Rabbi Myra Hovav, alumna of our Israel Rabbinical Program at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, writes:
I am the Rabbi for Kehillat YUVAL in Gedera. Our kehilla was established four years ago and I am their first Rabbi. Gedera is a town of approximately 30,000 residents located 15 km. east of the city of Ashdod and 10 km. south of the city of Rehovot.
We are within the 40 km. range from the Gaza strip so we are almost used to sirens going off in our area – it has been part of our routine since the end of 2008 when Hammas started using long distance missiles. The past few weeks have been challenging for us. "Red alert" sirens go off a few times every day. Baruch Hashem, nobody in Gedera has been physically hurt, but it has been very close, more than once.
We are a very young community with many babies, toddlers, and young kids. Most of our members live in the newer areas of Gedera and have built-in sheltered areas. However, there are also other residents whose shelters are not close enough to their homes. This is also the case with respect to schools.
The main challenge is that the army has strict orders with respect to the opening of schools and preschools. They were closed for a few days and then some of them could be open, if they have a sheltered area which is close and big enough, while others remained closed. The municipality is responsible for the public schools and supplied alternative accommodation, but many children, especially very young kids and babies, attend private preschools, and those of them who do not have sheltered areas are still closed or get partially opened in private houses. Almost all preschools are only open half a day because the sheltered area is usually too small for all kids to sleep in, and it is obviously impossible to move the kids into the sheltered area within one minute, which is the time it takes the missiles to get to our area.
We have several families where the men were called to serve in the Reserves, unlike regular reserves duty. This is what we call in Hebrew "Tzav 8" – enlistment order no. 8 – which is not limited in time. We also have several families where the parents work for the army as their daily job, and obviously they are also extremely busy and see their families very rarely.
Many people can hardly go to work, and even if they do, they are worried about their kids staying away from them. It is also not safe enough to go outdoors and families are practically locked inside their houses, going out only very briefly for necessary shopping etc.
The combination of closed schools and absent parents in families with 3 and 4 kids is our main challenge.
In addition to the regular challenges of all Gedera residents, we also have our own challenges – we do not have a synagogue, we use the entrance hall of one of the local schools for Shabbat services but this space is not available for us during the week. We have to hold all the rest of our activities in private homes, which has always been challenging but has become now even less convenient.
What have we done so far in the kehilla?
We held Kabbalat Shabbat services as usual, and were happy to have many participants.
We held B’nai Mizvah studies regularly, for those families who remained in Gedera area.
We held a special Shabbat morning activity last week. We met in one of the local houses for a fun morning, with a small pool for the kids, baking challah together, kiddush for Shabbat, and a pot luck lunch. We had 30 people, which is remarkable given that less than an hour before we started another siren went off.
We had one of our volunteers, a child psychologist, lead a story time and crafts session for our kids. The story and the kids' work were focused on dealing with stress. This was also held in one of the private homes.
We keep working in one of our largest projects, a support group for mothers after giving birth which is called "the YUVAL stork." A new baby in the family, though a very happy event, is always also stressful and challenging, and obviously the challenges have dramatically increased during the past few weeks. Our volunteers maintain the project, which was started 18 months ago and has supported 55 women so far. Most of these women are not members of the kehilla.
This Friday we were invited by the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa for a fun day. We had a full bus and more families driving their own cars, altogether over 80 people, including 7 babies and almost 40 kids. We spent the morning in the Haifa zoo, spent time at the Leo Baeck swimming pool and had lunch there. The kids were watching a movie and we ended our wonderful day joining a musical Kabbalat Shabbat service with Rabbis Gabby Dagan and Naame Dafni Keln and members of Ohel Avraham congregation. It was a wonderful experience and we are deeply thankful to Leo Baeck staff for the invitation and for Keren Bechavod who sponsored our ride and part of our stay.
This was a great opportunity for each and every family to get some rest without constantly thinking about the next siren, and spend some time outdoors, which is something we all miss very much. Our congregants were deeply touched by the warm welcome of the Staff and members of Ohel Avraham and it gave us all a strong feeling of belonging to the same big Reform family. For most of our congregants, Kehillat YUVAL is a first experience in the Reform Jewish world. The trip to Haifa was not only fun and rest, but also a wonderful community opportunity to feel the strength of the Reform movement and the commitment of Jews to each other in Israel and all around the world.
I don't think anything can prepare any of us for dealing with such situations as rabbis. The only thing I think we should keep in mind is that we, too, need the support of other rabbis and are happy to get calls and invitations from our colleagues,
Thank you again for your concern.