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Out of the Mouth of Roni

May 8, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

How an 8-year-old is holding down the borders of Israel.

Two boys race into the elevator of Jerusalem's Renaissance Hotel an hour before Shabbat. Thin and dark-complexioned, speaking Hebrew, wearing shorts and T-shirts, and holding plastic bowls filled with unshelled sunflower seeds (Israel's ubiquitous snack), the boys do not look like typical guests at a five-star hotel. In Hebrew, I ask them where they are from.

"Sderot," is their one-word reply.

"Who's paying for your Shabbat in Jerusalem?"


Sderot, of course, is the Israeli city of 20,000 Jews located just 900 meters from the Gaza Strip. A more or less constant bombardment of Kassam rockets from Gaza has killed 12 people, some of them children, and injured many hundreds. A few months ago a 10-year-old boy lost his leg in a Kassam attack.

Thousands of the city's residents suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, including endemic bedwetting among children. PTS is actually a misnomer, as the traumatic condition of being sitting ducks for lethal rocket attacks is present and ongoing, not past.

Many charity organizations such as ZAKA (best known for collecting body parts after terror attacks) give Sderot residents a short respite from living under fire by bringing them for brief periods to other Israeli cities. There they will not be awakened in the middle of the night by a "Color Red" siren warning them that a Kassam rocket is on its way from Gaza. There the children can play outdoors without fear. There families can venture outside without worrying that the 15-second-warning afforded them by the siren will not be enough time to reach a shelter. On this particular Shabbat, ZAKA is treating fifteen Sderot families to a weekend in Jerusalem.

On Shabbat afternoon, my husband and I are walking through the lobby when we notice five young girls sitting around a table munching on sunflower seeds.

"They're from Sderot," my husband identifies them.

I approach the group and strike up a conversation, eager to know what it's like for children to live in a battle zone. The girls tell me their names and ages. Two are eight-years-old, two are nine, and one is ten.

"What's it like living in Sderot?" I ask in Hebrew.

"It's been quiet this week," Helit offers.

"What are you talking about?" Roni corrects her. "One fell yesterday."

"One?" Helit responds. "That's nothing. Some days 50 rockets fall."

"What do you do when the ‘Color Red' goes off?" I ask.

"If we're at home, we run into our safe room. Our apartment has a fortified room. We run there and wait until the rocket has landed."

"That's very convenient," I say, "to have a safe room right in your own apartment. Do all the apartments in Sderot now have safe rooms?"

"No," Miri answers. "Some of our friends have to run downstairs to the bomb shelter in the basement of their building."

"That must be hard in the middle of the night," I suggest. All the girls nod their heads sadly.

"But what's worse is when you're outside, like on your way to school," pipes up Daniela, "and the Color Red goes off. There might not be any shelter close enough to run to."

Aware that some 4,000 Sderot residents -- 16% of the population -- have already left the dangerous city, I ask, "Would you like to move to Jerusalem?"

Four of the girls shake their heads. "No," Helit answers, "Sderot is my home. I don't want to leave."

"Neither do I," says Miri. "I was born in Sderot."

"So was I," add two other girls.

I look at Roni, the only one who has not responded. With a thoughtful gaze, she picks her words carefully. "I would like to move to Jerusalem, because it's the holy city," Roni admits. "But I will not leave Sderot. Because if I leave and my family leaves and other families leave, very few families will want to move to Sderot."

(Exactly zero, I'm thinking.)

This eight-year-old girl sees that to abandon Sderot is to, piece by piece, abandon all of Israel.

"And then," continues the eight-year-old, "Sderot will be empty. And then the Arabs will take over the city. And then the Arabs will start shooting missiles at other cities. And then the Jews will move away from those cities. And then the Arabs will take over all of Israel.

"So," Roni sums up her position, "I'm staying in Sderot."

A lump has formed in my throat. This eight-year-old girl is holding down the borders of Israel for the rest of us. With perfect clarity, she sees that to abandon Sderot is to, piece by piece, abandon all of Israel. And to hold fast in Sderot, despite the lethal attacks, despite the risk to life and limb, despite the fear-laced days and siren-laced nights, is to hold on to the Jewish homeland.

How many of us would be as brave as Roni?

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