Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Normal Day in Sderot

Yesterday we said goodbye to the beautiful metropolitan of Tel Aviv and headed south to Sderot. The city of Sderot is incredibly unique for a number of reasons but in order to understand this place, it is important to understand its position. Located just next to the border of the Gaza Strip, Sderot has been under rocket fire for the past thirteen years. Hamas, the extremist organization that runs the Gaza Strip, fires Qassams (rockets) into the civilian population as part of their ongoing mission to destroy Israel.  As an American citizen who has never lived elsewhere, life in Sderot was a complete and utter shock.
When I recall entering Tel Aviv I remember spectacular skyscrapers, twinkling lights, luxury vehicles on the populated highways, the welcoming waves of Mediterranean, and how similar it was to any other city I had been to or imagined. My first visual of Sderot was a bomb shelter with the word “Guest” painted on the wall. 
As we travelled into the city, the shelters became more frequent than bus stops, with 1 shelter per 2 people. We met our guide for the day, Sivan, at the Sderot Media Center. She shed some light on what its like to live in Sderot. Sivan explained that there is currently a ceasefire, which means that less bombs than usual are fired into the city from the strip. She assured us that we were safe-Sderot had not been hit since Shavuot (Jewish holiday) a month ago- and that if an alarm went off we would have 10-15 seconds to find a shelter.  The alarm system, called the Red Alert, was developed in 2005 by the Israeli Defense Force and is used all over Israel for protection again enemy fire. Doing the math I realized this left about five years before an alert- five years without any protection from Qassams that were launched up to fifty times a day. And yet people continued to live here. Sivan explains that leaving Sderot is difficult. She showed us a map of Israel and drew circles showing how far the Qassam rockets can reach – all the way up to Tel Aviv and into the east as far as Beersheba.  Instead, the people of Sderot stay and try to create as normal a life as possible.
Almost every bomb shelter had been reworked to include street art and some of the leftover shrapnel from Qassams were used to make artwork. We visited a children’s playground where the shelters had been built to look like caterpillars.  The schools here are protected as well, with bomb shelters built inside.

I couldn’t help but notice children playing in the schoolyard and knowing that at any moment a ‘Color Red’ alarm could go off and they would know exactly where to run and what to do. Even with as much incredible work as the people of Sderot do, they have been robbed off any ‘normal’.


Red Zone Courage

     Israel always had, at any point in history, some kind of threat posed to them. Since before independence and all the way up to the present day, Israel had had to bitterly fight for its borders and people with no end in sight. There were hopes of a resolution coming to pass in the 1990's and Israelis will always hope for peace, but this reality of constant conflict engraved itself into the lives of the people and has become the norm of daily life.
     I lived in Israel for 6 years before coming to the states and in that time, I was lucky enough to live in a quieter part of the state where rockets weren't launched on a daily basis and the borders are more spread out. I was too young to understand the severity of the conflict and all this added up to a rather blissful childhood. It was only after I moved to the States and grew up that I began to realize the perils of my home and harsh conditions some had to live under. Of course no amount of news reports, stories from my parents, and even pictures of bombings could prepare me for what I saw in Sderot. The people there live in imminent threat 24/7 and yet somehow manage to continue their normal routine. It's remarkable just how well they integrate their lives with the much needed added protection against rocket attacks.
     My visit in Sderot woke me up to the real danger Israel faces so much that I actually got a taste of what it feels like to live in "The Red Zone". When and if a missile is fired from Gaza, everyone in the city has a mere 15 seconds to find cover before impact. The iron dome is effective against long range missiles but these travel so low that it's impossible to intercept in mid-air. This is the Red Zone. And I didn't feel like I was at home and I didn't recognize the urgency for safety that was so familiar to our guide; all I felt was the Red Zone. However this didn't take away from the real lesson I learned from their collective experience.
     Sderot if anything, is an example of the ultimate resistance against terror. When faced with a nightmarish situation that seems to never stop, the people of Sderot became resilient by choosing to rise above. They could have petitioned the government to leave or they could have just moved on their own all together but instead chose to stay. They refused to be intimidated and found a way to continue their lives despite the danger. Buildings have been reinforced, countless shelters were built, and even the alarm became a less frightening sound to hear but the most radical adjustment made was their attitude. That courage is the most valuable lesson I got from my visit. People's lives shouldn't be dictated by fear and terror. Those who understand that live fuller lives and the people of Sderot are an exemplary instance of that case.


Is Freedom Relative?

There seems to be a contrast between the definition of freedom in America and the definition of freedom in Israel. As Americans, we are raised thinking of our nation as “the land of the free.” Thanks to our forefathers and the men and women who continuously work to assure our safety and security, I have grown up with one of the greatest gifts of all: the ability to take our meaning of freedom for granted. In America, safety almost seems an afterthought. It is a given, a universal constant. Freedom takes on the meaning of racial, social, and gender equalities, the belief in the American dream and of hard work and opportunity

The land of Israel, meaning “struggle” in Hebrew, sometimes feels oppressed. A sentiment no one in a free country should feel, yet present because of their enduring public struggle for existence. In this country, freedom takes on a different meaning, and seems to pertain more to survival, and less to social liberty

The struggles of Israel are varied and complex, but at the most basic level they can be broken down to the same struggles of any diverse and developed nation. But of a nation of such small land mass with tensions seemingly on all sides and even within, the struggles cannot be hidden from the eyes of the population, and are transparent and public. Its transparency permeates into the society and culture, and the feeling of oppression I mentioned earlier may have stemmed from the population’s involvement in “sharing the burden.” The country’s notion that everyone is responsible for the defense of Israel, as evident in the mandatory conscription policies.

A universal draft or conscription outside of war wouldn’t likely mesh well with American culture, but for Israel it’s a part of it. To us, a part of our notion of freedom is that we are free to live our lives without being forced into the military. To the majority of Israelis, that notion of freedom does not exist.

L. A. W.

Israel's Diversity

Throughout this week and particularly today, I have come to realize that the misconception that Israel is solely a Jewish state is incorrect. While Israel is made up of many devout Jewish people and serves as the Holy Land for the Jewish people as well, my experience at Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is the site in which Jesus was killed, buried, and raised again, showed me that the nation is actually much more diverse and accepting than many would believe. The moment I walked through the grand entrance of the Church, so many aspects stood out to me—the platform in which Jesus was placed on after his death on the cross, the ornate mosaic artwork telling the story of Jesus, the building itself. Something important I noticed after I was able to really step back and observe was the wide span of people. Left and right, I saw Arab Christians, Ethiopian Christians, Catholics, men, women, young children, and elderly. 

On a larger scale, I was amazed that so many different places of worship exist within even the city of Jerusalem. Within the span of the city, one is able to find Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, the Armenian Quarter, and even a Mormon college. Israel seems to be able to maintain a high population of diverse religious practices while in a sense also integrating them all into one living space. I think that many preach the importance of coexistence, but few are actually able to obtain a standard of living in which religions from all ends of the spectrum are not only allowed to but also able to carry out a system of beliefs without any objections. Israel, in my eyes, is an example of a nation whom successfully reached this aspiration. Rather than wrongly judging the nation, the world as a whole must be looking to Israel as an example of a nation that is making incredible efforts to reach peace.


Shalom! My name's Kayla and I'm also in Israel with Blue Star Fellows! I have a separate blog where I've been posting pictures and reflections every day--with the exception of yesterday and if you're curious you can check out my blog tomorrow for the full story ;) I'm loving every moment of this trip and I'm just trying to be a sponge, soaking up all the wonderful things Israel has to offer. Feel free to stop by and check out my two cents!

Shavua tov,

Link: Click Me!

“Next Year in Jerusalem”

There is no way to explain how important, the Kotel (Western Wall) and the city of Jerusalem are to the Jewish people.  The connection the Jewish people share with the Holyland is that of a mother and child; unbreakable, innate, and unexplainable. But even the analogy of mother and child isn’t enough to explain our relationship with Jerusalem. It’s a beautiful, sacred, divine and everlasting relationship that maintains its strength through the millennia.

I’ve attended Hebrew school since I was two years old. And for every prayer we face east, the direction of Jerusalem. Every Pesach we recite “Next Year in Jerusalem” meaning that next year we will be in the land of Israel enjoying Jerusalem.  After praying toward Jerusalem all year, there is no better feeling than being back in Jerusalem and feeling the energy of the Kotel.

Last night I visited the wall. The Kotel on Friday night is always crowed with locals, tourists, and people of every religion, color, and creed. Some people leaving notes in the wall, some people praying, and some people crying with joy that they receive by being in such an overwhelming situation. Every time I visit the wall, it’s like the first time and it is always a beautiful and spiritual experience.

Today I traveled around the old city of Jerusalem after meeting a Yeshiva student who offered to show me around. Because Jews are not supposed to work on Shabbat, we walked through the shops in the Arab and Christian Quarter.  The diversity never seizes to amaze me. We walked by Jews, Arabs, Russians, Armenians, Ethiopians, Monks, and tourists from Asia, South America, Europe, Africa, and so on.

In America the historical landmarks never exceed three hundred years. In Jerusalem are buildings overs three thousand years old, built by my Jewish ancestors. And that is a beautiful thing. That is why I consider Israel my home. 


My Unexpected Day at The Red-Zone

Going to Sderot today, I already came with preconceptions of what it will be and consist of. I have heard that it is one of the most targeted cities in Israel since it is closest to the Gaza Strip. I imagined that the city will be spotted with rocket craters and rubble everywhere, but the exact opposite was true. The Israeli government is so caring for their citizens that they don’t want tragedies to affect their lives. After a rocket falls within their borders, they immediately send out a team to clean up the mess and fix any damages that occurs. This really spoke to me because it shows that the Israeli are so optimistic and set their minds in the future that they want the best for their children. They don’t want to have their kids being harmed or traumatized beyond what they need to so they make the situation as pleasant as possible. Not that I am saying that this is anything to be happy about, people are in constant threat of death and no one should go through that. But it’s beautiful to see that they handle the situation with the most maturity compared with anyone or government that I could think of.

                One thing that really hit it hard on me was hearing how routine the rockets fell on them and how it impacted the children. When I heard that an Israeli boy turned down the opportunity to live any other place in the world instead of Sderot solely on the reason that he knows that nowhere else in the world offers the quantity bomb shelters like his home town really shows how the situation affects their lives. Essentially he believes that this rocket fire is so normal that it happens all around the world and that there is nothing abnormal of this situation. It’s scary to think that these kids are growing up with the tragedy that is happened to them and how it will affect them in the long-run. But as I said before the government tries extremely hard to make everyone’s life as normal as possible, and we can clearly see that with the parks they make for the children. Half of the park was bomb shelters, but they disguised them as gigantic caterpillars and other fun objects so they can play in and let their imagination flourish even with the unfortunate situation. Life in Sderot is something that I never have seen before, combining the worst of situations plus the best mentality and handling of the situation.

Israeli Hot Here

Americans consider mental illness a serious issue, specifically reoccurring in American news today with recent bombings and shootings throughout the country. While in the Islamic world children are raised with a mentality for death. Not just death upon Jews, but death to themselves with a reward waiting for them on the other side of what they call ‘heaven’. Today we visited the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center where we saw firsthand, rockets that were shot into the State of Israel. These thieves of life make it evident that passion, time, and effort can be strived towards the completion of a rudimentary object. An object so basic to complete but completely capable of destroying lives. 

Today we learned that in order to fight or communicate you have to know your neighbors and enemies, as well as their language and culture. Witnessing photographs and videos of children handed guns and celebrating death allowed me to be in an astonished state. Coming from a country and culture where I was taught to cherish my life, it’s been a struggle to understand this mentality. I know continue on my journey through Israel with an open mind for both sides of the story. 


Tick Tock: The Reality of Sderot

In fifteen seconds I can type, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” twice on my iPhone—with the help of autocorrect. In fifteen seconds I can do about fifteen jumping jacks. In fifteen seconds, I cannot wash my hands for the CDC-recommended amount of time (it’s 20 seconds, in case you were wondering). And had the “Red Color” alarm gone off while I was in Sderot today, we would have seen if I—and the approximately 24,000 others in the city—could have reached the safety of the nearest bomb shelter.

Fifteen seconds. That’s all the time the people of Sderot have from the moment the alarm begins until the Hamas rockets explode, shooting knives, glass, rocks, and other skin-piercing materials through the air in hopes of striking anyone who was not quick enough in those fifteen seconds.

School children know only a reality of hiding from these rockets. They have been trained to run as soon as a woman’s voice announces, “Red Color” over an alarm system, and it is not a drill. That’s quite different from the earthquake preparations I grew up with, when a woman’s voice also appeared over an intercom, but merely saying, “this is a simulation of an earthquake.” My classmates and I responded by rowdily crawling under our desks and tucking our heads under our hands, often while laughing and not taking the situation seriously, until the woman’s voice came back to say, “end of simulation.” In my 15+ years of public schooling I’ve experienced three real earthquakes, and only one large enough for the alarm to go off instructing us to crawl under the desks. And I can tell you that it took us all much longer than fifteen seconds.

For the children and adults of Sderot, their most recent reality is a constant repetition of these fifteen seconds. I find it hard to demonize a country that spends millions of dollars on the construction of bomb shelters, including caterpillar-shaped ones for a playground, in order to try to make those fifteen seconds tick just a little bit slower.


Town to Town


Throughout my last two years in High School I drove a total of 130 miles a week in Humboldt County. Every day I would drive to school in Eureka, pick up my sister in Arcata, and then go to night classes near Loleta. It was a small yet spread out community where a destination a few miles away seemed next door. I never thought about how lucky I was to be able to travel so much on a daily basis. I always had the confidence of being able to be where ever I needed to be with no obstacles or challenges.
What really brought this privilege to my eyes was my travel around Israel today. I went to a small town outside the Gaza Strip called Sderot, where no resident had such a privilege. The people there where all of low means who could not travel or move out of the town. Being immobile in such a place was so bad because the town was 804 meters outside of the Gaza Strip, which means it is in rage of small SAMs. Throughout the last decade the town was hit by thousands of rockets, sometimes fifty in one day. The town's sirens that simply said "Color Red" would play over and over again, causing the township to stop what they are doing and find the nearest bomb shelter. I could hardly relate my small town experience in America because of this reality.
I had one moment, however, where I could relate our two small towns. We went to lunch at a small 'mom and pop' business for lunch today. The food kept coming and the people were lovely. It was some of the best Middle Eastern food I have ever had and the staff on site treated us as family. The customers around us were joking around, and it felt as if everyone knew everyone. I could finally relate. But as we got up to leave, something dragged me back into the reality of the situation. I saw the colorful bomb shelter right next to our bus and I remembered that the sirens could have gone off at any time.