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Haifa Feels Empty As Residents Pass the Time in Basement Shelters

Danny Goldgeier sets up his legions of plastic knights and dragons at opposite sides of the couch in his family’s combination home office-guestroom-bomb shelter, and re-enacts the military action nearby. “The good guys took the weapons of the bad guys,” explains Danny, 8.

The Goldgeier family has been spending a lot of time in their small downstairs room encased in reinforced concrete, its one window made of steel sealed shut. Every time the sirens go off — they counted nine on Saturday alone — the family scurries down the narrow staircase and to their relatively safe corner of Haifa.

“I don’t know how much safer it is, but it feels safer,” says Carol Goldgeier, 49.

“Psychologically, particularly for him, it’s very good,” she says, nodding in the direction of Danny. “He’s basically moved in.”

Some 80 percent of Haifa residents have stayed in the city despite the barrage of rocket fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to Mayor Yoni Yahav.

But it feels like a ghost town. Streets are mostly empty and many shops are closed, as is the city’s usually busy mall and open-air produce market. Only a smattering of people venture out for groceries or fresh air.

Carol and Paul Goldgeier made aliyah from the United States about 20 years ago and have found a comfortable home and community in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Carol is president of Ohel Avraham, a Reform synagogue, and services were held in the family’s living room last Friday night when the shul closed because of the threat of missile strikes.

One of the few times Carol has left the house was to meet a delegation from the Association of Reform Zionists of America that came to visit Haifa.

“Of all the places in Israel that we looked around, this was the best quality of life. We live on a mountain. We live by the sea. When the Galilee is not being bombed, it’s beautiful,” says Carol, who grew up near Philadelphia in Bucks County, Penn.

Her eldest daughter Hadass, 16, paints a water-color picture of a fairy with deep purple and green wings, and rattles off a list of where friends and neighbors have gone.

“Everyone started running away after the first missile hit. I said I didn’t want to run away,” she says, her fingers pressed firmly on a small paintbrush, making neat, small strokes.

Hadass and Danny have passed the time inside with art projects and movies borrowed from friends. The local movie rental store has closed because of the fighting.

The family doesn’t watch much television or movies, but things have changed since missiles started falling on Haifa.

“We believe in cartoon therapy,” jokes Carol, for whom the bomb shelter is usually her private domain — the home office from which she runs Israel projects for the Gimprich Family Foundation, a U.S.-based Jewish family foundation.

But the sirens and stress grow tiring, and the family is considering taking up an invitation to stay with friends in Jerusalem for a few days. At the beginning of August they have a trip scheduled to the United States to visit family and friends.

Tamar, 13, the family’s second child, spent the last two weeks at a summer camp run by the Reform movement.

“Usually it’s the parents calling the children at camp to see if everything is okay. In our situation, it was the 13-year-old calling the parents to see if they were okay,” says Paul, 48, an electrical engineer originally from Rockland County, N.Y.

Paul commutes on a largely empty highway to Tel Aviv every day for work.

“The strange thing is that I feel more relaxed when I’m here,” close to his family and not listening anxiously to the news on the radio, he says.

But the uncertainty is hard to take.

“We don’t what’s going to happen next. We don’t know when this will end,” Paul says.

Tuty and Matisyahu Hochstadt live not far from the Goldgeiers. They too remain in Haifa, preferring the familiarity of the home and city they love so much.

“We’ve been here for all the wars; my son was injured in the army, my husband served in the army and reserves,” says Tuty, a Holocaust survivor. “We didn’t want to leave Haifa. We have had to run enough times in our lives with suitcases in our hands.”

Matisyahu jokes that he has stopped taking out the garbage because every time he does a siren goes off.

Driving through Haifa, they marvel at its emptiness.

“Look! It’s a dead city, you don’t see anyone,” Matisyahu says.

Eitan Decker, 26, a civil engineering student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, returned to Haifa this week after a month of reserve duty. One of the soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah on July 12, setting off the current crisis, was in his division.

Decker, vice chairman of the Technion Student Association, said the organization has been providing students with information and even references for places to live in the center of the country.

But he has no plans to leave Haifa.

“I will not leave. This is my city and staying is my victory,” he says. “It’s my way of showing we’re here, we will not collapse because of this.”

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