JOIN Israel’s Our Own Way: Community Building & Resilience in Sderot

Dead Sea, Israel

JOIN Israel’s Our Own Way initiative (OOW), based in the city of Sderot, began as an innovative at-risk youth program and has burgeoned into a community-wide supportive network for a full array of vulnerable populations. OOW identifies at-risk youth, elderly, single mothers, new immigrants, and impoverished living in subsidized housing, enlists lay leaders, and introduces support groups. Group participants are encouraged to formulate ideas to improve their communities. OOW acts as a forum in which pressing issues and concerns of these groups are brought to the fore, and then works together with the Municipality to address them. Knowing that there’s someone who represents them and communicates their needs to the city is assuring and empowering for these communities. As Pnina Meyerowitz, director of the program, explained:

“Our big thing is building a sense of community belonging, and community resilience. Everyone has something to give and everyone can be a pillar and a strong part of the community.”

Situated on the border with Gaza, Sderot is subject to the most bombing out of any city in Israel. In response, the program created a network of “building activists” among volunteers, who are trained to offer support in their building when Sderot is under attack. The building activists receive training in first aid and leadership skills to identify when someone is in distress and needs more serious attention. They also act as a safe contact that other members of the building can come to for help with non-emergency situations, and get medicine, food, and other necessities for their elderly and disabled neighbors unable to leave the house. Pnina explained that having an active role in times of emergency – as well as engaging in volunteer leadership opportunities more generally – builds internal resilience, which is especially impactful for those who’ve suffered trauma. 

In the months following October 7th, Our Own Way’s network of 200 volunteers activated to support their community in a time of unprecedented crisis. During the 48 hours of bloodshed that took place, 57 people were indiscriminately murdered on the streets of Sderot by Hamas terrorists, many of whom were going to synagogue to celebrate Simchat Torah. A busload of 12 senior citizens were murdered when their tour bus to the Dead Sea stopped in Sderot due to a flat tire. Sderot’s police station was seized by the Hamas militants, and had to be demolished by the IDF.

Pnina described the situation inside Sderot’s residential buildings:“Because of the fighting, the water and the electricity got cut off. People had to sit in the safe room in complete darkness. In this situation our volunteers were essential to help people, because people couldn’t leave their buildings.”

The volunteers messaged and talked to their neighbors to see what they needed, and allayed their fears about false rumors that had been circulating. 

On the Monday after the attack, the city with the assistance of OOW volunteers started to evacuate all of the residents to hotels, starting with the elderly and those with special needs. Most were sent to the Dead Sea, and some went to Eilat or to stay with family. 

The residents of Sderot had never had to evacuate their homes before. Randomly assigned to their destinations, many found themselves separated from family, neighbors, and community. Some did not want to leave, despite the recent trauma. OOW volunteers provided emotional support, and sent a psychologist for more serious cases.

Pnina described the first few weeks in the hotels as a balagan – a chaotic mess. The hotels weren’t equipped to house the amount of people and duration of their stay, and lacked accommodations for specific needs. Far from their shuttered schools, hospitals, and healthcare clinics, and lacking social workers, OOW enlisted volunteers in seven of the hotels to support others, particularly the elderly and disabled. Many were severely traumatized from the events of October 7th, and were extremely withdrawn. Others were too bashful to ask for help, or felt it would be inappropriate to request assistance. Some were afraid to go outside. Volunteers actively reached out to these people, and gave the necessary care and attention. 

Volunteers set up cots, provided childcare, and arranged accommodations for special diets. They knocked on hundreds of doors, to talk to those that needed to talk, to secure things that were needed, especially for those who weren’t mobile, and to create a sense that people were cared for. The volunteers committed themselves to identifying and addressing issues both small and large. When the volunteers noticed that the elevators operated slowly, they assembled chairs for the elderly to sit in while waiting. When child safety concerns arose, the volunteers facilitated discussions with parents and developed resources to meet these concerns. 

OOW volunteers ran activity groups producing emotional healing, such as  gardening. Pnina explained that gardening was a therapeutic, grounding outlet for participants, giving them a sense of control over feelings of helplessness that followed October 7th: 

“People were interested in gardening, and wanted to do something with their hands – for months and months on end you’re just sitting there immobilized. Building something, seeing it grow, and being able to shape something around them was  very meaningful for participants. The gardening group started out as one thing and became something else, as we began to understand what the needs were.”

A nice weekly tradition organically grew as these gardeners gathered on Shabbat evenings to drink the tea they had planted.

In February, OOW volunteers organized think tanks numbering in the hundreds to brainstorm and develop a plan to return to Sderot. They grappled with the issues, and the emotional hesitations. 

“The main question was: What is in my power, and what can I do?” Pnina explained. “People felt powerless after being subjected to a terrorist attack and evacuation. They couldn’t do anything about the resultant war, but they could get a street light fixed so that people would feel safer at night, and have the sirens of the ambulance changed to a different screech than that of a bombing attack.”

Some feared terrorists from October 7th were still hiding in their homes, all those months later. The think tanks decided that a volunteer would accompany them when they returned to their homes and would enter first, just to make sure no one was there. The volunteers would also help people clean up their fridges and abandoned homes.

As the community returned to Sderot, the program continued its efforts back home. Volunteers checked on residents, building by building, offering a warm welcome home with a box of chocolates, and a list of phone numbers to call for support. Old support groups reunited in emotional reunions, after months of dispersion. 

To address the lingering psychological impact of the October 7th terrorist attack, OOW organized a PTSD therapy group in conjunction with Chossen, the local trauma center. In it, participants recreate a step-by-step account of events, from October 7th to the present. Pnina explained that sequencing events is a powerful tool for trauma therapy. OOW is also organizing a memorial service at the site of the embattled police station. Local residents will decide the contours of the memorial, and 15-20 people will tell their story of what it was like to be at the center of the violence on that fateful day. 

OOW has allocated a certain amount of money to be spent on community improvements, with the community to decide how this money will be spent. One idea is to make the bomb shelters more family-friendly environments that children can play in in case of future bombing attacks. 

“OOW empowers the community to help themselves,” Pnina explained. “The people know best what will strengthen themselves – as a community, as families, and as individuals.” 

About the Author
Libby is the Development Assistant at JOIN Israel, a nonprofit organization that provides support to at-risk youth, families, and elderly in crisis across Israeli populations. A New York City native, she recently graduated from Muhlenberg College with a Bachelor of Arts in Music.
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