The city of Ashkelon is home to 155,000 people. They live 13 kilometres from the northern border of the Gaza Strip. In March, the city was bombarded by rockets, as part of a day-long barrage of southern Israel out of Gaza. One man was killed and several injured. Residents of Ashkelon have 30 seconds from the time they hear a siren to find shelter.
There are 220 synagogues in the city. Kehillat Netzach Israel (KNI) is the only Masorti synagogue. Masorti (traditional) synagogues are affiliated with the Conservative movement in North America. Like North American synagogues, Masorti synagogues in Israel survive on membership dues, donations and revenue from services they offer to the community.
Recently, KNI opened a daycare for children and babies from six months to three years of age. There are nine infants and 15 toddlers who spend their days at the nursery, watched by five dedicated caregivers. Next year, they plan to add another room for older children. This is a much-needed service in Ashkelon, where there is a shortage of daycare spaces.
In March, when the sirens sounded, each of the caregivers had to pick up two infants and hurry down a steep flight of stairs to the existing bomb shelter, all the while shepherding the slightly older children, who have to get down the stairs on their own. On the worst day of the rocket attacks, when sirens were sounding constantly, the nursery did not open at all.
At the height of the bombardment, Terri Davis, KNI’s overseas co-ordinator, posted a comment on the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin website, appealing for help to build a bomb shelter for the nursery. (KNI has a long-standing relationship with members of the Ottawa Jewish community.) In response, Ottawans have been stepping up to donate money to the project.
What is required is a reinforced room that will connect directly to the nursery. In an emergency, the bomb shelter will only be a few steps away. This will provide enough time to move the babies and go back, to ensure the toddlers are all safely inside the shelter, before the 30 seconds have elapsed. In normal times, the shelter will provide an additional space where the children can play or have their naps.
Because of the peculiarities of the site, the shelter will need to be custom-built. The project will also include the necessary plumbing, wiring, finishing and the furniture needed for the space.
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I am sitting in Jerusalem as I write this, beyond the range of the Hamas rockets from Gaza. Last week, I visited Ashkelon and Kehillat Netzach Israel, with my father, Menachem Roytenberg, and my son, Jonathan. Among the people we met there was Tiana Siegelman, the manager of the nursery. Siegelman is the daughter of Canadian immigrants to Israel. She grew up in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, between Ashkelon and the Gaza border. She explained to us that they spend time with the toddlers in the existing bomb shelter, so that the children won’t be afraid in an emergency.
In Canada, many Jews feel a sense of helplessness when they read of rockets, tunnels and fire balloons from Gaza. We read in the Israeli press of people who are fed up with the constant threat of violence. But the people of Ashkelon are carrying on with their lives. Siegelman and her colleagues go to work every day and serve their community. Helping the nursery at KNI build a bomb shelter for their babies is a practical way that those of us living in safety can help the brave people of Ashkelon.
To donate to the KNI bomb shelter project, please contact the author at [email protected]