August 1, 2006
AKKO, Israel – It’s an eerie feeling driving north these days from Tel Aviv. Traffic thins consistently on the coastal road, and by the time you get to Haifa there is nary a car on the road.

To say the ongoing barrage of Katyusha rocket attacks from Lebanon has turned the cities of northern Israel into virtual ghost towns is no exaggeration. The streets are practically empty; most shops are closed, save for the odd makolet – the Israeli term for a convenience store – or falafel stand.

The emptiness is downright disconcerting, especially when you know exactly where everybody is hiding. Even the best bomb shelters in Akko, a mixed Jewish-Arab town about 20 minutes north of Haifa, don’t do much to To say the ongoing barrage of Katyusha rocket attacks from Lebanon has turned the cities of northern Israel into virtual ghost towns is no exaggeration. assuage the fear: They are run down, crowded and oppressively hot. And for the elderly and the handicapped, for whom a break upstairs to catch in a cold shower isn’t an easy task, such surroundings have become a surreal home.

In a squalid tenement not far from Akko’s old city, Sarah Rahmano, a frightened woman in her mid-40s, brings her 85-year-old mother downstairs to the building's municipal shelter in the morning, and that’s it. They don’t leave again all day, apart from a single odd jaunt by the daughter to bring food from the apartment.

For Rahmano, the option of leaving the besieged north for safer areas further south – as many Israelis have done since fighting began last month – simply doesn’t exist. “Where should we go?” she says emphatically. “My mother here isn’t well enough to travel and my children live in the area. I’ve lived here for 29 years and I don’t have anywhere to go.”

A young girl clutches a sandwich as she sits in her father’s lap. Photo: Andrew Friedman
A young girl clutches a sandwich as she sits in her father’s lap. Photo: Andrew Friedman
Battling Fear

Put simply, people are scared, and with good reason. Enemy rockets fall indiscriminately, and even though people are relatively safe down in the shelters, bombs frequently land close enough to shake the walls. On a “light” day only two sirens echo throughout the city, and just seven or eight rockets explode; the collective experience of the past couple of weeks has shifted the attention of everyone holed up here to nothing but the matsav, or the “situation” in Hebrew.

Because of the stress, visits by Chabad-Lubavitch relief teams are a welcome break.

Daily, groups of rabbis and lay personnel bring food, such as a delegation last week led by Rabbi Natan Yitzhak Oirechman, director of Akko’s Chabad House, which passed out more than 1,000 sandwiches at a downtown shelter.

"Where should we go?" she says emphatically. "My mother here isn’t well and I don’t have anywhere to go."

The recipients are happy to receive the sandwiches but, according to Rabbi Yosef Makmal, the assistant director of Chabad in Akko, food is not the main issue.

“Just being there makes all the difference in the world,” says Makmal. “People, both Jews and Arabs, receive us with open arms because they can tell that we care."

Oirechman agreed, adding that the confidence and happiness of Chabad representatives rubs off on people in the shelters.

“I don’t believe any of this is a punishment from G‑d,” he explains. “We have a Father in heaven who loves us and wants only to do what is in our best interest. People see that we aren’t scared, and it helps them relax as well.”

Contagious Optimism

Cooling off at the entrance of the bomb shelter, a Chabad Rabbi delivers much needed sandwiches. Photo: Andrew Friedman
Cooling off at the entrance of the bomb shelter, a Chabad Rabbi delivers much needed sandwiches. Photo: Andrew Friedman
In more than one shelter here, both rabbis have been whisked off for a round of dancing and singing, all with the wail of an air raid siren in the background. Group recitations of passages from the Torah, such as the Shema, are not uncommon.

But besides the morale boost and meals, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries have also been offering material support to municipal shelters at the request of local authorities. Most bomb shelters have been neglected for years, and lack basic supplies such as air conditioners, baby food, diapers and more. At one location in Akko, for instance, there are no chairs, tables or televisions. The only relief from the heat is a fan one woman, Shoshana, brought from her home across the street.

“We’ll keep dashing, and keep praying,” she says. “What else can we do?”

“We called the Akko municipality to try and get some chairs or air conditioning here, just something to make this hell a bit more livable,” she says. With the war causing problems for both administrator and citizen alike, the city’s only response, Shoshana says, was “Sorry, we’ve got no time for you.’ ”

As she and her neighbor loiter tensely outside the shelter waiting for the sirens to sound again, Oirechman studies the scene intently, taking mental notes on what exactly is needed for his future visit. Shoshana says she has no choice but to risk her personal safety by escaping the shelter and dashing across the street several times a day. She adds that she looks forward to the end.

“We’ll keep dashing, and keep praying,” she says. “What else can we do?”