Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Building Community in Eshkol

So I asked the woman, what was the news back home? What were the people feeling about the latest incidents?

Silly me. I thought Batia would tell me about reaction to the air strikes by Israel in Syria and the rise in tensions along Israel's borders. Instead, the news of the day, she told me, on the lips of all, was the report that one of the unmarried news anchors of Channel 1 was pregnant. As if that wasn't enough of a blockbuster, an anchor of Channel 2 was involved in a traffic accident. No word on her condition.

Life goes on. Amid the bombs and rockets, life goes on.

Batia was one of eight women brought to the United States by Shalom Yisrael to enjoy two weeks of rest and relaxation  from the daily stress of living and working in the Eshkol Regional Council in Israel, the most frequently attacked district of their country. Situated along the southern portion of the Gaza Strip, hugging the border with Egypt, the Eshkol area is home to some 13,000 residents. It was a mostly peaceful 1,000 square miles when the women chose to live there, not out of any Zionistic fervor but because Eshkol was beautiful and away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. 

All that changed in 2005 after Israel withdrew from Gaza. After Hamas brutally ousted Fatah, mortar after mortar attack ensued. It was from the Eshkol region that the soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and held for five years in the Gaza Strip until released in 2011. The incursion into Israel last year by terrorists who stole two armored Egyptian vehicles occurred in the Eshkol region. Last November, when 1,200 rockets landed in all of Israel, 463 fell in Eshkol.

Some of the communities in Eshkol are so close to the border there isn’t time for an alarm to sound. Only the percussion of an exploding rocket or mortar startles residents into defensive activity. It is then that Batia and her colleagues spring into action as first responder trauma care providers. That’s not their primary jobs. Normally, they are social workers and psychologists in schools and welfare agencies, administering to the needs of the area’s population. When explosions break the tranquility of the day—a rocket landed Wednesday—they are transformed into first responder trauma care providers. 

By necessity, their discipline has been mostly self taught. As I wrote last year, when eight other first responders visited as part of the Shalom Yisrael program, the 32 communities of Eshkol (14 kibbutzim, 13 moshavim and five residential communities) are vulnerable in space and time. If their homes are within four and a half kilometers (2.7 miles) of the border they have been outfitted by the government with “safe rooms” built to withstand a direct hit. In communities more than four and a half kilometers from Gaza, no safe rooms are retrofitted to existing homes. The only government funded security is a shelter for kindergarten children. If they are lucky, they have, perhaps, 15 seconds to seek cover. 

Still, life goes on, as close to normal as the Israelis will permit. Tamar, a mother of three boys, 10, 5 and 3, and a 13 year old daughter, demonstrates her resiliency and determination by refusing to give in to fear. She purposely drives the road near the Gaza Strip rather than a route further away from danger. She will not allow the terrorists to alter her lifestyle. 

During their two week stay in New York and Washington, DC, which ended on Mother’s Day, the women visited many cultural and historic sites. And, of course, they shopped. But perhaps their most unique experience involved an aspect of Judaism they had never encountered. They are secular, for the most part, even to the edges of agnosticism because of the smothering influence the religious right has on the Israeli way of life. Their host families brought them to their respective synagogues on Saturdays, where they experienced prayer services far more inclusive and welcoming than any they knew of in Israel. Several received a joint aliyah, an honor of being called up to the Torah. And the Friday before they left they joined a demonstration in Madison Square in Manhattan in support of Women of the Wall, the Israeli group trying to gain equality for women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Again, they received recognition from the New York community.

Community. Even though Eshkol is bombarded more than any other region, it doesn’t get the foreign press Sderot generates from attacks at the northern edge of Gaza. At times, the residents of Eshkol can feel isolated, alone. But two weeks of sharing and nurturing from heretofore strangers, two weeks of freedom from terror, recharged their internal batteries and revealed to them that their values were shared by a community across the ocean. Life can go on, knowing they are not alone.