August 7, 2006
SAFED, Israel – Tuesday last week brought a brief respite from rocket attacks in this northern Israeli city, and residents enjoyed the opportunity to sit outside and run a few errands. But the opening of supermarkets and the occasional car on the street barely made a dent in the desolation.

Safed has become a virtual ghost town in the last three weeks. Streets normally full of children are now practically empty, save for the occasional cat or dog. In the Kiryat Chabad neighborhood, approximately 40 children spend their days in a renovated bomb shelter-cum-day care center, a far cry from the 1,000 five-year-olds who normally populate the neighborhood’s kindergartens alone.

“Listen to the quiet,” said Rachel Chitrik, a 30-year resident of Kiryat Chabad. “Normally it would be so noisy, with children playing in the courtyard and voices everywhere.”

Safed has become a virtual ghost town in the last three weeks. Streets normally full of children are now practically empty

The loudest sound that day was of a ticking clock. Only a few people stood in the courtyard below Chitrik’s window, milling in and out of the grocery store. Nearby, a closed fruit store reeked of rotting produce; the owner left town in a panic and simply locked the door before taking his family southward.

Finding Joy in an Air Conditioner

Elsewhere in Safed, Zahava and Yossi Shimoni sat on a street bench while the smallest of their children played nearby; their teenage daughter and her friend meanwhile played with their two tiny and excitable dogs.

“We went to Beit Shemesh for part of the war, but we had to come back,” said Zahava Shimoni. “For a while it was all right. Soldiers came every day to our bomb shelter and entertained us. But now we’re going insane. It is so boring. Six children, and there is nothing to do here.”

A family enjoys a break in the rocket attacks
A family enjoys a break in the rocket attacks

The Shimonis live in a second floor apartment on Canaan Street; their shelter is across the street and down the block, too far to reach in the seven to 10 seconds of warning provided by the air-raid sirens. So they’ve been spending most of their days in the bomb shelter: an underground, windowless room with harsh lighting and three mattresses.

“We’re excited because the city just put in an air conditioner,” said Shimoni.

As they sat in the sunlight across the street from their house, testing the one-day calm, the Shimonis received a visit from a Chabad-Lubavitch representative who presented them with a shopping bag of food, toys and books donated by Jerusalem residents.

"We are going insane. It is so boring. Six children, and there is nothing to do here."

Three-year-old Asher clutched a new puzzle and a Hebrew translation of a popular nursery book, while nine-year-old Baruch showed a visitor the two houses down the street that had been hit by Hezbollah rocket fire.

“See,” he began, pointing to the construction in front of a one-family house, “there used to be a two-car garage there. Now they are rebuilding it.”

He poked his toe at the dust under a bombed-out lobby of an apartment building. Three teenagers sat in the rubble, smoking.

“The booms are really scary,” said Baruch. “I didn’t want to leave the bomb shelter today.”

"Enough," proclaims graffiti on the wall of the bomb shelter, as a mother prepares food for here family
"Enough," proclaims graffiti on the wall of the bomb shelter, as a mother prepares food for here family

Five minutes later, a police car sped down the street, imploring people over a loudspeaker to take cover due to yet another rocket warning. Partly disappointed and partly panicked, the Shimonis at first ran in two directions: the father with some of the children toward the bomb shelter, the mother with Asher toward their apartment. After a brief discussion, they decided to go home first, gather food and clothes, and then spend the rest of the day in the shelter.

Thousands of Meals

Rabbi Shachar Shoshani, the Chabad representative who paid the visit to the Shimonis, works year-round for Colel Chabad, bringing food to the poor residents of Safed for the 218 year-old humanitarian organization. Now, with stores closed, he said, he’s working harder than ever.

“If someone in Safed needs food, they call City Hall,” he related. “Then City Hall coordinates with us and with other organizations. I get a list each morning of who needs food.”

"The booms are really scary,” said Baruch. “I didn’t want to leave the bomb shelter today."

On that day, more than 5,000 people had requested food aid from the town.

“You have to understand,” he explained, “anyone who has money is out of here. The only people who are left are the ones who have no money, or the very old people who are not spry enough to change their routines. Some of them are day-laborers, and now, without work, they have nothing, not even the bus fare out of Safed.”

During a drive through the city, Shoshani, though resolved to continue his work, was also showing signs of wear and tear.

“So many people have left,” he said, “that sometimes it’s so quiet we can hear the bombs go off in Lebanon. The children are all gone. It’s scary how quiet it is. The street cats are starving to death, because there is no one around to leave garbage for them to forage.”

Shoshani stopped his beat-up nine-passenger van to make a delivery in front of a large apartment complex, where several men in their 50’s stood waiting outside.

“I wish I could go to the Dead Sea,” sighed Shalom Shachror, 51, showing his disability card. “I have no money to go. We go into this tiny bomb shelter. The people with money can go, but the poor people stay here to die.”

Shoshani’s next stop was to a modestly-dressed woman who was trailed by several little girls. The woman wouldn’t comment about the war, but one of the girls, Rotal, 12, shared a memory.

“We saw a Katyusha over us,” she said excitedly. “It went right over our building. Wow! It was scary! Wow.”

Despite the empty streets, Shoshani saw a silver lining to the crisis with Lebanon.

“The Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred,” he said. “Now, G‑d brought us the war so the country would be unified together. There is love here. The whole country is there for each other. It is sad, because so many soldiers are dying, but you also see so much love.”

Miracles Every Day

Several residents of Safed echoed his sentiments, that G‑d’s hand is in this war. Many of those interviewed spoke of the “daily miracles,” that in spite of so many rockets falling on Safed, so few residents have actually been killed.

Mendel Weinberger, 16, who had come to Safed from Belgium for a family vacation just one week before the war began, told of one such miracle, which was later corroborated by Chitrik.

“Last Shabbat a rocket headed toward a building in Givat Shoshana, next to Kiryat Chabad, but suddenly and oddly changed course at the last minute,” said Weinberger, who now spends his days helping men in Safed put on tefillin while his sister runs a makeshift day camp in a bomb shelter. “It hit an apartment where several family members were sitting in the next room, and punched a hole in the wall and on their floor without exploding.”

Weinberger said the family is planning to build a window exactly where the Katyusha hit.

“I think it's important to recall the Rebbe's assurances,” said Weinberger’s mother, Reva, invoking the many statements made by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, assuring Israel’s protection in times of war. “We need to believe that everything will be fine, support Israel and support each other.”