Aryeh Cohen has lived in the picturesque town of Sderot (population 26,000) for 53 years – ever since his birth.
“In between rocket explosions, Sderot is a very quiet place to live,” he told The Jewish Press. “Back when I was a child, if a lizard ran across the road in the heat of the day, that was the biggest news story of the day. Today, we’ve heard so many Red Alert sirens before the explosion of incoming missiles, they’ve gotten to be just as boring.”
Yehudit Spanglet questions this sabra stoicism. An Ashkelon psychologist and social worker who has treated dozens of Sderot residents suffering from after-shock trauma, she told The Jewish Press that every time a siren sounds, hundreds of people experience terrible mental strain and often permanent damage.
Many of Sderot’s residents believe Israel’s defense minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has forgotten about the tiny southern enclave – but Hamas surely has not. Last Thursday evening, a rocket fired from Gaza slammed into the building which houses Sderot’s hesder yeshiva.
Asher Pizam, a witness to the rocket strike, told Channel 13: “We heard the Red Alert and then a huge explosion. We went out and saw that a wall of the building was damaged. Fortunately, most of the yeshiva students had already left for Shabbat. It’s very scary. Things cannot go on like this forever.”
In a conversation with The Jewish Press, Aryeh Cohen spoke about Sderot’s early history. “When my parents made aliyah 60 years ago, Sderot was still basically a tent camp for the penniless new immigrants flocking to the Promised Land. Our kindergarten was in a shack. Gradually with the influx of immigrants from Iran, Morocco, Romania, Iraq, and more recently Ethiopia and Russia, permanent buildings were erected, but it took years before we had electricity in every house, public plumbing, and streetlamps.
Today, Cohen is a successful contractor, specializing in the construction of public buildings such as schools, community centers, and bomb shelters. “My business, thank G-d, is holding steady – even with all of the missile attacks,” he reports.
He says more new people move to Sderot each year than leave it. “All in all, it’s a pleasant and meaningful place to raise a family. The air is clean, and the landscaping around the city is immaculate. … The hesder yeshiva is a strong spiritual center for the community, constantly reminding everyone that we are soldiers for the nation, strengthening our southern border. Plus the government provides an assortment of benefits and tax breaks to keep the periphery strong and developing.”
Addressing the dangers inherent in living in Sderot, Cohen said, “Listen, everyone in Israel has served in the army. We’ve all fought in wars. Right now, that’s the price we have to pay in building a Jewish country surrounded by Arabs who don’t want us here. Sometimes, you are a soldier in uniform, and sometimes you wear civilian clothes. You get used to it, like anything else in life. The Sages teach that the Land of Israel is acquired through sufferings.”
Post-trauma specialist Yehudit Spanglet, 70, was born in Virginia. After studying at Stern College in New York, she married a graduate of Yeshiva University, an ardent Zionist like herself, and moved to Israel. Before moving to Ashkelon, she lived in Beer Sheva for 35 years, where she established the Connections and Links Trauma Center, a mobile unit that often brings her to Sderot, where three of her children and 18 grandchildren live.
Her younger ones, she told The Jewish Press, often call her after rocket attacks on the town and ask her to come visit, just to be with them.
“Without question. there are hundreds of people in Sderot and southern Israel who live in a state of continuing trauma,” she says. “Not only from the rockets which fall, but also from the booms of the Iron Dome defense system which, baruch Hashem, intercepts most of the incoming rockets. The blasts which resound in the sky can continue to echo in a person’s ears long after the attack.
“Many victims of trauma live in fear, even during extended periods of ceasefire. When they announced that no one was injured in last Thursday’s rocket attack, I laughed. Every time the siren wails and people have to run for cover, the trauma damage from previous attacks is reinforced.
“Once when I was visiting Sderot, the city came under attack. Outside on the street, not far from my daughter’s home, a woman stood paralyzed, staring up at the sky. Her neck had frozen in fright when the warning siren sounded. Before she could reach a bomb shelter, the missiles of the Iron Dome exploded, seemingly over her head.
“Her husband didn’t want to take her to the hospital in Ashkelon. Slowly, we walked her home with her head still gazing up toward heaven. When she was back in her house, after speaking with her for half an hour, her neck muscles loosened and finally her body relaxed.
Asked about Israelis who seem to take terror strikes in stride, Spanglet said, “Some people are born with strong natures. Others use denial, and there are others, like my children, who, for Zionist reasons, don’t want to paint things in a negative light.
“Speaking as a professional social worker and therapist, I don’t think there is any other place in the world where such large sections of the population have been exposed to such long and continuing trauma. Once a person’s life has been repeatedly threatened, the trauma doesn’t go away unless you undergo a program of professional therapy.
“Now that the rockets fired from Gaza have a wider range, to Tel Aviv and ever further, a few hundred-thousand people have fallen victim to a terror that seems to have no end. This can result in reactions of despair and deep depression. I have treated many people with PTSD who were not able to continue at their place of employment because of their high anxiety levels triggered by the ongoing threat of rocket attacks. They simple couldn’t cope with the pressures of their jobs.
“In addition, living with a sense of impotence in the face of danger, as when the government fails to eliminate the threat, can also lead to bouts of anger, often directed against an employer, or at home, with many unpleasant consequences.”
Spanglet, though, has not thought of moving away from Israel’s south. “Up north, there is the same threat of missiles from Hezbollah in Lebanon,” she said, “And as far as leaving Israel goes, chas v’shalom. My husband and I came here to stay. For my children, Sderot is their home, period. They aren’t going to let the Arabs chase them away.
“It was obvious to us when we came on aliyah four decades ago that the future of the Jewish People is here, and we are still convinced of that, even with all of the rockets. Whenever we are in the States for a visit, when people hear that we live near the Gaza Strip, their first comment is invariably, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ In my opinion, they are living in a bubble. Are their communities any safer? Aren’t their synagogues under fire like we are?
“Right now, President Trump is a great friend to the Jews, but sooner or later, he won’t be president anymore, and there is liable to be a big backlash against Israel, and, by association, against the Jews in America. When that happens, the Jews of Monsey and Lakewood won’t have Tzahal and the Iron Dome system to protect them.”