I never considered Sderot in my Israel travel itinerary. I was already nervous enough about visiting my daughter in a kibbutz so close to Gaza. But there we were – enjoying Friday lunch with my cousins at Humus shel Tehina, arguably the best warm humus and crispy falafel I’ve ever tasted. It was Chol Hamoed Sukkot, our first day back in Israel after 4 years. This restaurant and its sukkah were packed and the street was lively, filled with young people enjoying the beautiful day just before the arrival of Shabbat.
Our daughter recently made aliyah with Garin Tzabar and was assigned to live in a beautiful small kibbutz in the Negev. Kibbutz Alumim is 45 minutes from Beersheva, 30 minutes to Ashkelon, We arrived at Sderot train station from Ben Gurion airport with a change in Tel Aviv for a 90-minute ride with stops along southern coastal towns. My cousin picked us up for the short drive to the kibbutz.
Each train station we saw featured a piano available for travelers to play. Our train was filled with a diversity of Ashkenzi and Sephardi Jews, Bedouins continuing on to the last stop in Beersheva, young soldiers and civilians of all ages. The train lets out at a small shopping area with cafes and stores for locals doing business as usual.
One must remember that Sderot is regularly under rocket attack from Gaza and that the surrounding kibbutzim fear infiltration via tunnels dug by terrorists. A siren indicating an incoming attack gives less than 15 seconds to residents to take cover in a mamad-a reinforced room or underground shelter. My cousins have experienced this and I feared this greatly.
Thus, Sderot’s economy has suffered much in recent years. I’m honored to be friends with Stuart Katz an oleh who helps Sderot’s needy and supports the local economy by providing shabbat food and other necessary items purchased locally via donations.
Alumim is one of the last few traditional socialist ‘dati’ (religious) kibbutzim, one of four remaining ones including Kibbutz Lavi, Sde Eliyahu, Yavne. Right ‘next door’ to better-known kibbutz Saad, this piece of land boasts a ‘homa u’migdal’, tower and stockade, which identifies it as existing during Ottoman rule, before the British Mandate.
The kibbutz is planted lovingly and lushly with palms and flowering bushes and trees that dazzle the eye in every color. The perimeter within the security fence is small, a 40 minute leisurely walk takes you full circle.
We stayed in a modest guest room, 2 narrow firm beds, air conditioning, toilet, shower, electric hot water pot and tiny fridge. Shabbat and yahtzeit candles were provided as well as welcoming sweets and kibbutz cow’s milk for coffee and tea. It was a functional, convenient place for us to see our daughter in her home away from home for the duration of her ulpan and army service.
At night we heard sounds overhead which were later identified as either drones or training Air Force planes. Exhausted from the flight and train ride from the airport I passed out for a few short hours and woke up jetlagged. At dawn I went out in the coolness of the morning to visit the cowshed where I communed with the hundreds of dairy cows who provide substantial income for the kibbutz.
I love cows, and these did not disappoint. The calves were kept separately, mooing and eager to suck my fingers. Their moms quietly shied away from me as I spoke to them, admiring their black and white coats. I didn’t visit the chicken coops since sadly, they were on death row, way too depressing for this vegetarian.
With dawn came prayers in the beautiful kibbutz synagogue for those who wish, followed by communal breakfast in the hadar ochel, the dining room. We ate all our meals al fresco in the huge, beautifully decorated sukkah.
My husband and I dined with the garin during our four-day stay. Our enjoyment of abundant simple food was greatly enhanced by their company. Each of the young men and women is embarking on a new adventure, serving Israel and seeking fulfillment and impact in their new roles in their beloved adopted country.
We enjoyed Seuda Shlishit, Shabbat afternoon dinner at the modest home of Nina’s adopted family. They invite her weekly and are supposed to represent us at her army ceremonies when we cannot be there. It was heartwarming to spend time with them for havdala and tasted a delicious Libyan fish couscous at the Melave Malka made by the next door neighbors.
I asked Nina’s adoptive dad about the kibbutz greenhouses and fields and he offered to take us to see the border and the Iron Dome as well. The hot and humid greenhouse amazed us with its neat rows of sweet red and yellow and hot peppers and cherry tomatoes. The Bedouin workers in traditional garb seemed unfazed by the intense heat while the sweat rolled down my entire body. Returning outside was a relief and our guide drove us along the the border for a view of Gaza with Ashkelon and the Mediterranean sea in the distance.
We saw a ‘pillbox’ lookout used by IDF soldiers which was abandoned after a deadly ambush in 2014. Since then the border is surveyed digitally from afar. Two large white balloons are visible hovering over the border at different points. Video cameras within are monitored 24/7 by soldiers searching for suspicious activity
When the border was open, workers from Gaza worked these same fields of carrots and jojoba where we were walking. Gazan workers gained financially and the kibbutzim had good employees. The closing of the border was necessary due to devastating results of Hamas’ takeover of Gaza. We were told that old time Gazans remember the mutual relationship and growing infrastructure while the younger ones only know the enmity and hopelessness that now exists for them.
My cousin who lives in a privatized kibbutz nearby took us to two other lookout points, Black Arrow is a memorial to Ariel Sharon’s 1955 operation to counter attacks by Egypt. Another memorial by a family of a soldier killed in an army helicopter disaster, is made of wind chimes playing beautiful sounds.
My fear of visiting the area was eased by exceptional quiet during our 2 weeks in Israel. However, Israel is so tiny, the size of New Jersey or South Africa’s Kruger Park, that all borders and even the country’s center are always at risk from surrounding enemies, not only this border with Gaza.
I asked kibbutzniks how they cope with stark reality. There is some gallows humor. Religious residents have faith to sustain them, They and the secular have pride in their home and the land. Daily life in israel continues and progresses incredibly productively and optimistically as possible.
I recommend you make time for even a short visit to Sderot and local kibbutz to see for yourself how life continues in this corner of Israel. May our daughter and her Garin buddies serve Israel in quiet times. We pray for peace and look forward to the next visit.