Learning to cope

After six weeks under fire, life has returned to normal at Sapir Academic College near the Gaza border.

During the war, the college moved some classes and exams to the Center. (photo credit: COURTESY SAPIR ACADEMIC COLLEGE)
During the war, the college moved some classes and exams to the Center.
It appears to be the kind of typical, quiet day one would experience on any college campus during summer break. A few students have just completed an exam, others are attending summer courses and several cats stretch out lazily on the grass.
Suddenly, the Color Red alert goes off, disrupting the few activities on campus. Those outside run to shelters, and a rocket explosion can be heard in the distance.
The sounds of war continue throughout the day as sirens, rocket fire, Iron Dome interceptions and Israeli air strikes can all be heard from the western Negev college known as Sapir.
It is Sunday, August 24, but rockets are not new to Sapir Academic College, located near the Gaza border.
After closing down completely for six weeks during Operation Protective Edge, Sapir reopened on August 21 following security protocols by the IDF Home Front Command and Southern Command deeming it safe to do so.
“We are probably the only college in the world that has had to function with rockets on a consistent basis – for years,” Sapir spokesman Simon Tamir told Metro.
“Never has Sapir been forced to close down for such a length of time,” said Tamir of the recent 50-day war against Hamas. He noted that the two previous wars on southern Israel both took place in the winter. During Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009), Sapir closed for two days; in 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense (November 14 to 21), it closed for four days.
“During this summer war, we had 400 students and lecturers called up to serve in the army,” Tamir explained.
“In addition, half of the lecturers and many of the students with families had to stay home to take care of their children. With no summer camps going on because of the security situation, the kids had nowhere to go.
“We couldn’t continue studies and exams in this kind of environment, and Sapir gives great consideration to the families of the people who are part of this college.”
Indeed, when Sapir director Dr. Nachmi Paz was injured by a Gaza mortar explosion on Kibbutz Kfar Aza during the war, his wife, Shoshana, warmly thanked the staff at Sapir for supporting the family during their difficult time. “You showed us what an amazing family Sapir College is – from the moment Nachmi was injured to the moment he left the hospital, you were with us,” his wife wrote to college administration and staff.
Paz’s hand and leg were penetrated by rocket shrapnel when a mortar shell struck in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council on August 8. He has since healed, and has returned to work at the college.
Meanwhile, with the reopening of Sapir College taking place a few days before the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire went into effect on Tuesday, August 26, the college outlined special accommodations for students afraid to come take summer exams and classes.
“We opened the college because many students wanted to take their second-round exams, and canceling the summer semester entirely would have created a very difficult situation for many of the students,” said Sapir president Omri Yadlin. “Many students had been preparing for exams, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to take them this summer – and not the next. But those afraid to travel here and those who opt to take exams as well as courses next summer can do so, without their grades being affected.”
“The situation isn’t easy for anyone, but we had to think of the best solutions to accommodate 8,000 students.”
During the war, the college also moved classes and exams to the Center, giving students the option to take certain classes and exams further away from the war.
THE COLLEGE, located near Sderot, is protected against rocket attacks; five years ago, the government invested NIS 22 million in building protection.
“All of the classrooms are protected, and those areas that are not are only seconds away from a bomb shelter,” Yadlin pointed out. “Sapir is one of the safest places to study in this region.” As such, the Home Front Command has approved all of the reinforced cement and steel structures on campus, including the metal- plate-protected cafeteria windows.
Despite the war, enrollment at Sapir is up 11 percent over the previous year, with the college registering 1,632 new students thus far. There were no student enrollment cancellations during Operation Protective Edge and as history has shown, Gaza operations do not impact college enrollment very significantly.
“Despite this situation and the fact that the college is located in the periphery, away from the Center, Sapir is the largest public college in Israel,” added Yadlin. “Sapir is also the largest employer in this region, and the college has a huge impact on the surrounding communities.”
Around 40% of the students attending Sapir come from the greater Tel Aviv area, as well as Jerusalem, the Galilee and the North, while the remaining 60% come from cities and communities across the South. Close to 2,500 of these students live in kibbutzim and moshavim along the Gaza border, as well as Sderot, strengthening the economy and surrounding communities.
“The students rent apartments here but they are also socially active within the communities,” said Tamir. “We see national significance in getting young people to come and live here – they are the hope that this region will continue to develop and flourish.”
ESTABLISHED MORE than 40 years ago, Sapir Academic College traces its history back to 1963, as a night school for adult education. The classes would take place in a few inadequate huts standing on a hill facing Gaza City, on a site that had been an army base abandoned after the Sinai war in 1956.
The leaders of Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council soon realized that the huts and location weren’t suitable for classes, and decided to move from the exposed hilltop to the nearby premises of Sha’ar Hanegev High School.
These classes eventually turned into a learning center affiliated with the Open University, and later with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
But it was in the early 1970s, when 15 mayors and local authorities from across the South – including Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Ramat Hanegev Regional Council and Rahat – joined together with the head of Sha’ar Hanegev that the college was born. The mayors banded together to create a regional community college, which came to be known as the Pinhas Sapir College of the Negev after the legendary finance minister.
Today over 8,000 students attend Sapir Academic College, which offers bachelor’s and diploma studies in 15 departments, including communications, cinema and TV, software systems, administration and public diplomacy, accounting, law, human resource management, marketing, social work, economics, and practical engineering, as well as masters tracks.
One of the events for which Sapir is most famous is the Cinema South International Film Festival, which this year was the region’s most massive gathering held before the outbreak of rocket attacks, from June 8 to 12.
“We were lucky in regard to the timing of the film festival,” said Avner Faingulernt, a director of Sapir’s film and television school, and the festival’s executive organizer and initiator.
“There were over 25,000 people who attended the festival, including representatives from two film schools in Munich and Prague.”
The festival, held at the Sderot Cinematheque, gives center stage to Israeli and world cinema, and has received exposure in the international press in France and Britain. Students from Sapir’s well-known film and television school showcase their works at the festival, some of which have gone on to be shown at film festivals in France, Switzerland, the US and UK.
“We don’t create escapist films that are ‘Hollywood’ or glamorized – we deal with real life here,” said Faingulernt.
“I established this school 14 years ago with 30 students; today, we have 400 students. There are students and lecturers who have a difficult time with the rockets but, amazingly, most have stayed to study and teach here during the past decade of rocket fire.”
“The best solution to this situation is to go to work – to continue with life. It will be interesting to see what the students produce this time around,” Faingulernt said.
“We are creating different worlds in an impossible world, right here on the Gaza border.”