Ayelet Koplon, Lipaz Hirsch, Dafna Katz, Stuart Katz (in red sweatshirt), Brad Eckman, Yoni Wolf and Rami Lesnick participating in a cleanup at Arverne, a neighborhood on the hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula in New York.
A New Reality,Life

Israeli teens help sop up Sandy

On December 6, a group of 10th-graders from Hashmonaim and Beit Shemesh arrived in New York to help in the ongoing clean-up and fix-up efforts after Hurricane Sandy. They dubbed their impromptu trip Masa Hashemesh, or Sunshine Journey.

“Unfortunately, six weeks may seem a like a very long time after Sandy, but there are still areas that need tremendous assistance,” coordinator Stuart Katz of Hashmonaim tells us. “It’s grassroots level and dealing in some neighborhoods that weren’t so well-off to begin with.”

Katz had flown over to help for the first 10 days after the storm did its damage, and then his youngest daughter asked if she could come, too. He took her along with five of her friends, arranging for the self-funded group to demolish a ruined basement in a home in the Arverne neighborhood of Queens, New York – taking out nails from the walls, tearing down sheetrock and carrying debris to the curb – and to clean up a Long Beach condo’s backyard and driveway (“all done in the rain, incidentally.”)

They also prepared fruits and vegetables and set tables for lunch at a soup kitchen run out of a Brooklyn church. “Our purpose is to show that we help all people – regardless of faith or religion – representing Israel,” says Katz.

During their week in New York, the kids are going on about 20 speaking engagements at local schools, and livened up Hanukkah parties in Long Beach and Brighton where they met many individuals whose homes and/or synagogues were damaged by the storm.

“Homeowners were very appreciative – they couldn’t believe that the journey was put together so quickly and were astonished that kid citizens of Israel (who they feel are under attack so much) feel a need to come and help,” says Katz. “They were amazed with the work that could be accomplished by teens with a team effort.”

Some of the peers they spoke with at schools said they would now like to visit Israel – a destination that was not in their plans previously. Maybe these six high school kids have a future in diplomacy.

sraeli residents take shelter against incoming rockets after a warning siren in Nitzan. Photo by Flash90.
A New Reality,Life,War

Cloudy with a chance of missiles

For the past year or two, missiles have come raining down on southern Israel every few months. Somehow, as the pundits endlessly talked it out on different evening news programs, this became an acceptable situation, as unavoidable as bad weather. The Israeli government was trying to avoid “escalation” in Gaza and confrontation with Egypt and the “oref” — the citizens at the front line — would have to tough it out — or not.

Resilience was the key to maintaining the status quo.

We, the residents of southern Israel who live within a 40 kilometer radius of Gaza, were encouraged to build safe rooms in our house, seek support if we were feeling nervous and otherwise learn to adjust to a situation where we were in ultimate waiting mode — waiting for the next alarm, the next school closure, the next “episode” when an occasional missile or two might fall nearby.

And oddly enough, like good lab rats, we did just that. We learned to drive with our car windows open so that we could hear sirens while on the open road. We taught our children how to fall asleep again once they were moved into the safe room in the middle of the night. We developed a whole slew of coping mechanisms that range from “dressing for missiles” – no heels or straight skirts allowed – to black humor, acknowledging the absurdity of living in this kind of situation. A child wakes up from a crash of thunder last winter screaming, “missiles,” and we get to make jokes about how children of the Negev are more familiar with the sound of falling Grad missiles than actual rain. We became old war heroes, exchanging stories of close calls from the missiles of 2009 versus those of 2010 and 11.

But as time has gone on, our resistance has worn away.

Our kids are showing signs of severe stress. Our spouses have stopped eating when there is news about an attack in Gaza. Our blood pressure goes up as we count off the locations where missiles have fallen – sometimes when we were only a few hundred meters away. The sound of a distant car alarm sets off a crying jag that simply has no real justification other than that burning feeling of not being able to take it anymore.

The unified, resilient front is still there, but it is being propped up by a million people living under threat of missile fire, each of us forced to confront our own individual fears. My own response has already become physical – clearly a manifestation of PTSD. And I am not alone. All my rational understanding of the futility of war has simply become raw, unpolished fear that comes over me when I hear that piercing sound of the siren.

Forget politics. This is Chinese torture. Adrenalin in overdrive. Kids crying. Powerlessness to the logical extreme. All I want is for someone to make it stop, but for that to happen there would have to be an acknowledgement that something was wrong. There would have to be international pressure on the Palestinians to stop these missile attacks.

But when I look at the international press coverage, beyond the scope of my circle of friends and family on Facebook, I find the world is indifferent, or even hostile to my situation. Israel is blamed no matter what it does. And this only strengthens the resolve of the extremists in Gaza to keep the missiles coming.

So as I sit here at home, listening to the booms of the endless barrage of missiles falling over Beersheba, I want to make myself heard. This is an unacceptable situation! War is not like the weather.

Missiles are not something that we have to learn to live with like the seasons of the year. This is not the blizzard of 2012. And telling me and my neighbors otherwise is only turning this forecast into one of despair.

Faye Bittker lives outside Beersheba.

Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post, with permission from Faye Bittker.

Iron Dome system intercepts missiles – but not in Jerusalem ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com
A New Reality,Life,War

First siren

When I was growing up in California, I had a terrible fear of being caught in the shower when an earthquake hit. What would I do, stressed my pre-teen self; would I run out into the street stark naked in order to save myself? How would I live down the embarrassment? Or would I risk injury or even death out of prurient prudishness?

Fast forward to November 2012 and, although Israel has its earthquake worries too, the bigger concern this week is missiles from Gaza. And my shower nightmare just came true.

The missile alarm sounded in Jerusalem Friday afternoon, just as I was finishing my pre-Shabbat shower. The siren in our area is not super loud, but it was unmistakable as I switched the water off and grabbed my towel. I heard my wife Jody calling my name and then the slam of the front door as she headed down to the shelter with the kids and the dog, leaving me alone in our bathroom.

I have never heard a missile siren before. We made aliyah three years after the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein lobbed 42 Scuds at Israel. No sirens – other than the annual memorial blasts on Yom Ha Zicharon and Yom Ha Shoah – have rung in Jerusalem since. I didn’t expect to hear one this time either: we have assured ourselves for years that our enemies would never want to risk hitting sites holy to the Muslim world. I guess the rules have changed.

I decided that I would not run out in just a towel. I entered my bedroom, threw on a t-shirt, reached into the underwear drawer and was about to pull on my pants when the siren stopped.

Now what? Jerusalem is supposed to have a minute and a half from the time the siren goes off and a missile lands. So if the siren is silent, there’s no more reason to rush, right?

The official response is that one should stay in the shelter for 10 minutes. Accordingly, I should have still high-tailed it to the room with the reinforced concrete. But I didn’t know that yet.

My movements slowed. I continued to get dressed, but I felt no sense of urgency. The fear that the siren triggered had been sublimated into something else – what was it? Fatalistic acceptance? A calm calculation on the odds that a missile would land exactly where I was standing in my bedroom? Shock?

By the time my shoes were tied, Jody and the kids were coming back upstairs. Ready to go to shul? I called out.

My curious calmness continued once in the synagogue space. Shouldn’t I be scared? Others were visibly shaken. There were still tears being wiped away. What was wrong with me?

Near the end of the Kabbalat Shabbat service I noticed something unusual. I had been holding a piece of paper with the prayers on it. There were sharp crease marks where my fingers had been gripping the edges. It looked like I’d tried to take a punch at something. The Sabbath Bride? God?

We all slept that night in suitable attire for a midnight run, slippers lined up by the door to the bedroom. There was no additional siren. There might never be. (Didn’t the IDF say they’d taken out nearly all of the long-range missiles?) But for at least one moment, I faced the shower nightmare of my youth and survived. How my psyche will hold up is another matter entirely.


Israeli biker nears finish line for cancer research

As ISRAEL21c reported back in June, 24-year-old Israeli Tom Peled was poised to begin a cross-country biking trip from Los Angeles to New York in support of the Israel Cancer Research Fund.

On October 21, Tom Peled will roll into his final stop of Bike for the Fight, which was inspired by the death of his father from cancer in January 2011.

Bike for the Fight bracelets

“We already rode 2,400 miles and raised $80,000 for cancer research in Israel!” he wrote us last week. “But more than just numbers, we have had unbelievable experiences with so many people that were touched by what we are doing.”

Often joined by groups of cyclists from the communities he passed through, Tom met the Israeli ambassador to the United States and appeared at campuses across the country. An auction prize of spending the final week with him and companion bikers Roey, Eran, and Luca was won by Dror Malo, a Microsoft Israel employee and one of Bike for the Fight’s biggest supporters.

Tom reports that everyone is asking if there will be another ride. “The amount of seeds we are planting, funds and awareness that we are raising for cancer research, and the amount of people we move and touch with what we are doing – it has all become bigger than us, bigger than we could ever imagine, and there is no stop,” he replies. “Bike For the Fight is finishing this journey in a week, but New York is not going to be our last destination.”

You can read Tom’s blog here and follow him on YouTube.

Citri at his university office, surrounded by photos of his late wife and son, along with other diagnostic kits he’s invented. Photo by Lorena Sabater

Supreme scientist, to the very end

I received an email from Prof. Ami Citri informing me of the sad news that his father, Prof. Nathan Citri, passed away at home in Jerusalem just before Rosh Hashanah.

Though well past 90 and officially retired from the Hebrew University since 1989, Nathan Citri had never stopped seeking simple solutions to intractable world health problems. Together with Ami’s mother Naomi, who died in 2011, Prof. Citri invented a prototype for bedside kits that detect and identify “superbugs” from blood or urine, yielding lifesaving information within minutes rather than days.

He’d taken the prototype to England to get the ball rolling on developing the kit. When I came to his home to interview him earlier this year, he’d related how the expert with whom he met there predicted it would take a couple of years for the product to be commercialized. “Look at me,” he had told the expert. “I don’t have that kind of time. We need to do this right now.” And so the kit was fast-tracked toward getting the European CE Mark of approval.

I had asked him for his secret to longevity, and his smile faded. He refused to speculate on that, he told me, because he could make no sense of the topic. His parents and teenage sister were murdered by the Nazis – he had escaped to Palestine through the Youth Aliyah rescue project in 1937 – and in 1995 his beloved elder son from his first marriage, Yoav, was killed in an accident. Photos of Naomi and Yoav hung above his workspace, where he was involved in developing yet another medical diagnostic kit until shortly before his death.

Ami Citri, a neurobiologist who this academic year began a double appointment at the Hebrew University as an assistant professor at the Silverman Institute of Life Sciences and at the Safra Center for Brain Sciences, said in the email that there was no funeral for his father.

“Since my father committed himself to science in life and death, his body was returned to the Hebrew University Medical School,” he wrote.

Our sympathies go out to Ami and his half-sister Miki, a social worker at Hadassah University Medical Center.