Friday, May 16, 2014

Ordinary Lives Lived by Extraordinary Women

They live ordinary lives. Three are special education teachers, one an elementary school instructor. Another practices Chinese medicine. One’s a retired nurse. A seventh a midwife. The eighth is an occupational therapist. They are women of modest professions, living modest, ordinary lives.

And then an airplane or a helicopter flies overhead and they wonder if an attack is imminent. Or they hear, make that feel, an explosion that rattles the foundation of their homes. Was it a rocket or the vibrations from a powerful Egyptian charge meant to destroy an underground Palestinian tunnel from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai?

They're home now, back on the kibbutzim delicately nesting next to the southern tip of Gaza, on the border with Egypt. For the two weeks spanning the end of April and the beginning of May, these eight women came to America as guests of Shalom Yisrael. Why? For some well-deserved rest and relaxation, for aside from their ordinary day jobs, they are trauma care first responders when the ordinary lives of their fellow kibbutzniks become anything but ordinary when bombs and rockets hail from across the border. 

Most everyone who met them, including Congresswoman Nita Lowey, wanted to know why they lived on the edge of peril, why not in a more secure spot in Israel. The Eshkol Regional Council from which they come is the most targeted land area in Israel. When rockets are launched from Gaza, they have perhaps 15 seconds to seek shelter, assuming an alert is sounded. They are too close to Gaza to be protected by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Houses are being retrofitted with safe rooms. 

Yet, they do not dream of leaving. Their response echoed what we have heard time and again from people in our own country. Their choice is no different than that made by Americans living in tornado alley or along the Gulf Coast ravaged annually by hurricanes or the Rockies that even in the second week of May was treated by Mother Nature to globs of snow. Or those who warily watch waters rise above levies each year to wash away homes. They live there because it is their home, whether they grew up there or recently relocated. It is beautiful, they said. With a real sense of community. That helps explain why the population of the Eshkol region has grown 35% over the past five years. 

The region is important agriculturally. Sixty percent of Israel’s produce is grown in the 32 communities of the council that shares a 24-mile border with the Gaza Strip and a seven-mile border with Egypt. They live 90 minutes south of Tel Aviv but don’t lack for culture. Within the 190,000 acres of the Eshkol Regional Council, its 14,000 residents enjoy 10 art galleries and museums, nature and heritage sites, youth and elderly recreation centers, and a 930-seat cultural hall. 

They strive to live a normal life in an abnormal place. Sometimes, neighbors hear voices from under their homes. Quickly they call the military. Tunnels from the Gaza Strip are a constant concern. It took a few days, but the women soon acclimated to the sounds most Americans take for granted. They realized they didn’t have to look up when a jet streaked overhead, though, to be honest, even Americans twist their heads at the whop-whop whirring of helicopter blades. 

For five years I have been involved with Shalom Yisrael, a volunteer organization that for 29 years has hosted Israelis during the spring, at first soldiers and victims of terror, but for half a decade ladies such as these, women of valor and determination who leave their families when danger erupts to tend to the needs of their community. 

And yet, of the 40 women I have met, I can think of none who does not crave peace and friendship with their Palestinian neighbors, who does not want a return to the time before Hamas seized control of Gaza and put an end to commerce between the two peoples, to visits to beaches reputedly among the most beautiful in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Living as they do on the precipice of conflict, as targets of terror, they are nevertheless dovish citizens of Israel. Not for them are Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s and his cohorts’ hawkish demeanor. They don’t have a solution. They just hope one can be found. 

The ladies returned to Israel last Sunday, Mother’s Day. Normalcy has returned to my routine. What passes for normalcy in the Eshkol Regional Council awaited them. 

The addresses below are links to previous posts about the visits sponsored by Shalom Yisrael and my visit in 2011 to the Sha’ar Hanegev region just north of the Eshkol region: