Life Under Fire


Rehovot — As an American-born, 29-year-old journalist living in this central Israeli city, I’ve encountered the same existential dilemma each night for several weeks now: Is it safe to take a shower now?

A siren blares through my living room windows a few times a day, a warning of rockets fired from Gaza during the ongoing hostilities between Hamas and the Israeli army.

The sound means that I have 90 seconds to scramble down two flights of stairs to our building’s basement safe room.

Which means that before I decide to step inside the shower, I double-check my iPhone apps and Twitter feeds to see when and where the last rocket fire episode occurred.

For me, and for most Israelis, everyday parts of life like walking outside and driving have presented similar quandaries as the country has come under attack. We try to maintain a normal routine and remain strong in the face of terror, but familiar routines are no longer routine. As I drive, I constantly glance from side to side, to identify a suitable place to seek shelter should the air raid siren begin to blare.

Finding a place to be under rocket fire is not always a possibility, though. Pictures of cars pulled over alongside Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway during an air raid siren show drivers crouched down in the open, in between their cars and a road barrier until the threat is over.

Even my treadmill runs at the gym are a source of stress. As I mount the machine, I look up at the building’s arched tin roof and ceiling fans dangling from what already seems to be pliable material. I know that there is no safe room at the facility, and I strategize the dash I would take to the bathroom, where the walls are at least concrete, should a siren sound. 

Like me, my friends are still heading to the gym, attending work meetings and going to doctor’s appointments, but doing so with open eyes and attuned ears all the while.

Everyone has a story.

At a pool in our city, a child who refused to run to shelter without his flip-flops — and the lifeguard who would not leave him alone — were miraculously unscathed when shrapnel landed about three yards away, less than 60 seconds after a siren sounded.

Rehovot is about 18 miles south of Tel Aviv; 32 miles north of Gaza. For Israelis, living in the south or center of the country, and even northward to the outskirts of Haifa, this has meant a perpetual threat of rocket attacks. Thankfully, due to the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, casualties have been kept to a minimum.

Based on Rehovot’s distance from the Gazan border, Home Front Command estimates that we have 90 seconds to seek shelter when the siren blares — a luxury compared to the 15 seconds of Gazan perimeter communities like Sderot.

Whatever the allotted time frame, we have programmed ourselves to react automatically and immediately. Pairs of sandals are lined up next to an apartment’s entrance, and keys stuck in the lock of the door. 

When “the Hamas alarm clock” — as many tired residents have dubbed the unwelcome wakeup calls on social media — rings, I grab my keys, cell phone and husband and dart for the apartment door. On my first and second tries, I learned that it would be impossible to bring our cat to the shelter, as the sheer sound of the alarm sent him darting in fright under our bed.

While my city has not faced the nearly constant barrage of rocket fire that areas like Sderot, Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod have received, we have experienced many sprints to shelter — in my building’s case, a cockroach-infested communal space.

Iron Dome missile interceptions are often audible, even when attacks are not close enough to necessitate a siren.

This is my second encounter with warfare since my move here from New Jersey in September 2010. During the last conflict, the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, air raid sirens and accompanying missile fire narrowly skipped over my town.

Jogging down the stairs of our building, my fingers admittedly trembling each time, I encounter three populations — those running with us to the basement shelter, those amassing in the stairwell with their dogs on leash, and those altogether ignoring the alarm and remaining inside their apartments. When I leave my apartment, I hear my next-door-neighbor still watching television.

Those in the stairwell tell me they feel safer taking cover there, but I choose to heed the official instructions.

In the shelter — a cement cavern with one stray light bulb dangling from the ceiling, crowded with mountains of discarded junk like a bubblegum pink dollhouse and a boxy PC screen from the late 1990s — I take a seat on a plastic garden chair.

Joined by two or five or eight neighbors, and any passersby from the street who needs refuge, we sit for the next few minutes and engage in small talk. We intermittently count the booms aloud — thus far anywhere between two and about 15 — and report them in real-time to our friends and family members on Whatsapp.

Home Front Command recommends remaining in the shelter for 10 minutes, unless otherwise indicated by additional sirens. But most of my building’s occupants make their way to the door just a couple minutes after counting the thunderous interceptions.

This combination of stalwart adherence to security mixed with fatalistic nonchalance has come to define the Israeli character. Embracing the situation with quintessential Israeli dark humor, Tel Avivians have taken to complaining on Facebook when the terrorist group rouses them before their morning coffee or interrupts the World Cup semifinals.

On a recent night, while my husband was at a conference abroad, I accepted my mother-in-law’s repeated invitation to stay overnight in her home, which is located in a much newer high-rise building on the other side of town. Her apartment boasts its own protected room, which also happens to be my husband’s childhood bedroom. When the sirens blared at 8 a.m. Friday morning, I was able to stay comfortably in bed, a convenience not available to most Israelis.

Four years ago this summer, I sat in my Jewish Week cubicle, packing up my desk for my 6,000-mile move to Israel. While uncertain what my future would bring me there, it was the most life-changing decision I had ever made.

During the last weeks I received an insensitive Facebook comment from an old friend suggesting I “move back to New Jersey,” and death wishes from Gazan Twitter activists whom I’ve never met.

Despite these comments, I am staying here, proud to have made this place — including its musty underground shelters — my home.

Sharon Udasin is the environment, energy, agriculture and transportation reporter for The Jerusalem Post. She was a staff writer at The Jewish Week in 2008-2010.