300 rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel during the month of March but far from fleeing, LINDA GRADSTEIN finds new residents buying homes in battle-scarred Sderot.
RACHEL TZADKA IS HAUNTED BY THE DAY, JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO, when her father was killed by a Grad missile fired from Gaza into Ashkelon.
“It was so sudden,” she tells The Jerusalem Report at a clinic for disadvantaged youth in the small town of Sderot where she works several afternoons a week. “We had just seen each other the day before and eaten together. I’m still trying to absorb what happened.”
Tzadka, 26, a social worker wearing a brightly-colored kerchief covering her hair, says that since then, the frequent Kassam rockets that continue to fall on this small town less than a mile from the Gaza border, have become harder to bear. Once the siren sounds warning of an incoming rocket, residents have just 15 seconds to reach a protected area to shield them against the blast.
“Once about two years ago the siren sounded and I couldn’t get my son out of his car seat,” she recalls. “That was the scariest thing I can remember.”
Ideology and patriotism
Yet, she says, she never thinks of leaving Sderot for someplace safer and even recently bought a house here. Tzadka is part of a religious Zionist garin, a group of like-minded people associated with the yeshiva here, who have come to Sderot as an expression of their ideology and patriotism.
“We came here with a Zionist, educational and cultural goal of bringing a new type of spirit and trying to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment,” Rabbi David Fendel, originally from West Hempstead, Long Island, tells The Report. “We came here in 1993 before the Kassam rockets started. And they have certainly been a challenge.”
Most of the young families, like Tzadka’s, come to the town because of the yeshiva. It is a hesder rabbinical seminary, combining Torah study and military service. The yeshiva currently has almost 600 students in two branches and some 70 young families of former or current students are living in the town.
After completing their military service, many of the former students stay, finding work as teachers in schools in Sderot itself or nearby towns and kibbutzim. Some of them also volunteer to tutor Ethiopian immigrants. These young Israelis have a close-knit community, and many say they see living in Sderot as a Zionist statement that Palestinian attacks will never force them to leave. Some two dozen of these young families are finalizing home purchases in one neighborhood, transforming a section of the somewhat forlorn town into a kind of urban kibbutz.
During the worst of the missile attacks, from 2001 to 2009, some 8,600 rockets were fired from Gaza, killing 28 people in southern Israel, 13 of them in Sderot. Many more were injured, some seriously. Scores of houses were damaged. Propelled by the rocket fire, an estimated one quarter of Sderot’s 23,000 residents moved to other parts of Israel. The local economy suffered and dozens of businesses were forced to close. The arrival of these young religious families helped boost the town’s morale.
“The Palestinians thought they could turn Sderot into a ghost town and now there’s even a shortage of homes to buy”
“There’s no question that having hundreds of young men and women in the town with a lot of spirit had a positive effect,” says Rabbi Fendel. “The Palestinians thought they could turn Sderot into a ghost town and now there’s even a shortage of homes to buy.”
Several years ago, some of Rabbi Fendel’s students made a Chanuka menorah out of Kassam rockets. He said that according to the Talmud, when the Jews reconquered the Temple from the ancient Greeks, they couldn’t find the menorah to light. So they took their spears, turned them upside down and created a menorah. He says they reenacted that story by building a menorah out of weapons that were intended to hurt Jews.
Another member of the young religious garin is Nir Kalfa, 34, a law student and the father of three children, the latest born just a few weeks ago. Kalfa was born in Sderot and studied in the yeshiva.
He remembers a time when rockets were raining down on the town.
“You couldn’t even get a falafel without constantly looking over your shoulder,” he says. “I say there are 23,000 wounded people in this town because everyone is wounded in some way.”
And yet, he says, he has no intention of moving to another part of Israel.
“Should I leave?” he asks. “Where else can we go? Is Jerusalem safe? Is Ashkelon safe? All of Israel is under constant attack. Leaving means the terrorists win.”
Most of the residents of Sderot come from a traditional religious background and most businesses are closed on Shabbat. There are few of the secular-religious tensions that have become so much a part of Israeli society these days. Yet, there do seem to be some political differences between the older and newer residents of Sderot.
Batsheva Vaknin, 52, was born in Sderot. She remembers a time before the first intifada began in 1987 when Jewish residents here would pop into Gaza for grocery shopping, car repairs, and even to go to the dentist.
“Palestinian children have grown up in a reality of incitement.
You can’t blame them for that”
“I feel sorry for all children, Israeli and Palestinian, who are raised in war,” she says. “Palestinian children have grown up in a reality of incitement. You can’t blame them for that.”
But Rachel Tzadka, who has been listening intently to the exchange, vehemently disagrees.
“We don’t teach our children incitement, why do they?” Tzadka fires back. “I don’t have any pity for them. There is no difference between a knife and a rocket. They are trying to kill us and we can’t feel sorry for them.”
Vaknin and her family left Sderot a few years ago, but have since moved back. Her house was hit by a rocket in the middle of the night four years ago. Two of her nephews were sleeping in the house, and were wounded. Her daughter’s room, which was empty at the time, sustained significant damage.
Despite the attack, she says, she has no intention of leaving.
“There’s something very special in this town,” she says. “I didn’t really feel at home anywhere else in Israel. We have a special kind of spirit.”