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Shtiebel by the Beach

Avi Friedman

The threat of missile attacks from the Gaza Strip has wreaked havoc on Jewish communities around southern Israel for more than a decade, but the issue causes particular challenges for chareidi parents in the region, whose gut reaction is to reassure children that “Hashem will protect us.” How is chassidic life in Ashdod, the seaside city less than twenty miles from the Gaza border, faring under the specter of attacks?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The most recent barrage of Hamas missiles at southern Israel hasn’t reached Ashdod, a city of 235,000 people about seventeen miles north of the Gaza Strip, but news that a Code Red alarm that sounded in neighboring Ashkelon in mid-July reminded residents of the beachfront city that the threat of attack is never far away.

For Rabbi Shmuel Teller, a rebbi at a Belz Talmud Torah in Ashdod and an advisor to chassidic communities around the country on dealing with emergency situations, the failed attack on Ashkelon brought him back to a similar incident in Ashdod in mid-May — an incident that caught Rabbi Teller off guard. He had taken the opportunity to visit family in Bnei Brak, and heard about the incident only after the danger had passed.

“As soon as I heard there had been an alarm, I called the cheder to find out if anyone had gotten hurt. Like most of the Palestinian bombs, the rockets landed in an open field outside of town, so there was no physical damage, and I knew all our teachers and school administrators were well prepared to deal with the psychological trauma,” he said.

But repeated attacks have taken their toll on Ashdod, which has found itself in easy missile range of Gaza, just down the Mediterranean coastline. The most recent round of missiles (twenty attacks since the beginning of June, as of this writing) may have spared Ashdod, but many children have had pronounced reactions to psychological trauma.

“Obviously, you cannot tell kids ‘It’ll be okay,’ or that ‘Hashem will protect us.’ Those sorts of remarks do not do much to reassure frightened kids, and if chalilah something were to happen, it would be very, very difficult to repair the damage done to a young person’s emunah,” said Rabbi Teller.

Studies have shown that repeated attacks are tougher for older children and teenagers to deal with than young children. At the beginning of the Al Aksa intifada, psychologists and teachers told the press that older kids who were subjected to daily shooting attacks in communities like Psagot in Samaria and Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood were more likely to develop extreme reactions to the daily attacks than their younger siblings and neighbors. Teller said that pattern is true in Ashdod as well.

“Once the kids are old enough to understand what’s really going on, and are really old enough to understand the seriousness of the attacks, they often manifest anxiety in things like bedwetting, extreme fear of loud noises, fear of being alone at night, and more. Obviously the conversations need to be on their level, but it’s vital to talk about it. It sends a message that their fears are legitimate and real, and that we have the tools to address them,” he said.

More or less, Teller says that the adage “time heals all wounds” can be applied to this as well.

“You would be very surprised how fast things got back to normal after Operation Cast Lead two years ago, when many families and schools evacuated,” he elaborates. “It’s a sort of snowball effect: Once kids see that after the missiles, life goes on — parents go to work, siblings go to yeshivah, etc. — they are able to internalize that message and they are able to do the same thing. Yes, there are some extreme cases — we’ve got some kids here in Ashdod that are still living with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder — but they are a minority. Ideally I’d like to offer everyone an opportunity for professional help, but the money just isn’t there,” said Teller.


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