It took a gaggle of giggling grade 10 girls on a sabbatical here from their rocket-pounded homes in Ashdod to prove, yet again, that Israel’s strength lies in its twin bitachon (trust) in God and the IDF.
Standing in front of the Kotel, Anael – one of 33 students from Ashdod’s Makif Zayin (Comprehensive Middle and Secondary School No. 7), asks me for a sheet of paper from my steno pad.
“I’ve got a big family, and I’ve got a lot of requests,” she matter-of-factly explains.
Anael, like many of her classmates, is keen to explain the reality of Israel’s then 21-day long war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
School has been canceled since December 27 in accordance with Home Front Command directives. Anael and her 15- and 16-year-old classmates have mostly been spending their time in the tedium of their apartments close to the mamad (a Hebrew acronym meaning Residential Secure Space, i.e. a steel reinforced concrete shelter incorporated in every apartment built since 1992.)
Between boredom and anxiety, Anael and her friends have been endlessly checking websites like walla.com and ynet.co.il trying to keep up with limited news and endless rumors about Operation Cast Lead. Military censorship prohibits the broadcasting of the location of rocket strikes, but word spreads quickly via cell phone, SMS and e-mail.
With a shudder, Mor adds she only leaves her apartment building to go to a friend’s house.
“Once I was outside in a car when the siren sounded.”
Following Home Front Command instructions, she and her mother jumped out of the car and laid on the ground near a wall, leaving the keys in the ignition.
“We heard the boom. It was very loud.”
Again she shudders.
Picking up the theme, Ma’ayan adds “The last alert we ran into the mamad. The rocket struck outside. The whole building shook. We started to cry. We want you to tell the whole world,” she asks plaintively.
Yarden joins in, “It hurts us that the world doesn’t identify with us. We’ve been suffering (rockets and mortars) in Sderot for eight years.”
Yarden describes the plight of her grandparents Tamar and Avraham who live in a moshav near Sderot. “They don’t have a mamad. They go to the public shelter. My grandmother is 75, and she can’t run.”
Mai continues, “It’s very stressful. I have to take my younger brother and sister to the mamad. The siren is nerve-wracking. It can sound four or five times a day, early in the morning and late at night. They don’t let us sleep.”
“At first we all slept in the mamad. It was like a family trip. But after a while you want to return to normalcy, and we all resumed sleeping in our rooms.
Relieved to have had a chance to speak, and seeking to change the tenor, Yarden spontaneously states, “We want to thank those who organized this trip. It was truly an experience that crystallized [concretized the connection between the students in] our grade.”
Organized by the Orthodox Union as an off-shoot of their Makom BaLev programs for underprivileged and disadvantaged Israeli youth, the trip was organized for these 10th graders in Ashdod and Be’er Sheva to offer a brief respite.
The trip began Thursday with a bus ride to rocket-free Jerusalem – an hour and a world away. The students spent the day hiking on a section of the Israel Trail in the Judean Hills west of the capital that passes along a series of springs. After a day filled with activities and laughter, that night they slept at the community center in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramot.
Friday’s program began with a tour of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and a visit to the Western Wall.
At the Davidson Center Jerusalem Archaeological Park, the students attentively listen to a lecture on the 1st and 2nd Temples – and the 3rd yet to be built.
The conversation veers back toward the war, only now the girls are keen to relate the miracles they’ve heard about.
One such instant urban legend racing from mouth to mouth relates that a squad of IDF grunts advancing into the dense squalor of the Jebaliya refugee camp encountered a black-frocked Arab woman running from building to building ahead of the soldiers warning them of the booby traps. “Who are you?,” they demand to know, and she answers “I am Rahel Imenu – Rachel the Matriarch.”
Another story tells of a soldier who saved his whole unit when he stepped aside to urinate – and discovered a booby trap trip wire. He and his comrades were able to escape before the hidden Hamas fighters exploded the entire building over their heads.
The stories of miracles and near misses pour from the girls’ mouths and hearts.
Two synagogues were hit by Grad missiles but were empty – thanks to the strict discipline of Home Front Command orders.
A Grad hit a sensitive plant in Ashdod shortly after the last workers had ended their shift.
And on and on the stories come in a powerful catharsis of release and relief.
Another theme emerges by the Western Wall – of the humility and humanity of the brave IDF soldiers keen to avoid collateral damage, i.e. the killing of civilians.
When Jacob heard that Esau was coming, the Torah relates “And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed” (Genesis 32:8): the midrash explains: “frightened – lest he be killed; and distressed – lest he kill” (Genesis Rabba 76:2).
Similarly when Israel left Egypt “the angels wanted to sing. Said God: ‘My handiwork [the Egyptian soldiers] are drowning in the sea – and you are singing?!’” (Megila 10b).
The program was to have included Shabbat in Jerusalem.
The students are very disappointed when told the Home Front Command has cancelled their Sabbath plans and ordered them to return home to Ashdod. Their teacher Yamit confides to me the more prosaic truth; the Shabbat portion of the trip has been cancelled because the Ministry of Education hasn’t arranged insurance.
The people of Israel are strong, she notes, protected by God who neither sleeps nor slumbers, and an army equipped with great fortitude and advanced weapons. But as for the government, well, some things never change.
All students in Ashdod and the south returned to their classroom Tuesday, following a decision by the Ministry of Education. The first half of the day was spent in a discussion about the Gaza war.
Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based journalist.