The Human Spirit: Underground in Ashkelon

We're not called a stiff-necked people for nothing.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
I found a star beneath the ground in the city of Ashkelon. No, not in the ramparts of the national archeological park. In a bomb shelter. Funny, all the things you can do underground. Some are digging tunnels to import missiles, while across the border others are teaching kids arts and crafts and trying to make scared kids laugh. Among the latter was this young fellow named Erez Menashe. I'd tagged along with a dozen teens from Baltimore, headed to Ashkelon while rockets were falling there during the war with Hamas. A few came from a yeshiva on the Golan Heights. The rest were participants in the Young Judaea year course, American kids from a variety of religious observance. Ashkelon and Baltimore are linked in a partnership program. Long before January, Ashkelon residents had chosen a date for the some 140 young people in Israel from Baltimore on a variety of long-term (Masa) programs to spend a day with their partners in Ashkelon. They would receive home hospitality and a tour of the archeology and the beach. But when January 15 rolled around, the city was the target of missiles from Gaza. Most of the programs postponed their visit, but the teens who did show up were adamant about doing something to help. Some 165 kindergartens, 31 primary schools, 15 high schools and one college had been closed for nearly three weeks. Forty-six percent of the city's 113,000 residents are new immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union. Few of the apartment buildings had their own shelters, so public shelters became instant day-care facilities, providing both safety and childcare. That's where the American teens wanted to help out. In the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, 50 kids, aged four to 14, had been dropped off by their parents early in the morning. Once you're in the shelters you can barely hear the alarms outside. When we descended, a couple of nine-year-olds were fighting. A lanky, dark-haired boy broke it up. That was Erez. He proceeded to gain the attention of most of the kids and gave instructions for the day's coloring project. January 15 was the Thursday before the end of Operation Cast Lead, and Erez and his friends had been volunteering with the rambunctious kids for nearly three weeks. They're only 16. How did he know what to do? "We have experience," Erez said. "We" is an organization called Mo'etzet Hano'ar, a local youth council that organizes teen-to-teen activities. "We volunteered in the shelters in the North two years ago." Do the math. They were 14. IF THE kids had traveled to the area hit by Katyusha rockets, there was no way they'd leave their own town when Grad rockets came their way. Some of the volunteers are members of the scouts, others babysit for youngsters, so they know how to keep little kids busy. Still, three weeks underground, seven hours a day, with such a range of ages, has to be a challenge. Upstairs, sunshine, blue skies and a park with slides beckoned. But getting all the children back into the shelter within 30 seconds from the sounding of the alarm was too daunting an undertaking. Missiles had fallen nearby. One person was killed, nearly 200 wounded in the city. So underground the children had to stay until the missile attacks stopped. The facilities are basic - a couple of long tables and a cement floor. Erez said they've had days when more elaborate food has been donated - yellow cheese, even pizza, but on the day I was there the snack food is that old Israeli staple - sliced white bread and a container of chocolate spread. With their high school closed, Erez and his buddies could have been snorkeling in Eilat or skiing on the Hermon. Why would they stay home and volunteer? For a moment the question puzzled him. "It feels really good to do this, to get the children to smile and let their parents go to work and know their children are safe," Erez said. "Maybe it helps us deal with our own fears, too." Sometimes he plays a clown to cheer up the children. Sometimes he directs art projects. His mom is an art teacher. More than 100 children showed up for the shelter, so the young volunteers like Erez opened up additional shelters. THE AMERICAN teens who have come to help out are a little awkward and shy at first. Not all of them have caught on to Hebrew in the four months they've been in Israel. But soon, each of them has found a seat at the long tables, helping with the arts and crafts, playing games and beading necklaces and bracelets with the children. Most important, they give the children needed personal attention. "It's nice to have other volunteers with their input," said Erez, cracking a broad smile. "I get quite a headache working here seven hours a day." The spirit of volunteering that Erez exemplifies is both profound and beautiful. Through the three weeks of warfare, so many Israelis quietly came forward to host southerners, buy their goods, volunteer with their children, boost their morale and improve the livelihood of those most affected by this war. This unheralded giving is our best secret weapon. Don't be fooled by our crusty, assertive personalities. The most beautiful part of Erez and his friends is that they're just kids - teens who grew up here and who get their kicks doing deeds of great kindness. The teens are all back in school these days. Erez is just another 10th grader this week, hoping the quiet will continue. Before Operation Cast Lead fades from the news, bravo soldiers at the front, and bravo heroes of the homefront, too. The Hebrew word for homefront is oref, the back of the neck. It's the same word used to describe us pejoratively, am k'shey oref, a stiff-necked people: those obstreperous Israelites. But stiff-neckedness isn't all bad - it produces kids unyielding to negative social pressures, and a people whose heads are firmly connected to their hearts.