March 23, 2009

After eight years of rocket attacks, Sderot’s children can finally play in peace, with the world’s first indoor playground reinforced with concrete and steel. Children playing, enjoying themselves, laughing. We take it for granted. But for the past eight years, this scene has been in short supply in Sderot. While rockets regularly fell on this northern Negev town – just one mile from the Gaza border – life was adjusted. And playing outdoors was one of the first casualties.

That changed recently when a new $5 million indoor recreational facility was dedicated by the Jewish National Fund-US in a particularly moving ceremony. According to JNF’s CEO Russell Robinson, the playground is “the biggest and most important gift that could possibly be given to the children of Sderot and the entire region”.

The JNF, which funds 99 percent of its Israel projects with partners, set out to raise the entire project cost on its own. The operating budget, estimated at $200,000 a year will also be entirely funded by the organization.

Like many play areas, it is complete with a jungle gym, rock-climbing wall, air-hockey tables, snack area and even the latest in high-tech devices. Unlike other facilities, this 21,000 sq. foot former textile factory has an indoor mini-soccer field and is largely built with reinforced concrete and steel – making it the only ‘safe-for-play’ indoor recreational facility in the world.

Here, children who have known nothing but Code Red since they were born, can play and their parents can be comfortable knowing that they are only seconds away from one of the many sections of the facility that double as a shelter when the siren sounds. Peace of mind for all.

The excitement in the room was genuine. It emanated from parents and grandparents to children, to the JNF Mission who traveled to Israel just for this dedication, to the dozens of spring break participants here to give a bit of themselves to this land.

It will be a long haul, however. I spoke to a young mother who has lived her entire life in Sderot. She’s happy that her kids now have this place to enjoy, but added: “The reality for my children hasn’t yet changed. It will take no more than one red alert every few months before the change will begin.”

A long list of individuals came together to make this playground a reality. Most impressive was the speed of it all – local people and local materials were used and the project was completed in just seven months. Many volunteered – from senior citizens to students at Sapir College. All responding to the need that for eight long years there has been no safe place for kids to play.

Despite all, the spirit of the 20,000 plus residents of Sderot remains strong. And as one 12 year old told us all at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony, “Nothing can break us – we’re here to stay.”

The very next day, the residents of Sderot enjoyed their first outdoor Purim carnival in eight years. Together.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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