SDEROT, Israel (Jul. 26)
Eleven-year-old Shir Lazmi says she loves going to school. Why? Because she’s not really allowed to go anywhere else.
That’s because Shir lives in Sderot, where months of intense rocket fire by Palestinians from the nearby Gaza Strip have all but confined schoolchildren like her to the few places where they have both adult supervision and close proximity to a room with a reinforced roof, strong enough to keep a Kassam rocket from breaking through.
“I’m less scared in school,” Shir says after a bible competition marking the last week of the school year. “I can’t go out with friends. I can’t go to the pool anymore. But I can see my friends here at school.”
Years of Kassam rocket fire at Sderot have shattered the sense of normalcy in this desert town.
The fire has become so intense in recent weeks – often three or four rockets a day – that daily life here has come to a virtual standstill. Real estate values in town have plummeted, businesses have closed, people are moving away and nearly everyone says they live in constant fear of sudden death from above.
Sderot’s schools have been particularly hard-hit, and not just by the Kassams that have fallen on kindergartens, classrooms and schoolyards.
The schools also have been trying to cope with the challenges of maintaining the routine of education in a place that has become a veritable war zone – all the while trying to convey a sense of normalcy for Sderot’s children.
With summer vacation starting, many parents say they don’t know what they’re going to do with their kids all summer.
“Our job at school, that we’re trying to accomplish within all of this, is to maintain routine,” says Dina Hori, principal of Sderot’s Torani Madani elementary school. “You have to project security, community, the sense that everything is OK.”
Like most of Sderot’s schools, Torani Madani is sponsored and administered by AMIT, the Orthodox Zionist educational organization.
Hori confesses that it’s hard to project normalcy when the Red Dawn emergency system goes off and the kids have no more than a few seconds to rush into reinforced-roof classrooms before a rocket lands somewhere in town with a loud boom.
The children have learned to huddle under their desks and put their hands over their heads, in a scene reminiscent of the 1950s United States. The difference is that the feared Soviet nuclear attack against the Americans never came, while in Sderot, the rockets are raining down.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” Hori says. “You don’t know when and you don’t know where.”
That has become the routine.
“You’re always afraid there suddenly will be a siren,” says Ben Harari, 11. “You always have to be ready.”
Around the city, gashes are visible in the pavement where Kassams have landed; many are in or near schools.
Just two weeks ago, a rocket hit AMIT’s yeshiva high school in town. Nobody was injured.
But the damage in Sderot has been far more than physical: The rockets have terrorized an entire city and, in the process, transformed life here.
Teachers come to school red-eyed and distraught, unable to focus on their teaching. Parents are traumatized, and they pass on their fears to their children. Lesson plans are scuttled when rockets boom nearby, and students must be calmed by teachers whose own nerves are frayed.
“Everyone gets scared,” Shir says. “Sometimes I cry. I went to the psychologist together with my mother. They taught us how to deal with the Kassams. They told us when we’re afraid to count to three and take three deep breaths.”
Teachers at Hori’s elementary school often whip out guitars and try to get the kids singing after an attack, in a bid to distract them and revive their spirits.
Nevertheless, many students appear to be developing psychological problems, insisting on sleeping near their parents at night, experiencing frequent bouts of panic and easily bursting into tears.
“I worry about the kids’ emotional well-being – the children’s fears, the future impact on the kids,” says Esther Kalfa, a fifth-grade teacher. “I pray to God every time I hear Red Dawn.”
The long-term psychological effects of the attacks, which have been a presence here since 2001 but have intensified since Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal last year, remain unknown.
“The nation of Israel is sick with a spiritual sickness,” laments Rabbi Yoel Bar-Chen, who teaches in one of Sderot’s centrist Orthodox schools. “The nation of Israel does not respond. It does not fight. When they fire upon us, we must respond.”
“This is the worst lesson to the kids: defeatism,” Bar-Chen says. “They learn that we’re weak. It’s a very deep wound that can’t be measured with simple psychology.”
Perhaps most difficult, teachers and students say, is that families are moving away. That means that those who remain are losing their friends, too.
“My best friend is moving to Rosh Ha’Ayin. I’m very sad he’s leaving. I blame only the Arabs,” Ben says. “Even my uncles are scared to visit us.”
School officials here estimate that the student population has fallen by at least 15 percent over the past year.
Some parents have sent their children to live with relatives in safer cities. Others have pulled their kids out of school and insisted on keeping them home. A few have moved away – even though there are practically no home-buyers to replace them in a city that has become a target for Palestinian terrorists.
“Life here has been completely overturned,” says Arie Maimon, representative of the AMIT network of schools in Sderot. “It’s like Chinese torture, waking up three times a night to be rushed into a protected room. The situation is only getting worse.”
On Sunday, Maimon met with a representative from the Prime Minister’s Office to explain that Sderot schools need additional funding for reinforcing roofs and walls against rockets, additional psychological counseling for students and teachers and more field trips out of town.
But no amount of funding will stop the rocket attacks, he says.
“Money doesn’t solve everything,” Maimon says. “You sit here like a duck in a shooting gallery and wait for a miracle. That’s all.”
Since the rocket attacks intensified, Ben says he hasn’t been allowed to stay home alone, play outside or wander around on his own. Once, he says, when the Red Dawn siren sounded at 3:30 a.m., he tripped down the stairs and hurt himself trying to rush to his home’s safe room.
Still, children in town say they don’t want to leave.
“I don’t want to leave because my friends are here,” Shir says. “I love my house. I love my school. I love everything in Sderot.”
Sometimes, Shir says, she hears her parents talk about moving away.
“I tell my parents they can go,” she says. “I’m not leaving.”