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Holding Up Under Fire
by Judy Lash Balint
AMIT Magazine
May 3, 2001

"I feel I'm beginning to look my age," says Cheryl Mandel, long time resident of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, "because of the tension caused by the past months of Arab violence."

Mandel remarks that when she made aliya 14 years ago, she was struck by how much younger she looked than her Israeli peers. The years of tension and stress had taken their toll on the Israeli women. Now, Mandel feels she has joined their ranks.

The continuing attacks against Jews have caused significant lifestyle changes for many Israelis, but mothers living in YESHA (Judea, Samaria and Gaza), some of them AMIT members, are among the most affected.

Mandel feels the tension in her muscles as she waits for her 12th grade son to return from basketball practice in Jerusalem. As part of a semi-pro team, Gabriel has to be in the city five nights per week. By the time he's ready to come home, the last bulletproof bus has already left. So Gabriel stands at the entrance to the tunnel road waiting for a ride for the 15-minute journey home.

The road is often closed because of shooting attacks from Arab villages overlooking the area. Two Jewish residents of Gush Etzion have been killed on this road, and stoning and shooting attacks are now routine. Many people wear bulletproof jackets and helmets driving to and from Jerusalem these days.

So Cheryl lies awake until Gabriel walks in the door. By now, she's already been in touch with her son by cell-phone several times since he set out for home. The most important call is to let her know that someone's stopped to pick him up and they're on the road. Then she knows exactly how long the journey home should take.

Some parents of younger children have made a conscious decision not to take their children on the roads unless absolutely necessary. Eve Harow is an Efrat mother of seven children ranging from 4-18 years old. Rather than take the kids to the mall at the other end of the tunnel road, Harow buys clothes and shoes for her younger kids and brings them home for them to try on.

Lately, the Harow family hasn't been able to observe their birthday tradition either. Until last year, one part of every child's birthday celebration was a family dinner at the kosher Burger King in Jerusalem. Now they stay home, rather than submit to what Harow describes as "the feeling of vulnerability" on the roads.

But like Cheryl Mandel's boys, several of the Harow children are involved in extra-curricular activities, which take them outside the Gush. Two of her teenagers play on Little League teams. "None of the other teams will come to Efrat now, "Harow explains. "So our team has to be on the roads more traveling to games." Harow was a regular attendee at AMIT conferences and Study Days in Jerusalem, now the decision to take part is more complicated.

Another Efrat resident, Shana Mauer notes that evenings out are a rarity, because of the frequent road closures, the danger of being on the roads at night and because many people prefer not to be in the same vehicle as their spouse.

Some communities have organized additional activities for the children and teens, and some parents in Gush Katif communities have signed up for cable TV in order to keep their kids inside, preferring to expose them to questionable culture than to mortar shells.

The added stress of living under the threat of violence has caused physical affects too. Mandel refers to people she knows whose eating habits have deteriorated. "We sometimes find ourselves sitting in front of the TV news with candy in our hands," she says. Others have taken up smoking to try to handle the strain. Mandel's married daughter, a drama teacher, vomited from anxiety after a difficult trip home from Jerusalem kept her from her two small children hours longer than anticipated.

To date, Gush Katif has been the most embattled area in the violent Arab assault. Jewish villages there have sustained the most consistent bombardment from their hostile neighbors in Khan Yunis. Israelis have been living for months now with the knowledge that they will be attacked every night. Everyone deals with the situation in his or her own way.

Roberta Bienenfeld, a former AMIT member from Flatbush who has lived in Neve Dekalim, Gush Katif for over 20 years had this to say:

"We are living under constant bombardment. This means that we hear
shooting, bombing and mortars both day and night. Not a day passes that
we don't hear shooting. Sometimes it is real, at other times it is a door
slamming, the wind blowing in the trees, boys bouncing a basketball on
the nearby basketball court. You could call it being shell-shocked.

"And although there are sometimes incidents during the day, we know that
at night there WILL be shooting. The question is when. Your ears are always cocked waiting, just waiting for something to happen. Once you hear it, you can begin to relax. Usually it occurs between 10 p.m.-midnight. You try to get your kids to sleep before then.

Bienenfeld, whose mother and mother-in-law are active AMIT supporters in the U.S, says that for her, the shooting has become such a day-to-day occurrence that she doesn't even really hear it anymore. "One the jokes around here is that if there isn't any shooting, you can't fall asleep."

"The truth is that I, at least, don't feel that I am "living under
terror" which of course I am. I am very aware of every little noise,
helicopters overhead, constant news on the television and radio. But G-d
has given us ways of ignoring it and has allowed us to get used to a new
reality. Shooting becomes the norm. Announcements to stay inside the

Bienenfeld, who made aliya in 1980, explains that each child experience the affects of the war in a unique way. Her oldest child is finishing the second year of her national service in the neighboring community of Netzarim. Her 11th grade daughter will be eligible to earn extra points on her Bagruyot (national high school tests) since she lives in an area affected by the violence, but Bienenfeld acknowledges that her grades have suffered this year. Her youngest daughter moved into her sister's room so that she would be on the side of the house as far away from Khan Yunis as possible.

For a number of years, Bienenfeld has led tourists and journalists through the Gush Katif area--AMIT women from Israel and abroad among them.

Seeing their children deal with funerals and shiva calls saddens many parents. "I'd never been to funerals at that age," Cheryl Mandel observes sadly. The absence of a carefree childhood and normal freedoms are painful realities that the current situation has brought about. The constant checking in with parents and restricted movement and activities are difficult to deal with for parents and children.

On the positive side, the situation has in fact strengthened feelings of solidarity and resolve both within families and within the settlements. According to Shani Simkowitz of Tekoa, the horrible events experienced by Tekoa residents have made them come together as an extended family. "The quality of life here can't be bought," she says. "People care for one another, look out for each other and share in the tragedies," Simkowitz says of the small, heterogeneous community in the Judean hills. "This is our strength, this is what's getting us through," she says.

Many women in the most severely affected communities are deeply attuned to the spiritual aspect of the situation. For some, it has been difficult to explain to their children why tragedies are happening all around them. "It's a stretch for emunah (faith)," sighs Eve Harow. "Where was Hashem" when those two 14 year old boys from Tekoa were brutalized and murdered, she wonders out loud. "We just don't know," she answers herself, noting that the same question has resonated through centuries of greater Jewish suffering before there was a state and an army to protect Jews.

Cheryl Mandel, observant herself, expresses jealousy of those whom she perceives to have deep faith. "They seem to be managing better. I envy them their clarity and strength," she says. In a moment of introspection, Mandel explains that until this year, she would have described herself as positive, outgoing, optimistic and strong. "Now, I feel anxious, worried, not at all optimistic and despondent," she says, quickly adding that by nature she's not pessimistic, and is grateful to her psychologist husband who "keeps things in perspective."

Like many, Mandel's work life has suffered from the intifada. She manages the Etzion Judaica Center not far from her home. Since October not one tour bus has stopped at the unique judaica gallery and store. Now, Mandel and her staff are adapting to the new reality by emphasizing items for the local market. "We'll get through this difficult period and keep the jewel of the Gush sparkling," she notes.

Underlying the anxiety, fear, sadness and despondency there's a spirit of defiance and a sense of destiny that sustains those living through these hard times.

"We're going to grow and prosper," says Shani Simkowitz from Tekoa. "People have to realize that this is not a "settler" problem, it's a Jewish problem, and they better realize we have finally come home and we're choosing to stay."

Simkowitz knows about coming home. She made aliya from the U.S alone at the age of 15. Simkowitz's great grandmother Bea Topor started several AMIT chapters in the New York area, and her cousin Naomi Abramwitz lectures for AMIT.

Eve Harow, who moved to the new Efrat neighborhood of Zayit with 11 other families just before Passover, reminds herself and her children that a few brave Jews have been on the firing line in every generation. Now it's their turn, and she's proud to have the privilege of making Jewish history. "We're very determined to stay and to build. We're not going anywhere."