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My Small Contribution to Keeping the Peace

Updated: Apr 3

Last week, I found myself herding autistic elementary school students at a school I’d never been to before into a bomb shelter—for practice.

That wasn’t exactly what I expected to be doing that morning. I am spending the summer in Israel with my family on a mini-sabbatical, and between finishing old projects and starting some new ones, I carved out a little time for volunteering. Through friends (the way things work in this small country), I learned about Skilled Volunteers for Israel, and they connected me to  the Yad Hamoreh school,  home to a unique program for medium-to-low functioning autistic children integrated with regular track children. They always need extra hands on board, especially Hebrew speakers, so Wednesday morning, I was scheduled to volunteer at the school.

Tuesday night, though, there was an air raid siren in Jerusalem. Hamas rockets were headed toward the city.

I have lived in Jerusalem during dangerous times. In 2001-2002, buses and restaurants were regularly blown up, and people were afraid to travel by bus or to even sit in cafés. In 2006, during the second Lebanon war, Jerusalem was a relatively safe, and strangers from the north came to stay in my grandmother’s apartment, seeking refuge. But Tuesday was my first tzeva adom—Color Red warning. Terrorists in Gaza had successfully created rockets capable of reaching as far as Jerusalem, and they had begun shooting at the city. Never mind the fact that there are many Arabs in Jerusalem, Christians and Muslim alike. Never mind the historical and religious sites for so many religions. These rockets were targeting us and aiming to kill.

As the siren wailed and we realized what it was, my husband and I grabbed our sleeping children and headed to the “safe space” in my husband’s aunt and uncle’s apartment. We ended up spending the night, rather than driving home and risking a siren while on the road (safety protocol requires exiting the car, lest it be hidden blowup, and laying by the side of the road, none of which we found appealing with two small sleeping children). In the morning, still shaken by the experience, we headed home, cleaned up, and got the kids to daycare, and then I headed to Yad Hamoreh.

In a bright, colorful classroom, I slowly met the fifth graders. First E, curled up on a chair. She understands English better than Hebrew because her parents are American, but she doesn’t speak almost at all, and when she does, it’s mostly to herself. Y is very affectionate, but teachers are worried that his propensity for enthusiastically touching friends and strangers alike will not serve him well and are working with him on who to touch and when. G can recognize some letters and vowels, but it’s hard to get him to stay focused enough to read more than a word or two. M hasn’t been doing well lately and spends a lot of time trying to do damage to the classroom and her classmates. Teachers expertly distract her, move hazards, and stand guard, but in a room of needy kids, she needs a full-time person standing near her to keep her from hurting others or herself. L’s body is covered in scars that I understood were self-inflicted by too much scratching. How does one protect a child from himself? So there we were, 5 or 7 kids, and, depending on volunteers and activity, at times as many as 5 adults, helping them through their day. I followed the class to music and sports and art, each activity customized for the needs of the children.

At noon came the emergency drill. Exercises like these were taking place across the country, in schools and daycares and camps, as children prepared for the very real threat of a rocket landing on their school or park or home. The guidelines are not complicated. The Home Front Command has advertisements on the radio and TV in case you haven’t been paying in attention. In Jersualem, you have 90 seconds to get to shelter. (Obviously, those closer to the source have less time. In Sderot, where they have 15 seconds to get to shelter, and the sirens go off all the time, kids just spend their days in safe spaces, since there is no way they could get everyone in safely.) Bomb shelters are the safest place to be. Mamads (safe spaces, or specially reinforced rooms within newer apartments) are also considered safe. If you don’t have time to reach or access to one of those, try to get to a space with only internal walls and no windows. If you’re on the top floor, go down a few, since you don’t want the roof falling on you. Stairwells are considered good options as well.

Of course, few of the kids at Yad Hamoreh can understand the guidelines or the reason for them. We explained simply that we had to go to the library and promised they could read books there. However, due to summer renovations, it ended up that the library, a reinforced safe space, wasn’t open, and we led the kids further downstairs, into another large shelter. We didn’t have enough adults to hold everyone’s hands, but the teachers knew who needed to be gently tugged along and who could independently follow the crowd and we were thus able to keep our class together. The room was crowded but air-conditioned and the mood was boisterous. Teachers congratulated the kids on getting there in a short time, though I wasn’t sure if we really made it in less than 90 seconds, given the confusion and semi-controlled chaos. Once everyone was seated, another teacher asked me to position myself strategically in the line of sight between M and the girl in the other class whose long hair she loves to pull. I stood there until we were dispatched back to our classrooms. My small contribution to keeping the peace.

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