“Living in Eshkol is ninety-nine percent heaven and one percent hell. We endure the hell because of the heaven. We prepare for the one percent, but we can’t focus on it.”
These were the words of Michal Uziyahu, a resident of Eshkol, who stood with our small Boston delegation on a platform looking toward Gaza. The lush flowering grounds and tall trees providing shady relief from the warm sun overhead offered an indication of the heaven to which she referred. Michal shared that since 2008, Eshkol’s population has grown thirty-five percent thanks to the strength of their community. They are like a large family. They celebrate joys together, mourn losses together, lean upon one another, and stand united.
Michal pointed toward the white buildings in the distance and continued, “We can see Gaza and they can see us. We want them to have a good life, because then we will have a good life.”
We were just four miles from Gaza, where kites and helium balloons carrying explosives, Molotov cocktails, and other incendiary material are sent on a near daily basis over the border. The resulting fires have burned nearly 8,000 acres of agricultural fields and nature reserves. We had just seen the fields blackened by fire first-hand. Added to this, rockets continue to regularly be fired at them from Gaza.
Reports of these hardships rarely make frontpage news. This compounds the feelings of isolation felt by the communities of Southern Israel. But they aren’t alone, and we at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Jewish Federation, found a way to show our support.
Throughout the month of September, we asked our local schools and synagogues to have children write letters of friendship and love for children in Southern Israel. We collected over 500 letters, and with help from the Jewish Agency, delivered them last week.
A small offshoot of the Boston delegation visiting Israel for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly drove south to Eshkol, a region made up of 32 communities stretching along 40 km of Israel’s 60 km border with Gaza.
Eshkol’s communities bear the brunt of the mortars and rockets fired from Gaza. They are the families who are too close to be protected by Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, and have just seconds to find shelter when the sirens wail. These are the communities that have had terror tunnels emerging at their doorsteps and who smell tires burnt in Gaza by rioters attempting to create a smoke screen to breach the security fence near their homes.
Three high school girls wandered over to our group and we asked how they felt about living in the region. One girl considered our question before answering, “You appreciate everything when you live here.” Another offered, “No one understands our situation. You hear about balloons, but it doesn’t sound dangerous. People don’t understand the impact all this has on our everyday lives.” She went on to explain that her family made aliyah a few years earlier and despite the difficult situation, they stay in the south because Eshkol feels like home.
With these words on our minds, we continued to a local elementary school to distribute the letters we brought from Boston. The school buildings serve as bomb shelters and are made of thick reinforced concrete with windows set high and protected by a concrete overhang to prevent them from shattering.
The school’s principal led us to the fifth-grade class where a room full of excited children waited. We explained that we had come all the way from the United States to meet them and share letters from children sending sweet messages for a sweeter new year. One girl raised her hand and asked, “How did you hear about our situation?”
We let them know there are many people in the U.S. who know about the threats they face, and our Jewish community wanted to show our love through letters. Other children raised their hands and asked about the Jewish community in Boston, “Do you have Jewish schools and synagogues?” they asked. “Do people know Hebrew?”
They continued to pepper us with questions as we handed out the letters and helped them read the messages.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye. We thanked the children and their teachers, hugged the principal, and headed back to our bus. As we turned north to Tel Aviv, we saw smoke in the distance. We later learned it was a massive fire started by yet another incendiary balloon flown from Gaza. That evening, a missile was fired from Gaza sending thousands of families in Eshkol running to bomb shelters. It was the one percent hell.
Our visit to Eshkol was a powerfully moving experience for us as visitors and our Southern Israeli hosts. We were reminded of how important it is to meet people where they are, sit together, and listen to one another’s stories. When we set out to know one another, the bonds of family and community can easily span continents and oceans.