eager to hear what these southerners make of the concert, one of many Jerusalem events organized on their behalf and, more importantly, to hear about their current security predicament. The interviewees seem both abashed and eager at the prospect of media interest. For the most part, they earnestly proclaim their loyalty to their country and their support of its war. "Our soldiers are risking their lives to protect our country," says 17-year-old Ilana Dim of Ashkelon. "And although it's not easy being in the line of fire, we fully support what they are doing for us." With a casual wave of her hand, she dismisses a query as to whether she has considered leaving the South until the rocket attacks subside. "If we were to leave, it would grant the terrorists the victory of having disrupted our lives even more," she says. At the nearby Yehuda Halevi school, 11-year-old Yonatan of Netivot is similarly blasé. As he busily rounds up the other seven southern children temporarily enrolled at the school to be photographed, he says he is not nervous about the thought of returning home. He says that the rockets aren't falling close enough to his house to worry him and, like the others - all of whom are staying with relatives in the capital - his parents sent him to stay with cousins because they were concerned at the prospect of his missing school rather than his falling foul to rockets. Yonatan's and Ilana's responses are typical of many of the southerners who have come to the capital. Some admit to a degree of panic, but more common is a matter-of-fact resilience in the face of what is considered a temporary inconvenience or a resolute patriotism that "offers no other option than to stay put," in the words of Ashkelon mother of three Rina Ben-David. Ben-David, who has accompanied two of her children to the concert, says it will take more than a few rockets to break her resolve. "It's not easy to be constantly running to shelters and back; but in doing so, we're participating in the greater good of bringing peace to our borders. If this is the price we have to pay, then we accept it." In keeping with this spirit, while some visitors take advantage of invitations from friends or plans placing southerners with some of the numerous Jerusalem families offering to host them, the majority return home in the evenings, preferring to limit their excursions to Jerusalem to day trips. And thanks to efforts on the part of the municipality and the Jewish Agency, along with organizations such as the Joint and OneFamily, their opportunities to enjoy the capital's attractions are numerous and varied in scope. Having successfully coordinated efforts to provide respite for beleaguered residents during the Second Lebanon War, the agencies are once again working together to offer family fun days to such attractions as the Biblical Zoo, the Western Wall tunnel and the Bloomfield Science Museum, as well as concerts and workshops for teens. Those southerners who prefer to visit on their own can enjoy the free or discounted entry available to them at most of the city's attractions, courtesy of The Jerusalem Foundation. Many seem pleased, if not slightly bemused, at the efforts made on their behalf. Some admit that they are enjoying the break from sirens and bomb shelters. At an art workshop for southern youth hosted by the Bezalel School of Art and Design, for example, the stylish teens poring meticulously over graffiti art and pottery wheels could easily be mistaken for students at the college. They seem surprised when asked if they consider themselves victims. "I have friends in Jerusalem who keep asking if I want to stay with them," says 16-year-old Inbar Yorish from the south. "I appreciate their concern, but to me it seems misplaced. We know what to do when the sirens sound, and we're managing fine at home." Seventeen-year-old Stav Drori is equally nonchalant. "There have been lots of chances to go on trips around the country since the war started, but I haven't been able to go on most of them because I'm so busy with studying. I made a point of taking time out for this one because I really like art," she says. THE NUMBER of southerners who have visited Jerusalem since the start of the war also reflects the cool demeanor of our conflict-struck neighbors in comparison with their northern counterparts two and a half years ago. According to municipality records, 10,000 southerners have visited thus far. While this number is substantial, it doesn't compare with the 50,000 northerners who came here during the month-long Second Lebanon War. And it's not just Jerusalem-based organizations that appear to have overestimated their role. Charities that provided the bulk of physical and emotional support to civilians affected by the Second Lebanon War have also found their workloads greatly diminished this time around. "During the Second Lebanon War, both the battlefront and the home front were unprepared," says Michael Shumacher of the United Israel Appeal of Canada. "Philanthropic organizations were called upon to make up for those weaknesses. Civilians in the North had to cope with shortages of supplies, inadequate bomb shelters and municipal officials who lacked the knowledge or resources to address their needs," he says. "This time around, we are finding ourselves in a position where our volunteers are being turned away because there's nothing for them to do. The country appears to have learned its lesson, and having spoken to southerners, I think this accounts for their relative calmness. They've been kept informed, they are well versed in what to do when they hear the sirens and they feel a lot more in control than their northern counterparts did." Ariel Rotstein, director of the Jerusalem Hotel Association, which is offering discounted rates to residents from the South, echoes his sentiments. "We've had some inquiries, but no one has actually booked a room yet," he says. "Unlike during the war in the North, where people were desperate and were willing to spend money, this time around I get the sense that people feel more in control of the situation." Shumacher also points out that whereas two weeks into the Second Lebanon War the situation on the battlefront left many Israelis distrustful of the government's ability to win the war or protect its citizens in the process, most citizens either support the current war or at least trust that the government has a handle on the situation. "I think the fact that southerners feel that they are part of something that will ultimately benefit their country definitely contributes to their sense of resilience," he says. According to Yehuda Poch of the OneFamily Fund, the relatively limited potential of Kassam rockets to cause injury in comparison with the Katyushas that rained down on the North also accounts for the smaller number of southerners coming to Jerusalem. He also points out that in Sderot at least, locals are experienced in dealing with the disruptions caused by Kassam rockets. "There is a sense of fatalism among most of the Sderot residents we work with," he says. "While this predicament is new to most southerners, they have been living with it for eight years and so to some extent they feel that they can't consistently disrupt their lives and have to continue as best they can. It's also important to bear in mind that this isn't the worst they've experienced. There was a period of two weeks in February when 80 Kassam rockets were falling each day. In comparison, this situation is manageable for them." According to municipal spokesman Gidi Schmerling, the smaller number of southern visitors is due in part to the time of year. "The Second Lebanon War took place in the summer, and so there were a lot of special attractions and events that drew visitors from the North, as well as the rest of the country. There's a lot less going on at this time of year." But for some southerners, it is the promise of the simple things that has drawn them to Jerusalem. South African-born Katamon resident Michelle and her family hosted a Beersheba family assigned to her through the municipality. "They had four little girls who had been cooped up indoors for two weeks, and all they wanted to do for the two days they were here was go to the park," she says. "It was such a simple thing, but for them it meant everything." Michelle decided to host a family after witnessing the southerners' plight on television. "There were so many people stuck in this helpless situation; many of them just children or elderly people who'd been through the horrors of the Holocaust, and it made me feel that I needed to do something, however small, to help the situation." Her five children, aged 11 to 18, were equally eager to help, so for the duration of the stay they became babysitters. "It was definitely a different and positive experience for us all," says Michelle. "Usually the only thing we're likely to bump into if we're not looking where we're going is the cat... but he was banished to the basement because he is unpredictable with strangers. Instead, we found ourselves constantly bumping into little girls. And our house became a Hebrew-speaking zone for two days which, like most Anglos, is unusual for us," she says. "I think the best part about it was knowing that we were able to make a difference - that for a short time, we could give these people a break from what they have been going through."