Sderot, Israel — The rocket alert was drowned out by the cacophony from the children’s Tu b’Shevat party. By the time the first kids dashed to the bomb shelter at the Parent and Child Community Center here, it was too late.
The Kassam rocket thundered overhead, accompanied by a subtle tremble.
"You heard that boom," asked Dalia Yosef, the director of the Sderot Resilience Center, which focuses on easing the psychological toll of the rockets. "It’s not that far away."
But the party never missed a blink, and within a moment the children were back to their art projects, pretzel noshes and holiday sing-along. It’s a quiet victory in the effort to carve out a shelter of normalcy just three days after this beleaguered town near the Gaza border was bombarded with a barrage of dozens of Kassams.
If the families had been at home during the attacks, the reaction might have been different, Yosef said. "Here they continue the activity. There’s something that gives comfort in this togetherness. You’re scared together."
The uncertainty of rocket attacks has been Sderot’s scourge for the last seven years. Though the primitive Kassam rockets have caused relatively limited physical destruction in Sderot relative to the several thousand that have been fired over the years, the main toll on this city of 21,000 is mental stress. It is enduring what has come to be known as the "Russian Roulette" of attacks, which Israel has never succeeded in snuffing out. Eight Sderot residents have reportedly been killed by the attacks.
Though the rockets are nowhere near as fatal as the bus bombings that terrorized Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians at the height of the Palestinian uprising five years ago, they are just as fearsome because there is no safety from staying at home or out of public places. And even though the Kassams are less powerful than the Katyushas that rained down on northern Israel in 2006, there’s been a steady trickle over the last seven years that has put this city on a constant state of alert, and disrupted normal life.
According to Yosef, three out of four children in Sderot suffer from some form of anxiety.
While the rest of Israel counted Sunday as a lull in Sderot because of the absence of rockets, Sderot residents are already steeling themselves for the next barrage. But instead of taking a breather on Sunday, Yosef was immersed in a marathon of "emergency" meetings with municipal workers. That captures the disconnect between Sderot and the rest of Israel.
"There’s no chance to say ‘it’s over,"" explained Yosef, a native of Sderot whose parents still reside in the town. "The worst problem is the lack of certainty. The body and mind are always in survival mode."
Driving around the city, Yosef points to the various spots where Kassams recently fell. When the car starts beeping because the driver’s safety belt has not been buckled, she apologizes. As a rule, Yosef remains unbuckled in case she has to stop the car to take cover for a Kassam attack.
The Resilience Center is a project of the Israel Trauma Coalition, an organization supported by UJA-Federation of New York that focuses on bolstering the ability of Israelis to cope with politically related violence and threats.
The programs supported by the Resilience Center include psychological counseling to children suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and seminars for parents on coping with the rocket threat. Together with the army Homefront Command, the center operates an emergency room in Sderot for trauma victims from the rocket attack.
"All of the threads of life are being broken," Yosef says of the rocket-induced trauma. "It’s hurting a lot more than it seems." Yosef offers a personal example: Her children no longer gather at their grandparents’ house in Sderot for Friday night dinner because of the attacks. "It’s not the same thing."
The early evening holiday party at the community center proved to be yet another survival tactic. Community center workers nearly cancelled the party because of the rocket fire, but said they were surprised that families said they still wanted to come.
"The kids feel safe here," said Rosa Naveh, a native of the upstate New York town of Golversville, who is a director at the center. "This is an emotional shelter."
The Parent Child Community Center is located in the Neot Yitzhak Rabin neighborhood, a blue-collar area that’s the closest to the Gaza border and frequently targeted. For the last six and a half years, Naveh has worked at the center, commuting daily from her home in Beersheva — to the chagrin of her children. "My kids don’t talk about it. They don’t ask me where I’m going."
While the children completed their art projects, Katy Cohen spoke of sleeping in the safe room of her apartment with her three children. Holding her 2-year-old son, Cohen said that he wakes up in the middle of the night imagining a Kassam attack.
"Every little noise he hears he thinks is a Kassam," said Cohen, who works in a produce packaging center. "He knows what the ‘Color Red’ alert is and he knows to go in the shelter."
Back at the party, the children are singing Tu b’Shevat songs, egged on by a guitar singer who encourages them to sing "loud enough to hear in Gaza!" Surrounding the sing-along is a wall exhibit of paintings with colors that are foreboding and heavy. The paintings are the work of children asked to illustrate the Kassams.
The trauma is often expressed in aggressive behavior in school and separation anxiety with parents. Children are able to read their parents’ anxiety, and internalize even more insecurity, the center’s leaders say.
Naveh added that the problem is compounded when it hits families suffering from socio-economic distress. The social workers estimate that 10 to 15 percent of Sderot’s more affluent class has left the town, but many of those left behind don’t even have a car to leave the city on the weekends.
"They don’t have good coping skills to contain problems with their kids," she said. "So when this external problem happens they just collapse."
In the last week, the United Jewish Communities pledged $400,000 to take kids out of the range of rockets once a week for trauma counseling and recreational programs. The Jewish Agency promised $17,000 per victim of the Kassam attacks in Sderot. Russian oligarch Arkady Gaydamak sponsored weekend retreats for Sderot’s children. And a Russian Brooklyn man is organizing an effort to bring children ages 8 to 16 to live with families in other countries, including the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
The attacks take a toll on the center’s staff, as well. They too experience the stress and isolation of the missiles. Naveh knits to relax because the rockets "get into your body."
But when she leaves the city for home in Beersheva, she says there is little interest among friends and family in her work. Even for Israelis — a country under constant pressure of attacks — the daily reality of Sderot is a foreign phenomenon, she said.
"Nobody asks you about how you’re feeling, or what you did at work," she explains. "It’s a different world."