When one thinks of Sderot: war, rockets, Gaza, Hamas and constant fear come to mind. Since 2001, Sderot has been a main target of Hamas. At its peak, Sderot received an average of 60 rockets a day, with only 15 seconds to run for safety. For many years, Sderot remained undeveloped, traumatized, and, from the outside, hopeless. Israelis rarely went there and English-speaking olim did not think of it as a place to move to, leaving the city in a state of uncertainty. After the war of 2014, however, things began to quietly change. New leadership brought new direction to Sderot. Outsiders started moving in, doubling the population. All over the city, new houses and high-rises are being built, all waiting for new residents to move in. The Iron Dome is one of the main reasons for this increased confidence in the future. Sderot went from being a town under attack with no protection, to a city protected, alert, and ready.
Unbeknownst to many, one man has been standing with Sderot, watching over and guiding the youth to a better future. In 2007, Herb Levine came to Sderot to help high school students apply and interview for the American program 'Open Heads Open Hearts'. This initiative gave a new opportunity for students to escape the summer rocket fire and experience some peaceful time in Jewish homes in New Jersey.
This rare opportunity for Sderot citizens soon grew into the Sderot Young Leaders (SYL), a full yearly program of English after-school activities including: model UN, debating, scientific leaders, and computer repair, which has since morphed into robotics. The ESRA-sponsored debate program is popular with the Gutwirth Comprehensive High School students. They are coached by Brian Grossman, who made aliyah from the US a few years ago after a successful career as a trial lawyer.
Every year this group has grown substantially, with more students trying to make the team. Students compete in competitions and debates with other schools throughout the country, host the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade British youth group, and take part in the JLGB summer camp in London. In recent years, the SYL has sent representatives to Camp Szarvas in Hungary, sponsored by the JDC, and two representatives to the Seeds of Peace delegation to Chicago and San Diego. The delegation is comprised of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli youth who meet with Jews, Christian and Moslems in those two cities.
My own personal story is linked to this pioneer of a man in 2018. I made aliyah in 2016, and after living in Jerusalem for two years I moved (which many people could not understand) to Sderot. I came as an idealistic student. I was beginning my Masters Degree in Linguistics at Bar Ilan University, and was going to live in a student housing program called Ayalim. Avalim provides affordable student housing to students in exchange for volunteering in the community. I am thankful for the generous scholarship which I received from ESRA to help me participate.
For my volunteering, I was placed with Herb to help him run those amazing student activities. Unfortunately, my time in Sderot was cut short and I moved to the center of the country to work. But for three years I worked with Herb and saw the connections he makes, and how he has invested, not only in his students, but in the city of Sderot.
Herb is proud of the many alumni of the group who chose to do meaningful service in the IDF, including a year of national service programs in Israel and abroad, pre-military academies, Atuda, elite combat units and officer training. For example, Yael Angadya, an alumnis of YDL who represented Israel in South Africa, is now an officer in the IDF.
Before the onset of corona, Herb began working on creating direct contact with Jewish educators in Toronto [Sderot's partner community] with the goal of establishing a school-to-school relationship between Gutwirth Comprehensive High School and partner schools in Toronto. He also worked on a teen-to-teen relationship between SYL leaders and Toronto Jewish teens. Now Herb is determined to resume all the programs that were interrupted by corona, especially the connection with Toronto.
My main job was working with the model UN and debate groups. I supervised these ESRA-sponsored groups, and watched as scared, shy 8th grade students grew in confidence, started to volunteer to speak in English in front of their friends, and then in front of strangers from other schools. Students learned to write compositions and positions, to debate informally, and create debate points on the spot.
The city of Sderot is a force to be reckoned with. Along with a strong sense of community, the city has a flourishing cultural life. Within Sderot's diverse communities, students create art and music. They are mastering English and are taking advantage of both national and worldwide opportunities. Interacting with these students, more than anything else I experienced while I was there, taught me about the strength and resilience of Sderot.