Sunday, Feb. 28
Written by Rabbi Joel Nickerson
Our day began with the 1.5 hour drive to the town of Sderot, on the border with Gaza and famous for the number of rockets that have been fired on this area over the years. According to our guide, more than 11,000 rockets have fallen on Sderot and its surrounding area over the last 10 years or so. Unbelievable.
We noticed two important things as soon as we got off the bus. The first was the addition of ‘safe rooms’ to every single home and apartment in the city. Because of its proximity to the border, the Israeli government is paying for these improvements, which include a single room in every home that is reinforced in a way that it can withstand direct rocket fire. It is a requirement for every home in the area to have such a room.
Because you only have 15 seconds to get to a shelter if the sirens go off, each bus stop is accompanied by a bunker for easy access. The doors to the bunkers used to be unlocked all the time, but because men started using the rooms as bathrooms, the town had to lock all the doors. But of course, you can’t have locked doors when the sirens go off so they created an electronic system that automatically unlocks all the bunker doors when the siren is sounded.
Our first stop was the police station because in the back area of the station, you find just a small fraction of the rockets that have fallen in the area over the years. It’s incredible to imagine how many times the residents of this town had to flee to shelters with such little notice and unfortunately, the threat has changed from rockets to mortars. While rockets can be tracked by the Iron Dome Defense System and shot down in the air, mortars are small projectiles that are impossible to track because they have no heat signal and have a lower path while in flight. Therefore, they are almost impossible to prepare for and as our local guide stated on many occasions, ‘living here can be like a game of Russian roulette.’ Not very reassuring.
(click on images to enlarge)
After the police station, we took a short ride to a lookout spot outside the town to get a better sense of just how close we were to Gaza. The first thing we saw was a memorial to a 20-year old soldier who was killed in a deadly helicopter crash some years ago. His family erected a powerful memorial made out of bells that cause sounds when the wind blows. In essence, a large wind chime. Next to the memorial was a sign that read something like, “The wind that goes through these pipes tells the story of Asaf’s life. Each pipe represents a year in his life. Let the wind play them.”
From there, we walked to the overlook and saw just how close we were to the Gaza strip. The road and fence that separated us from Gaza was just at the bottom of the hill and we had a view that looked out over a large swath of the Gaza strip as well as looking north into other parts of Israel.
Below is a panoramic view of the area and you should be able to see the dirt road that separates Israel from the Strip and along the horizon, the Strip itself.
On this beautiful and peaceful day, as we walked among wildflowers and bean fields, it was hard to imagine the hatred and pain that existed just on the other side of that fence. And to know that at any minute, a rocket or mortar could ruin this peaceful experience.
Our tour of Sderot ended with a short tour through the city (about 25,000 people live here). According to our local guide, many families are moving to Sderot because of its affordable housing. Unlike many areas in the country, Sderot (most likely because of its location) is much more affordable and while its economy is relatively poor, it seems to offer some hope for families who cannot afford to live in the larger cities.
We passed by a playground and it offers a clever solution to any family who may be playing in the park. Instead of the large, bulky bunkers found near bus stops, a local artist created a clever way to build a shelter for the children. It’s so sad that artist talents need to be used for such things.
I left Sderot feeling both optimistic and utterly defeated. At no point did I feel unsafe during my time there, and yet, when I really thought about it, this peaceful and calm place could be turned into a place of panic and pain within a matter of seconds. I am in awe of the families who choose to live their lives in that environment and as I go to bed tonight, I will be praying for their safety and security.