SDEROT, Israel – When thundershowers hit most of Israel in mid-November, most people rejoiced: After five consecutive drought-ridden winters, they said that the rains signaled Divine benevolence and the start of a much-needed wet winter.

But according to Rabbi Moshe Ze’ev Pizem, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in this southern border town, not everyone enjoyed the thunder. To many in and around this region encircling the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, the noise was all too reminiscent of the Kassam rocket attacks that have continually pelted their homes and communities since the fall of 2000.

Jacob Shrybman, a spokesman for the Sderot Media Center, tells of an acquaintance who spent each night of the recent storms shaking with fear and vomiting in her small apartment. It’s an extreme reaction, but not an unusual one among a population whose members display telltale symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Since 2000, we have suffered more than 10,000 rocket attacks,” says Shrybman, who like many residents, breathed a sigh of relief during last year’s Israeli offensive in Gaza – known here as Operation Cast Lead – only to see a resumption of terror attacks after the official end of hostilities.

“The ongoing trauma has forced [this woman] to repeatedly seek emergency psychiatric care for shock,” he details, “to miss countless work days, and pushed her toward a steady diet of prescription drugs to deal with the constant fear.”

Constant Anticipation

Even as military and political analysts throughout the country gear up to mark the one-year anniversary of the last war, rabbinic leaders and psychologists in Sderot agree that the conflict is very much alive. Dr. Adrianna Katz, executive director of the Sderot Community Center for Mental Health, says it is a mistake to talk about “post-traumatic” conditions in the city, given the nearly 300 rocket attacks since the official end of the offensive.

For Pizem, that means a daily schedule of providing counseling, programming and creative thinking for residents in need of strength and guidance.

“We are still dealing with all the issues you’d imagine,” said the rabbi. “After eight years of constant attacks, everyone is ‘carrying a Kassam’ around with them. The attacks come any time of day or night, and that creates an atmosphere of complete uncertainty. You’ve got teenagers wetting the bed, people are afraid all the time, and about 10 percent of the pre-war residents have left Sderot for good.

“When things have been particularly bad, you’ve had entire families sleeping and praying together in one room,” he continues, “and that has obvious effects on inter-family relationships.”

Rows of electric organs allow Sderot children to counter their stress through music at the local Chabad House. (Photo: Andrew Friedman)
Rows of electric organs allow Sderot children to counter their stress through music at the local Chabad House. (Photo: Andrew Friedman)

The matsav as Israelis call it, using the Hebrew word for “situation,” has brought debilitating economic issues as well: Many people here have lost jobs, business owners are struggling to stay afloat, and housing prices have plummeted.

Through it all, Pizem has kept the Chabad House’s doors open. Those who use the center’s services frequently emerge with smiles, and even hope, although the war has left its own mark on the concrete building.

The entire two-story structure is reinforced to resist shrapnel, and you enter from the street into a large multi-purpose room. Every Monday, the room is transformed into an indoor playground, complete with jumping castles, soft climbing equipment, plastic balls and more. But on Shabbat, the space hosts the afternoon meal; in the evenings, the center holds lectures, security briefings, Torah classes and other adult-focused events.

Venture further into the Chabad House’s interior and you see a music room with several electric organs, and other rooms full of new children’s clothes.

“You have no idea what the music program does for the children and adults who participate,” relates Pizem. “It’s a terrific outlet for all the fear, frustration, anger and more that people are feeling. And with all the economic stress here, we’ve been fortunate enough to provide children’s clothes for just a symbolic charge.”

When he has a moment to reflect on his own personal toll as a result of the conflict – his brother’s house was struck by a rocket earlier this year – Pizem admits that the last eight years have been difficult. But he qualifies that assessment with the realization that the experience has also strengthened the bonds between residents.

“I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to put myself and my family in the path of danger,” he says. “But now that I’m here? It’s made me a better father and better friend. Living through this has given us all the ability to understand each other and our needs on a much deeper level.”