Tel Aviv to Sderot: Beaches to Bomb Shelters
The damp air whisks past your sunburned cheeks and through your ocean-dried hair as you squint against the evening breeze. Pedestrians on the boardwalk watch as your long white dress dances around your legs and you wiggle your toes in the silky Mediterranean sand. Fresh hummus and out-of-the-oven pita bread arrive at your shoreline dining table, and with eyes to the stars and faint Israeli music in the background, you exhale the tangy smoke from the hookah pipe and inhale the salty draft. Welcome to Tel Aviv.
I was having the summer of a lifetime. Living in a four-story apartment building in the heart of Tel Aviv, I was just a short walk from the ocean-lined boardwalk, high-end restaurants, and exclusive nightclubs where I could dance the night away with the waves crashing behind me. I would wake up late and stroll through Nachalat Binyanim’s artists’ fair to graze through thousands of paintings, jewelry pieces and sculptures with an iced coffee in hand.
We wished each other a safe and successful week ahead. I did not take these blessings casually.
For Shabbat, my roommates and I met for a potluck dinner on the roof of our apartment building and told stories of our hometowns from around the world. When the sun went down signaling a new week, we would head to the shore for some authentic Israeli folk dancing. We poured wine and toasted our lives in the Holy Land. We wished each other a safe and successful week ahead.
I did not take these blessings casually. On Sunday, the first day of the Israeli work week, the pace of my life would suddenly change. To get to my internship on time, I was the first out the door. I headed to the Central Bus Station, where I maneuvered my way through eager lines and puffs of cigarette smoke to the only empty gate in the crowded room. I waited for the bus to Sderot alone.
While other travelers pushed each other to get on buses headed to more popular destinations, I climbed aboard my bus quickly. “Sderot, bevakasha,” I said with my best Israeli accent, and then surveyed the empty rows before picking a seat near the door, just in case.
The journey from Tel Aviv to Sderot is miraculous. In just 40 minutes, I went from street markets to fields filled with sunflowers, from skyscrapers to bomb shelters, and from the Mediterranean coastline to the Gaza viewpoint. I suddenly found myself in a city that has withstood over 12,000 Hamas rockets in the past decade. Attacks have injured over 1,000 Israelis, forcing businesses to close and residents to abandon their homes.
With an internship description that included, “capturing footage of life under rocket fire,” many questioned why I would chose such a notoriously dangerous area of the country to spend my time.
As a participant on Masa Israel’s Career Israel program, I was an intern at the Sderot Media Center. With an internship description that included, “capturing footage of life under rocket fire,” many questioned why I would chose such a notoriously dangerous area of the country to spend my time. Why not stay in Tel Aviv, pursue my film career in a top production company and enjoy the ease of my location? Instead of catching the bus at bomb shelter, I could catch rays by the beach on my lunch breaks. I could prop my feet up and enjoy the city skyline from my metropolitan cubicle instead of strategically sitting in a position that allowed a clear pathway to safety in case of an attack.
Somehow I knew that if I wanted to understand Israel’s conflict, I needed to experience it firsthand. I also knew that if I wanted to enjoy Israel, I also needed to withstand the challenges. Of course this didn’t make my constant anticipation of a seva adom, or red alarm, any easier.
Somehow I knew that if I wanted to understand Israel’s conflict, I needed to experience it firsthand.
At first glance, Sderot does not look like a war zone. There aren’t demolished buildings and abandoned stores. Traumatized residents do not run in every direction, anticipating an attack.
Instead, Sderot is filled with colorful gardens, busy corner stores and steamy bakeries. Children stroll through playgrounds on their way to school. Elderly men hunch over chess games. Outdoor flea markets are busy with eager shoppers. The sun glistens through tall tress, swaying in the wind, revealing the vast open fields of the Negev.
Only when you look more closely do you see the cement structures with the signs over their entrances that read “Bomb Shelter” in stoic red letters. It takes a while before you realize that the colorful winding caterpillar tube in the children’s playground is actually a bomb shelter. Only then do you comprehend that, at any moment, the daily routine of these residents could be thrown into chaos. In Sderot, rockets have become a normal interruption during a typical Sderot day.
Despite this reality, many residents stay in Sderot. They send their children to school, enjoy their day in the park, and live their lives as best as they can. I left Sderot at the end of each day and took their purpose and determination back to my comfortable Tel Aviv apartment building. As I walked the shoreline during evening strolls, the wind in my hair and the lights of the city reflecting off the ocean, the faces of those in Sderot stayed in my mind. I found as much pleasure in the relaxing lifestyle of Tel Aviv as I did in the perseverance of Sderot.
My double life in Tel Aviv and in Sderot started out as a long commute, but ended up teaching me profound lessons about the spirit of Israel. I felt transported back to 1948, a time in which day-to-day life had meaning and purpose. On my journey from Tel Aviv to Sderot, I went from one city to the next, from the coast to the conflict, and from living the life to fighting for it.