IT WAS THE quiet time between dawn and sunrise when sirens began blaring in communities across southern and central Israel on Tuesday Nov. 12.
In the seven hours following the assassination of an Islamic Jihad senior commander by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, approximately 150 rockets were fired from Gaza in retaliation, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. Rockets that evaded destruction by the Iron Dome missile defense system — and they were in the majority — rained terror upon Israeli civilians, hitting buildings and parked cars, busy highways and neighborhood sidewalks.
For the first time since the 2014 Gaza war, IDF Home Front Command ordered school cancellations from the vicinity of the Gaza Strip to Tel Aviv, impacting more than 1 million children.
But what does a day home from school mean for a child when one’s home or the presence of one’s family is no guarantee of safety?
LESS THAN A week earlier, Ashkelon’s Mayor Tomer Glam was here in Baltimore. Baltimore and Ashkelon have been sister cities since 2003, and during his visit Glam, 43, met with politicians and community leaders and visited Jewish institutions.
In a sit-down interview that touched upon many positive initiatives and outcomes of this special relationship, Glam also — presciently, it now feels — shared the challenges his community is facing under the constant threat from Gaza.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the mood of the people of Ashkelon in the face of these cycles of rocket attacks?
I can say that in times of fighting, the people of Ashkelon say, “We don’t care if this continues this way, if it continues for two months, but at least we’ll then have some quiet for two years, one year, and we won’t constantly be in this situation.”
I myself as a leader don’t know how to cope with parents that come to me with children that have simply stopped speaking from fear. They don’t speak. They are traumatized and stop talking.
Also, children are afraid to use the restroom. I know this personally also from home. Almost every third family experiences this, even though this isn’t publicized.
I can also tell you that during Sukkot, we were sleeping in the sukkah and a motorcycle passed by on the parallel street. You had to see it: how my youngest boy, Nehorai, how from a sleeping position in three seconds he jumps up and hugs his father because he understands that maybe again there is an attack.
This reality is not healthy. It’s not right to raise children like this. And if we need war, so war. We want peace, but if peace is not on its way we don’t have time to wait.
What do you want people in Baltimore to know about what it’s like to live in Ashkelon, not far away from everything that’s happening in Gaza?
The city of Ashkelon is really challenged, security-wise. On the seacoast, there are always attempts at infiltration to that 13-kilometer Ashkelon coastline. And, unfortunately, every few months we experience a round of fighting — not an operation like you’d see on TV, but real combat for all intents and purposes. I can tell you that in the last round, five months ago, 167 missiles were launched toward Ashkelon. Ashkelon suffered casualties, some five killed, six wounded, and over 100 suffering anxiety attacks, which is not a trivial thing.
Ashkelon is doubly challenged in another way.
We are 7.2 kilometers away [from the Gaza border], but we don’t receive the same government funding [as other communities] for allocation to treat anxiety-stricken children and rebuild informal educational programs to give the children tools to deal with the situation. We’re talking about 165,000 residents, and those are large sums which the government can’t necessarily handle; and we as a municipality are even less equipped to deal with the situation.
The second issue is the shelters. There are some 40,000 residents living without ready access to a shelter, which means that at any given moment we could be under threat and when there is a hit in that unsheltered area there are many wounded. That is a grave problem.
In other cities that are recognized [as being under threat], they receive the appropriate funding and they are given shelters and even tax breaks. It becomes a sort of unfair competition on the municipality level. Of course, I’m not claiming that in Sderot and other towns they don’t experience the same events, but we have complicated encounters with more advanced weaponry and with so little means of coping. On the one hand, these other cities benefit from the resources that the Israeli state gives them; and, they also come and share what they go through — like I’m doing here today, and my predecessors unfortunately did not do — and raise major funds.
That means that there is a group of children that get the tools needed to cope, and a group of children who can’t cope because they don’t have the means to manage those complex problems.
What can members of the Baltimore Jewish community, and American Jews in general, do to help raise awareness and support for residents of Ashkelon?
Those who can direct the discussions — the discourse and the information that reaches not only those donors but in general the Jews that are here — should make sure Ashkelon receives major coverage.
Just as an example: Donations from Baltimore are donated to the entire area surrounding the Gaza Strip. But what happens? Ashkelon receives only a quarter of what other communities get, because they have some kind of matching program in place. And then you are helpless. You want your city to thrive, and you want to offer the basic services — I’m talking about a trauma center to take care of all those children that need treatment.
What about the Jewish community here made a strong impression on you during your visit?
The thing that impressed me the most is the way you raise your children and teens, the next generation, with values. Throughout my visit here, whether it be in kindergartens, schools, community centers, or retirement centers, I saw the values — such an important thing to keep. There is something called kinat sofrim, envy between scholars. It is the positive envy, good things you can be envious over; so yes, I’m envious. It is true I have in Ashkelon great human capital, but I am full of hope that I will also have the means of giving them opportunities to raise their children in the conditions that the children in Baltimore are raised in.