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25 November 25. Dateline: Ashkelon

"It's a beautiful place to live and to raise children, except for the neighbors", so said Barak, a resident of Moshav Netiv HaAsara. The moshav, located a mere 400 meters away from Gaza is very peaceful now. The moshav is spotless. Flowers bloom in front of every house and in all common areas. The hothouses are a bevy of activity growing organic tomatoes for the local market, and flowers that are sold at the Amsterdam international flower market. Yet the guard towers, complete with cameras that keep a 24/7 feed into the command center that can launch a drone attack in seconds, and the fortified bus stations, are constant reminders of the "bad neighbors". And those scars on the wall of the house? Those are from the shrapnel that fell out of the sky when an Iron Dome missile intercepted a Grad rocket. From here, there are only 15 seconds from when the red alert siren goes off and when the Quasar rocket could hit.  Parents of young children, the next time you think that you are having a bad parenting day, consider this: You're driving on the road to the moshav and you have two small children strapped in the back seats of your car. Red alert sounds! You have 15 seconds to stop the car, open the back doors, unstrap your kids, decide which one you are going to take out of the car first, move her away from the car and have her lie down, repeat with second child. Yet, Barak would not think of living anywhere else.

Next stop: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Then, in 1948, the kibbutz was the scene of ferocious fighting as its members, heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the invading Egyptian army, fought valiantly, took horrendous losses, but slowed the invading army long enough to enable the IDF to set up a defensive position which ultimately saved Tel Aviv from being captured. Today, the biggest danger is to be stung by a bee from its apiary – the price to be paid for having the sweetest-tasting honey in Israel. But even here the reality of the neighborhood intrudes. The children's grammar school, the one that Barak's children attend, is surrounded by a thick, fortified wall that blocks out virtually all natural light. The wall is painted in a bright, cheerful color, but that merely disguises its true purpose. Nazis, Egyptians, Hamas. The names of our enemies may change, but, while we may experience heavy loses, eventually we have prevailed over those who would annihilate us. Something to think about next time you dip an apple in honey.

Sderot: Imagine what Manhattan would look like if every Rite Aid, Duane Reade, Starbucks and bank were to be turned into a bomb shelter. Multiply the total by 10. Now you have an idea of how many shelters there are in this town. Yet, for all its problems, the population keeps expanding. The rapid growth and the high unemployment rate have led to social problems. There are, to be sure, efforts to address some of these issues. The Chesed Center of Sderot runs a food bank, a soup kitchen and a second-hand clothing store. Members of our mission helped pack grocery bags to be distributed for Shabbat. Let's just say that we will never take the clean vegetables sold at Fairway for granted again, especially, the fennel. 

We then visited the Hesder Yeshivah where students combine learning Torah with serving in the IDF. There, we were honored to be addressed by the rosh yeshivah who took us to the roof of the yeshivah and showed us all the construction going on, including two expansions of the yeshivah. His point was that before the rocket attacks Sderot was a small "hicktown", but now, because of all the attacks, davka, they are going to build – and show our bad neighbors that we will not be intimidated into leaving. He then introduced us to Haim who is a commander and an army engineer. Haim participated in Operation Protective Shield. Sadly, he lost two soldiers under his command and was wounded in the shoulder.

They say that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In Sderot's case, life often gives metal rockets.  This is where Yaron steps in. He takes the (free!) metal (thoughtfully air mailed by Hamas straight into Sderot) and turns it into works of art – roses are a very popular design. On the roof of the yeshiva, with its panoramic view of Sderot and Gaza, stands a tall Hanukkah menorah made by Yaron from the tubes used by Hamas to fabricate its rockets. The Hashmonaim would have been proud. 

Over dinner, we heard from an amazing couple: Hannah and Adiel. Hannah is a social worker, Adiel a sound technician and music teacher. During the recent war in Gaza, Adiel spent 28 straight days inside Gaza. His unit involved reconnaissance. They are the ones who go in – on foot – before the bulk of the army moves in in force with its armed personnel carriers and its tanks. They are the ones who scout the area, identify potential enemy targets, and generally guide the army into position. Over the course of 28 days, they moved in and out of 10 houses, making sure that they and the block they were on were cleared before they moved to the next house. They literally slept with their boots on. Showers? Not exactly. They had to resort to using baby wipes to maintain a modicum of hygiene. One Friday night, one soldier started singing yedid nefesh. Then another joined in the singing. And another. Friday night candles? Not exactly. They would give away your position and would be a very tempting target to the sniper across the street.  Just another normal Shabbat in a Gaza as seen through the night vision goggles. And, did we mention that for 38 year old Adiel, this was his fourth war? As for Hannah, while tending to her patients by day, she had to cope with such questions from her own three children as: "Where is Abba?", "When is he coming home?", "Why do the Arabs hate us so much that they want to kill us?" And, as if all this was not hard enough, once Adiel entered Gaza, he could not call or text her for the entire 28 day mission. Hannah did not know about her husband's condition until he walked out of Gaza 28 days after he marched in and could call her to say "I am okay. All my men are okay. We're coming home." 

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778