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Sderot, the day after: No one is alone

The time the man who helps locals process the rocky emotional terrain of Sderot was schooled in emotional health by Sderot residents, under rocket attack
Returning to school in Sderot. (courtesy)
Returning to school in Sderot. (courtesy)

We were standing in front of a black hole in the wall of the Beit Canada Community Centre in Sderot. Eddy Azran, my colleague, David and I. Sderot has a longstanding partnership with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and Eddy is their representative in the city. A huge ring of charred stone around its perimeter indicated, in dramatic form, how the rocket from Gaza had burned its way through the exterior of the building. The building itself had been fortified several years earlier by JFC-UIA funds from Canadian Jewish communities. The monies had gone towards protecting and benefiting the children and families that use the Centre, and building a second floor that remained, thankfully, intact.

Left to right: Associate VP of JFC-UIA David Corre, Mayor of Sderot Alon Davidi, Director General of JFC-UIA Sarah Mali, and Toronto Representative in Sderot, Eddy Azran, at the end of our visit, May 15, 2023. (courtesy)

A woman, probably in her early 40s, with big sunglasses and slick black hair pulled back into a high ponytail, approached us and smiled at Eddy. Taking a long drag of a cigarette, she said, “I thought I’d come and see what nearly killed me. I was out with a co-worker smoking very near here and we heard the rockets, and he said we should go hide under the stairs. And then I heard it. Boom. This is the first time I’ve been back.” She smiled again, took another drag of her cigarette, as if to say goodbye, and went on her way.

Sderot. The day after.

It took a while for it to sink in why everyone seemed to be walking around with small, rolling travel carry-ons (the kind we use when we don’t want to pay the baggage fee on economy airlines). These were all residents of Sderot, 4,500 of them, who had been evacuated from the city and were returning home.

The teachers and educational staff had been working since Sunday to create the right welcome back for their students. For the young children, there were booths with fun activities. For the teens, there were drummers creating a cool beat to accompany the youth as they re-entered the school. A member of the municipality mentioned that the educational teams were getting a Golda ice-cream delivery to their offices. Together with the sight of the suitcases, I was reminded of my grandmother Golda, who had been evacuated from the Blitz over London many, many years ago.

Like my grandmother who ran back home immediately after evacuation, many residents of Sderot, I was soon to be informed, chose not to leave. Young mothers for whom to be a guest in a strange place was too much; families who appreciate their creature comforts; a single guy with a dog he could not leave. These were just the beginning of more stories I began to hear. Stories of those who stayed.

I heard about the elderly woman who was used to having an open and hospitable house, where all the tenants of her building would pop in and out, filled with food and children playing. Then suddenly the building was empty, and she was left alone. Rockets falling. At a loss, she called the community helpline. Where was everybody when she needed them? Sara, a passionate, super-smart, beautiful woman with a large head covering, who runs the Good Neighbour Program funded by UJA Toronto tells us that as soon as she received the call, she sent a couple of volunteers over to the home of the elderly woman to play cards, drink tea, and keep her company. The team was there on and off for a couple of days. Before Shabbat, Sara called the woman and said she had a family that needed her help. Would the senior be willing to go to them?” Of course, came the response. Sara’s eyes twinkle with delight. That’s what it is like to live in Sderot.

Gil runs the educational administration of the city and specializes in Social, Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is the process through which children, adolescents, and adults learn skills to support healthy development and relationships. He was supposed to take 35 professionals, volunteers, and parents from all walks of the educational system to Portugal last week to learn about their SEL model (even though he is sure to tell me that Sderot is the leader in this area). “But it is important to be humble,” he says, with a wry smile.

Instead, Gil spent the last week working out of the emergency control room of the city. He wouldn’t have been anywhere else on earth, he tells me. Imagine what it is like to see the mayor, his chief of staff and his top professionals be the first to run into the flames to make sure everyone was okay. I watch them in awe. “It’s not like I’m not scared,” he admitted to his daughter, when she called to ask how he was. “I’m an older guy,” he says with a smile, knowing he’s not that old. “I am scared as hell. But here is where I need to be.”

He continues his story, “I was called out on Shabbat day and found myself in a bomb shelter with another family in the basement of their apartment block. A family with six children. They were enjoying Shabbat lunch when the first siren went off. It caught them in the middle of a Shabbat song. They ran downstairs to the bomb shelter. And there they all sat, carrying on singing. And then it happens again, another blast. And here I am, the professional, leading Social Emotional Learning at the Municipality, listening to this family singing. Another song, and another, as the rockets rained. It blew my mind.”

Gil proceeds to tell us that he received a call from a Sderot family evacuated to the Carlton Hotel, in Naharia. They are beside themselves. There is no room for them. I call the manager of the hotel. He tells me immediately that the hotel staff will sleep in the sports room of the hotel. The family will have their room. “I keep learning lessons from everyone around me,” Gil remarks.

International support has come from Canada and other overseas communities. We hear about the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Victim of Terror Fund that has been present constantly to help families whose houses have been hit and residents who have been tragically injured, or worse.

As we depart, Noa, a quick-thinking and energetic young woman, who ran all the evacuation efforts this past week, grabs us to tell us a story. She tells of an 80-year-old man, unable to speak, who was attached to machines. There was no way one person could get him out of his apartment. Under rocket fire, eight volunteers took him and his medical equipment to safety. She is smiling. This is our work. This is who the people of Sderot are.

The radio on the way back to Jerusalem tells of all the new political turmoil happening in the country. I came to Sderot feeling sympathy, imagining a battered city, resentful residents, and angry leadership. I found a community of givers, that choose every day, no matter what life literally throws at them, a different story of togetherness, generosity self-sacrifice and courage. A place where no one is alone.

I received my own lesson in social emotional learning.

It would be wise for us all to listen.

About the Author
Sarah Mali is the newly appointed director general of the Jewish Federations Canada-UIA in Israel. She most recently held the role of vice president of Masa Israel Journey and head of its Leadership & Impact Center.
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