Friday, February 29, 2008

Parashat Vayakhel

It was festive downtown on Friday. From the high fives and handshakes, hugs and smiles, you might have thought this was a family reunion. A DJ played Israeli music in the square and while nobody danced, it added to the sense of simcha – joy. Streamers hung from windows, cars, wrists, hair increasing the party like feeling. In many ways it felt like any town festival on any given Friday. What was different was the location – not downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but downtown Sderot.

On Friday morning, we joined over 10,000 people who answered the call to demonstrate solidarity with the residents of Sderot and other embattled towns near Gaza by going to there to do our Shabbat shopping. As we approached the town, we could see large blimps in their air – not the Goodyear type you see at sporting events – but large white balloons that the IDF uses to conduct surveillance on areas. I am sure the cameras were pointed toward Gaza as a way to provide an added measure of security. There was a strong sense that this would be a quiet day in Sderot – that Hamas would hold off doing any shooting, or would be held off by the IDF – until evening.

Red streamers were everywhere. In Sderot, “Red Alert” means that you have very little time, a few seconds at best, to get into a shelter or a safe area before a Qassam lands, and so the color of solidarity is red. We bought bright red t-shirts for the family, the money from which goes to support families still living in this front-line city. We made donations for bumper stickers to support youth group chapters in Sderot. And everywhere we turned, there were signs, stickers, shirts, people colored in bright red.

Those of you who know me well know that when it comes to driving, I am exceptionally directionally challenged. While the GPS guided us into Sderot, it could only tell us where to go if I knew our actual final destination, which I did not. I Fortunately, Udi’s friend, Avichai, who lives in Sderot, talked us directly to the parking area. We got out of the car, got big hugs from Udi and were welcomed by his friends from Ashkelon – now a frontline target for Hamas as well. We walked together to the center and were introduced to Eli Moyal, Mayor of Sderot, and Doron Jamchi, a former star basketball player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, who also came to demonstrate solidarity with the community.

Eli Moyal thanked us over and over again, and Doron finished giving autographs, and then Udi, Meital, Nimrod, Avichai and Moriel took all of us shopping! We went into the main area and found hundreds of people shopping at the local branch of a major supermarket chain in Israel. A woman was standing out front lecturing people to go and buy from the small makolets – small, privately-owned groceries or mini-markets – that were owned by residents of Sderot” “The big chain needs your money a lot less than the small store owner does!” She was right and so off we went.

We walked down a few side streets until we found a makolet, grabbed a few baskets and started to load up on soda, bread, and basically a lot of junk food since that was all he had. As we paid, he thanked us again and again for coming. It was embarrassing. We weren’t doing anything other than what Jews do. This was like Bikkur cholim – visiting the sick – or any other mitzvah. Sderot is part of Medinat Yisrael and its residents part of the kehillah – the community of Am Yisrael – the People of Israel, and, therefore, family. And this is what you do for family. We talked for a few minutes about what it was like to live under the threat of Qassam missiles. He asked if we wanted to see how close they fell and then he sent us to a playground just a minute walk from his store where a missile landed months ago. “Go and look, and then you will understand.”

We crossed the street and Udi showed us the new bus stops in Sderot. They are dual purpose – wait for the bus or run inside when the red alert sounds. They are reinforced concrete designed to protect you from a missile landing. From there, we crossed the street to the playground where the evidence of the damage, and potential damage, was clear. The slide was damaged from a missile attack months before and had holes all over it, as did nearby posts. This was a playground, not a military installation; a place of civilian kids, not soldiers, but it was targeted nonetheless. “Momi,” short for Shlomi, an older gentleman, told us about how children had been playing at the spot just moments before the missile hit, just a few weeks before our visit.

We walked back to the center of town to drop off our purchases and then went for lunch at a local Shawarma place. We listened to more stories from Moriel and Avichai about what it was like to live under fire and listened to Meital as well, a student at Sapir College in Sderot. They told us about how little time they had once an alarm went off, how stressful it was for everyone, and how difficult life was. Walking back we saw cars with signs reading “We are with Sderot!” and other slogans. We bought our flowers and Shabbat cakes, and headed back to the car. Hugs all around, resetting the GPS and then back to Yerushalayim to get ready for Shabbat.

During our time in Sderot, all was quiet. Not a single Qassam rocket was launched, there were no red alerts, and we did not have to run to seek cover. While I explained in general terms to the children why we went to Sderot, the absence of alarms made it almost too easy. We drove back and other than Amalya getting car sick, the drive was quiet and uneventful. We went, we did our mitzvoth, we demonstrated solidarity, spent some money, and then returned to safe Jerusalem while the residents of Sderot waited for the next alarm.

We were lucky. Roni Yichyeh, a 47 year-old father of four, was not. He was killed this week by a Qassam that crashed into Sapir College where he was a student. He was not fighting in a war, he was not invading a place, he was not in so called “occupied territory.” He was just going to school, like our friend and former shaliach, Tal Dorot, or Udi’s friend Meital, at Sapir College. He was going about his business, learning, growing. And now he is gone and his children are fatherless and his wife a widow. This week, over 100, if not 200, rockets were fired from Gaza, many from the sites of former Jewish settlements in Gush Katif, at Sderot and other places. The fight escalated further this week when Hamas launched over 20 missiles at Ashkelon, a large Israeli city on the coast. The Defense Minister announced that Ashkelon now will also have a red alert system, a further indication that the escalation is not expected to be short lived. And Itzik, the owner of the makolet around the corner from our apartment, reminded me that it if you add just a little more powder and a slightly larger tube, you have a missile that can reach Ashdod and Tel Aviv. Oy.
Vaykhel, this week’s parashah, teaches about the construction of both sacred time and sacred space – the Shabbat and the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle. It also tells us of the community, the Human contribution, required for the creation of both. Last Friday, sacred space was created in Sderot, if only for a few hours. But the city of Sderot and the people of Sderot form central parts of the State, the Land and the People of Israel every day and we, those of us who don’t live there, are obligated to continue supporting them every day. There are a multitude of tzedakot to which you can contribute to support the people and the city of Sderot. And there will be more organized trips you can join. I only hope and pray that this Shabbat, our sacred time, as the community tries to comfort the family of Roni Yichyeh, and others work to heal the wounds of those hurt in Ashkelon and elsewhere, that there will be quiet along the border and Peace for Shabbat.
Shabbat Shalom.
To learn more about Roni Yihye, go to:

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