SDEROT, Israel (JTA) – At the New Age Beauty Salon in a run-down strip mall here, the manicurist and hairdresser swap opinions of Barack Obama, the latest in a series of high-profile visitors to come through this southern Israeli town.
“Is there a chance I’ll be able to give him a hug?” jokes Yaffa Malka, 44, the salon’s hairdresser and owner. “He’s cute, and besides that I trust him. I’m not sure why, but something about him seems genuine to me. He seems like one of us, someone who knows about difficult times.”
Her friend and co-worker Gila Vazana, the manicurist, says Sderot, the rocket-weary town adjacent to the Gaza Strip, can use all the friends it can get – especially if that friend might be the next U.S. president.
“We need America to be with us and for us all of the time,” says Vazana, her long blond ponytail falling down her back.
Soon after their conversation, Obama’s helicopter touches down in the Negev town.
The U.S. senator from Illinois’ first stop is the Amar family home, which was largely destroyed when a Kassam rocket crashed through its roof, injuring the mother with flying pieces of shrapnel. The family members, like many of their neighbors in Sderot, suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A crowd of some 100 people gathers outside the family’s new home during Obama’s visit, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for U.S. president briefly walks among them to say hello and shake hands.
Tours of Sderot have become part of the unofficial protocol of visits to Israel by both visiting dignitaries and tour groups wishing to show solidarity. Like any site of pilgrimage, rituals have developed.
The usual stops include a visit to a home damaged by Kassam fire, where a meeting is set up with the resident family. The tour then moves to the police station, where a makeshift Kassam museum has been set up with hundreds of the rockets on display, the dates they landed on or near Sderot painted on their sides.
Visitors also often are taken to a hill on the edge of town where they can see into Gaza. It’s nicknamed Kobi Hill after the town’s chief security officer, who rushes there after Kassams land to see from where they were fired.
It’s mostly quiet these days in Sderot following an Egypt-brokered truce deal between Hamas and Israel that is more than a month old. But most of those who live here assume the lull is temporary and that terrible surprises await from Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that rules Gaza.
Reporter Nissim Kanan, who covers Sderot and southern Israel for Israel Radio, says part of the excitement here surrounding Obama’s visit is the sense that he can bring change not just to America but also to Sderot.
Sderot is a working-class town of old-timer immigrant families from Morocco and more recent arrivals from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and many of them see Obama as a man of the people, he says.
“People see Obama as the underdog and McCain as an elitist,” he says, comparing Obama to his presumed Republican rival, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.). “People here like to see people in power that they identify with.”
“Obama? He’s a man of the people,” says Avner Chen, 38, a taxi driver taking his lunch at a falafel restaurant. “I hope he will see Sderot and remember us, what we are living with, and help us.”
During his news conference in the city, Obama seems to answer Chen’s call.
“I will work from the moment I return to America to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace, security and hope,” he says.
Next door to the New Age Beauty Salon is the new office of The Israel Project, an organization that works to promote Israel’s security by providing resources to foreign journalists here. Its heavy glass doors and shiny new office equipment stand in stark contrast to the nearby stores, which have broken signs.
“This is a community in crisis, and that people should want to come and show their solidarity here is perfectly understandable and laudable,” says Marcus Sheff, the executive director of the Israel office of The Israel Project.
As Obama finishes his news conference at the Sderot police station, Mayor Eli Moyal brings him a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I Love Sderot.”
The word “love” is represented by a red heart, its Cupid’s bow replaced with a Kassam rocket.