Last week, the children of Sderot prepared for Passover. At a model
seder in a third-grade classroom in modern Orthodox religious
elementary school affiliated with the AMIT organization, the kids
recited the order of the Haggadah to the approval of their teacher.
With napkin smocks covering their school sweatshirts, the youngsters
made Kiddish over little bottles of grape juice and paraded around the
Later, fifth-grade girls escorted visitors to their small city around
the natural history "museum" that the students had created in the
courtyard hallway of their school and showed off the books that kids
were reading from their library.
But there is one feature of the school that is unique: a room in the
basement labeled "cheder shaalva" room of comfort.
How Do You Measure Fear?
It is a room with soft pillows and chairs whose purpose is to give the
children who need a place to calm down and deal with the daily dilemma
of rocket attacks that rain down on their town.
On its walls are the childrens' prayers. But the notes pinned to the
board are not requests for toys or treats. What they want is much more
simple. They want a day and a night without kassams, without the
gut-wrenching fear that envelops the life of children who have not
known anything but a world dominated by the words "Tzeva Adom" the
"code red" alert emanating from loudspeakers. It warns them that they
have but 15-20 seconds to find shelter before a Palestinian missile may
land to crush the walls of their homes or schools while sending
shrapnel into the air to tear their flesh and snuff the life from their
Inside the quiet room is a cardboard model of a kassam with a scale,
numbering one to 10 on it, signifying the level of fear students sense
on any given day. A zero is represented with a child's smile, the 10
with a frown.
When asked by principal Dinah Houri how she feels, 10-year-old Yael
answers with a lukewarm "five."
For Houri, the normal challenges of educating the youth of a town of
low-income families are complicated by the fact that everything in a
town within kassam-range is set in that context of fear.
"These children are afraid every day every hour of the day," Houri
explains. Wherever they go and whatever they do, they must think about
what they will do if an alarm sounds. The question is always "Where
will I hide?" she says.
For Yael, who says that she lives on the third floor of her apartment
building, that means a mad rush to the basement bomb shelter every time
the alarm sounds, something that can happen several times on a bad
night. Others have slept in beds in shelters for years.
Where do these kids play? Down the street from the school is a
playground with a metal awning to resist the impact of a kassam. But
what kind of free play can go on in such an atmosphere? Indeed, Houri
says that, for the most part, these are children who have grown up
playing inside rather than in the fresh air because of the kassams.
It is a life, she readily concedes, as "surreal" as something in a
movie, but, somehow, they have gotten used to it. About that, they have
Last Tuesday, after a morning of classes, the students of Houri's
school marched down the street to a community center to hear a concert
being given for them. During the performance, the lights in the
auditorium began to flash. It meant nothing to me, but the children
understood what I didn't. Once again, the town was under attack.
Since the music was playing too loudly for us to hear the "Tzeva Adom"
outside, the lights indicated the need to seek shelter.
The kids' reaction was immediate. Some began to cry. Others ducked
under their chairs. But, within moments, their teachers and other
adults reassured them that they were safe. The music never stopped, and
soon the danger had passed without further incident. Two other alerts
would sound that day in the region, one in which terrorists would also
assault the border and kill two Israelis.
Later, when asked if the roof of the center was reinforced, Houri
conceded it was not. Had a kassam hit, the worst might have happened.
But what would you have us do she demanded. Have the kids running
across the street to a shelter in the middle of an attack?
These are the sorts of decisions parents and educators have been forced
to make in Sderot. Thanks to the inability of the Palestinians to aim
their rockets accurately, casualties have been relatively few. But, as
Houri attests, every child knows someone who has been hit or had a
kassam land near them.
At one religious high school, a security camera captured the moment of
impact when a rocket landed in the school's yard moments before
teenagers might have been there. That school's principal showed me the
holes in the building's walls from the shrapnel that sought to kill his
Indeed, everyone in town seems to have his or her own story of close
escapes and similar "miracles." But the reality is that there is no
relief in sight from the ordeal.
Israel's government and its prime minister, widely reviled in Sderot,
are trapped between the obligation to protect their citizens and the
realization that neither conventional military retaliation nor
diplomacy seems to have any impact on Hamas.
This has led some to say, not without justice, that the rest of Israel
has abandoned Sderot and its people. But, in spite of the failure to
halt the attacks, the town is beginning to take on the aspect of a
symbol of Israel's resilience as more visitors come to to express
solidarity. Sderot is becoming, perhaps in spite of itself, Israel's
Verdun. And like the World War I French fortress town that the Germans
could not conquer, perhaps the Palestinians have started a process that
they also cannot control here.
Rabbi Dovid Fendel, the head of a Hesder yeshiva in the town where
students mix army service with Torah study, says young religious
couples are moving there out of Zionist sentiment to show the
Palestinians that they cannot succeed in making the place a "ghost
"For every kassam, we will build," the American-born Fendel pledges.
"They should see we are not afraid."
But that bravado notwithstanding, the children of Sderot are still
preparing for a Passover celebration which they know may be disrupted
by the kassams.
This weekend, take a moment at your own seder. Look at the children
around your table and imagine what you would feel like if they faced
what the children of Sderot must live with every day.
As you do, say a prayer for the children of Sderot. Pray, as they do,
for quiet. That no kassams will fall. That no "Tzeva Adom" will be
heard in the town. Pray that there be peace for all of Israel and let
those prayers be heard around the world. Amen.