Rockets make a funny noise when they race to their targets, people say. It’s a kind of whistle that lets you know you’ve run out of time. It’s too late to make it to a bomb shelter; better find the closest safe space and hope for the best.
People in Sderot know all about that sound, that feeling, but they tend to be very matter-of-fact about it when speaking with “outsiders” — those who have never lived under the constant threat of rocket fire. Most visitors never catch the difference in their voices, that ever-alert look in their eyes. The slightly dissociated expression on so many faces passing by in the street.
Thirteen years of constant shelling and rocket fire aimed at the city by Gaza terrorists, less than a mile away, has taken its toll on the residents of Sderot. But there is a group of young families that came to live in the city in order to blend their strength with the residents and help them heal. To stand together in the face of enemy fire.
“We never really know when the attack is going to come. We had only three seconds in the last war to reach a safe space before we heard the sound of a mortar shell or rocket landing nearby,” explains Odelia Ben-Porat,” one of the group. She is the Partnerships Manager for Afikim BaNegev, the community that created the Reut-Sderot Association, a group that has brought therapeutic and family support programs to the city.
“We’ve had rockets strike our own buildings as well,” she adds calmly, pointing to a fortification roofing that appears to shield the roof of a building framed among desert greenery. “That helped in the beginning when they first installed it – but in Gaza they have improved their technology and this no longer is enough.” So the marathon run to the bomb shelters is still mandatory. An entire city is still on the run.
Even now, in a period of “calm,” people in Sderot live in a kind of limbo, a state of suspended animation where they hold their breath waiting for the next attack, Ben-Porat says. During periods of escalation, as many as 50 missiles and mortar shells were fired at the city in one day alone.
“People live in fear. The children are raised in an atmosphere of insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety. Those families who could – usually those with better education and better finances – picked up and left. This has left Sderot without well-to-do young local volunteers and local leadership,” Ben-Porat explains.
To counter this ‘brain drain’ – and the crushing poverty that comes along with it – two decades ago 10 ambitious young families organized themselves into a core group, or “garin.” They named their little community “Afikim BaNegev” and moved to Sderot to volunteer their services in Israel’s periphery.
That was in 1993. In 2014, Afikim BaNegev has grown to 340 families.
The Reut-Sderot Association operates more than a dozen therapeutic and community support programs to help local families get back on their feet and stay there.
Among the programs run by the group are the Reut Clubhouses for At-Risk Children, which provides hot meals, social skills activities and supportive counseling five days a week. They are run by professional staff who serve 57 children ages 6-13 in four after-school centers.
Reut Sderot’s Psycho Trauma Therapy program provides expressive arts therapy such as art, dance, music and movement therapies to approximately 53 children ages 6-13 who live in “disturbing family environments” and also have been directly affected by rocket attack-related trauma. Therapy is provided by on-site creative expression therapists within the environment of larger therapeutic centers for at-risk children.
Four years ago the organization created the Young Afikim group to build up the next generation’s leadership. At present, 90 members of this group, including numerous young families, are committed to living in Sderot and revitalizing the city. They have moved into old and neglected apartment blocks in the more disadvantaged “Neve Eshkol” and “Nir Am” neighborhoods.
Following the death of a young child, a special Emergency Team trained by a clinical psychologist was also established to provide on-the-spot support in the form of crisis intervention. Ben Porat says the group is working towards being able to purchase medicine for sick children or provide financial aid for families in an emergency.
The City of Sderot and State of Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Infrastructure (MICI) are also lending their support, particularly in providing funding and licensing to the Afikim Day Care Center, which cares for some 150 children ages 3 months to 3 years old, while their parents are at work or school.
Even in summer, when many Israeli children are forced to fend for themselves, at least 57 Sderot children most “at risk” are provided with scholarships to attend four weeks of “Bravo” Summer Camp. The project, named in honor of Steven and Irene Grossman, ensures that the children most traumatized by living “on the edge” are distracted by activities most Western children would consider to be “simply normal.”
The average Israeli teen enters the Israel Defense Forces at age 18, after completing high school. But for some teens, it’s not that simple – particularly for those who are unable to learn properly due to being repeatedly traumatized by terror attacks. Reut-Sderot’s Lapidot Preparatory College provides a project that serves 17 young women ages 18-20 from Israel’s periphery, within the framework of the compulsory National Service they serve instead of military duty. The project, based in Sderot, includes various community volunteer activities during the morning hours, and studies in the afternoons and evenings, with the girls preparing and serving their own dinners. Upon graduation the girls are encouraged to seek further academic studies and employment within their fields of interest.
Reut-Sderot also provides hundreds of needy low-income families with food and clothing vouchers at holiday time each year. As in many communities in Israel’s periphery, there are many who would otherwise be unable to celebrate the holidays with a proper meal.
The organization does not carry out all these programs alone, Ben-Porat emphasizes. “We cooperate with a number of partners and are fortunate to have the support of others as well,” she notes. Some of those include the Sderot municipality, UIA Canada, Mizrachi Canada, State of Israel government ministries and agencies, Young Israel of Woodmere, and several foundations and private donors. “New partners mean the ability to stretch our resources and help more people,” she adds. “The more people involved in our work, the more we can do.”
Odelia Ben-Porat and the Reut-Sderot Association can be reached at 972-50-672-8204, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Hana Levi Julian