Friday, January 16, 2009

Rabbinic Mission Day 3- From Rabbi Uri

(I have attached pictures relating to my last email at the bottom of this letter.)

January 15, 2009

Dear Friends,

I ended my last email with a naïve hope that I would be getting some sleep in the Kurtzberg home in Sderot. But let me ask you, how do you possibly shut your eyes when you know that if a rocket is launched from Gaza you have exactly ten seconds to get into a shelter?

Ten Seconds.
I watched a YouTube video yesterday depicting a young girl playing hide and seek – counting down from fifteen (- as the rockets have improved, the time has been reduced to ten seconds since this film was made). During those fifteen seconds you see all the children running… but when the counting is over, all you hear is a big boom. Just to give you a sense of how short those seconds might be.

So there I am, in our chazzan Ofer’s bedroom, two floors above their private shelter. Could you wake yourself up quickly enough, in the dead of sleep, and get down those two flights, in the dark, in time? Would you even be awake enough to hear the air raid siren within ten seconds?
It’s not easy to sleep your first time in Sderot…

Frankly, it’s not easy to sleep any night in Sderot for the past eight years.
One family we met, the Da’ans, have slept for the past two years, every night, in the private shelter in their basement. Just to give you an idea, these shelters are about 8x8 feet square. It’s only enough to squeeze three little cots side by side. The Da’ans are a family of six. Abba and Eema, Eden(18 yrs), Lidor(16), Morag(13), and Zohar(8). Every night, for the past two years, they sleep on top of each other in their shelter, because they’re too afraid to sleep anywhere else. Here is a picture of Eden and Zohar in their decorated shelter. Zohar is holding some of the stuffed animals I gave her. (Special thanks to Shoshana!)

Let me get back to that Ten Seconds.
In case, you are still confused, allow me to explain. I had the unfortunate personal opportunity to count down from ten yesterday morning at about 8:00am. I was outside the Yeshiva in Sderot, packing my bags up to move on to our next destination, when the siren blared, “TZEVAH ADOM! TZEVAH ADOM!” – “RED ALERT! RED ALERT!”

It was the first time I had heard an alert in Sderot and I was confused for a moment. That cost me three seconds. Suddenly everyone was shouting, “RATZ B’FNIM!” -“RUN INSIDE!” I turned to run with them. Six seconds left.

I was first to the building just about 35 feet away (I’ll credit that to my long legs and the adrenaline rush), and I tried to push the door open when I was supposed to pull.
3 seconds left.

I pulled and about 13 of us rushed inside.
0 seconds left.

Our eyes opened wide. This was very real.

The yeshiva students, seasoned to this experience, headed right back outside. Those in our group were still frozen in shock in our places. A good thing too, because immediately, another TZEVAH ADOM ALERT went off, and they all rushed back inside.
Ten seconds later, the BOOM was much louder, which meant it was much closer. We felt the ground shake upon impact.

Last night, as we watched the news, we discovered that the second rocket went through the living room wall of a family in Sderot. The family was home, but miraculously, nobody was hurt… at least physically.
Oh, did I mention that the rockets are each filled with ball bearings, so that when they explode, steel balls shoot out from the point of impact? You can see those ball bearing marks throughout the city...

Every resident we met in Sderot spoke of the countless miracles they’ve experienced surviving these rocket attacks. But of course, not everyone has survived and the entire city is traumatized for life. Young children have grown up only knowing a world of raining rockets. Right now, one million Israeli residents are within the 40 kilometer range of Hamas’ terror. How do you live like that?

Eden Da’an is now in her first year of National Service and is teaching in a school in Sderot (post-high school women have the choice of enlisting in the army or serving in the National Service program – a non-military option). Eden told me that she could have chosen any place in the country to serve – and even in America. But she chose to stay in Sderot (after sleeping two years with her entire family in a shelter!).

In her words, “I did not want to leave Sderot remembering it only as a place of terror. This was my beautiful home for 18 years. I wanted to stay as long as it would take until I could learn to confront my fear and overcome it. So here I am.”

By the way, all schools within 40 kilometers of Gaza are currently closed. Eden spends her days indoors at home, hoping…

This is my final email from our mission. I leave with a new awakening of the situation in Southern Israel. An intimate awareness of the daily life of residents in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot, Gediera, and Be’er Sheva. I have a better sense of what is going on in the minds of our young, holy soldiers as they hope they won't have to discharge their weapons each day. I have met countless individuals and organizations who spend their time trying to help provide a unique form of support. And I have seen with my own eyes a country that just wants peace, struggling to live next to neighbors that just want us pushed into the sea.

How do we respond?
In so many ways, but let me share with you briefly a few that I encountered:
We visited Carmit - which is just acres of dirt in the desert, but will soon be the next big city of the South. One member of our mission, Rabbi Asher Lopatin in Chicago, has already signed up with the Carmit planning officials to make Aliyah there in two years, hoping to bring 50 families with him and build more Jewish homes in the Holy Land. Let's turn the swords into plowshears! Here is a picture of myself and Rabbi Lopatin doing a mock ground breaking of where his home might one day be.

Another response: to respond to Terror with love. Here is a picture of a mini shelter in the new town of Nitzan - created with caravans to house the residents that were expelled from Gush Katif in a move to give land for peace to the Palestinians. Today, rockets are being launched from the former homes of Jews in Gush Katif and landing throughout Southern Israel. Residents of one such former town, Nisnit, have painted their mini shelter with peaceful doves and their town's hebrew name on its side.

Someone I know in Philadelphia put together this YouTube video - his attempt at a response to terror raining down on our people:

Here is a picture of me with soldiers from the Tank Brigade operating in Gaza. We brought them warm fleeces, new underwear (they can spend up to 2 weeks in Gaza without fresh clothes), warm hats and gloves, and homebaked chocolate chip cookies :)

Here I am with Ohr, the Israeli soldier who I mentioned in my last email, who has shrapnel wounds throughout his abdomen from a mortar attack. He and sang together with his family songs of peace, healing, and strength. This humble Rabbi can only fight war with love and a guitar!

And one final treat... 3 of Ofer's siblings - Ariel, Orit, and Meirav, during our late night kumzitz in their home in Sderot. I couldn't sleep, so we sat up late and played!

Thanks for taking the time to read through this whole email... I plan to return on Monday, January 19th, and I will speak about my experiences next Shabbat. Miss you all... especially my beautiful family.

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

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