Katyusha Barrage in Akko

AKKO, Israel – It’s an eerie feeling driving north these days from Tel Aviv. Traffic thins consistently on the coastal road, and by the time you get to Haifa there is nary a car on the road.

It is no exaggeration to say the current barrage of Katushya rockets from Lebanon has turned the cities of northern Israel into ghost towns. The streets are virtually empty; most shops are closed, save for the odd makolet (corner store) or falafel stand,

The emptiness is downright eerie. Getting out of the car or stepping out of an air conditioned office (with reinforced rooms upstairs and air conditioned shelters downstairs), into the hot, muggy, late-July weather is disconcerting: The empty streets and tension in the air make it seem like a scene out of a horror movie. You see the sunshine from the window, but still expect to step out into a dark, cloudy night, with rain and a threatening, spooky wind.

Stark reality 

Even the best bomb shelters in Akko, a mixed Jewish-Arab town about 20 minutes north of Haifa that has suffered dozens of katuyushas are a grim sight: run down, crowded and stinking, stinking hot. 

The “good” ones, at least, may have a TV or a ping pong table to pass the time, maybe even air conditioning to help break the heat. Less good ones have nothing to sit on, let alone air conditioning. Most are stark and bare, with little furniture and even less to do. 

Despite media reports that the home front is “strong,” people are clearly scared, and with good reason. The Katushyas strike indiscriminately, and even though people are relatively safe down in the shelters, the bombs are clearly audible and close enough to make the shelters shake. People are worried about their neighbors, homes, cars, and about the overall question that has gripped the country for the last two weeks: “What is going to happen next?” 

Back and forth 

Most people have been running from home to shelter and back again since the bombing began. That’s possible, if annoying, for the young and healthy, but far more of a problem for single mothers, the handicapped and the elderly.

In a squalid tenement not far from Akko’s old city, Sarah Rahmano, a frightened woman in her mid-40s brings her 85-year-old mother downstairs in the morning, and that’s it: They don’t leave again all day, apart from a single odd jaunt by the daughter to bring food from the apartment.

 In different circumstances the scene in the shelter could be a ladies’ game of cards or mah jong, but even on a “light” day (there had “only” been two sirens and seven or eight katyushas on Akko by the time we visited) the women had difficulty concentrating on more than what has come to be known here as “the situation.”

“Where do you want us to go,” said Rahmano when asked why she didn’t leave the area for safer regions of the country. “My mother here isn’t well enough to travel, my children live in the area, I’ve lived here for 29 years, since I emigrated from Baku. And I don’t have anywhere to go, even if we could travel,” she said.

Although most people are trying to stick close to their local shelters, it isn’t hard to see how people get hurt. Even for those spending most of their time “downstairs,” it simply isn’t possible to stay in a bomb shelter all day. People have to run out for something to eat, a quick shower, maybe a walk around the block.  Once the siren sounds, there are somewhere between 30-90 seconds until the bombs start falling – hardly enough time to get out of the shower and take cover four floors downstairs.

And that’s only for the people that leave. There is usually someone crying somewhere in most shelters, especially when they hear the bombs falling outside. One woman was so shaken she couldn’t pronounce her name for this reporter or answer questions about how long she’d been in the shelter. Other people said she hadn’t stepped outside in a week.

Welcome break

Because of the stress, visits by Chabad-Lubavitch teams are a welcome break. Part of the reason is practical – this particular day a team led by the head of Akko’s Chabad House, Rabbi Natan Yitzhak Auerlichman, passes out more than 1,000 sandwiches to people not only under physical attack, but who were hardly in a strong financial state even before the war forced them to take the past three weeks (and counting) off work.

The people are happy to receive the sandwiches, but according to Rabbi Yosef Makmal, the assistant director of Chabad-Akko Rabbi Auerlichman, food is clearly not the main issue.

“Just being there with people, for people, makes all the difference in the world. People – Jews and Arabs alike – receive us here with open arms because they know we care,” said.

Rabbi Auerlichman agreed, and added that the confidence and happiness of Chabad representatives rub off on people in the shelters.

“I don’t believe any of this is a punishment from G-d,” he said. “It is all part of the signs that moshiach is coming. Of course, I believe we have a Father in heaven who loves us and wants only to do what is in our best interest. People see that we aren’t scared, and it helps them relax as well.”

In truth, “relax” may not always be the right word. In at least one shelter, the rabbis were whisked off for a round of dancing and singing as yet another siren sounded outside, followed by group repetition of central Torah phrases such as Shema Yisrael (affirming G-d’s unity) and “Moses commanded us to keep the Torah” (Deut. 33:4). Of course, men who wanted to were encouraged to put on tefillin.

Rabbi Auerlichman said that while that reaction may not exactly be typical, it is certainly not unheard of. And even without the dancing and singing, he said people are always happy to see Chabad emissaries show up, for several reasons.

“I’d say there are three reasons we are able to connect with people,” he said. “One, we are here all year round. We don’t fly in when the action starts.

“Two,” he said, “we are honest and straightforward. We care about people and their well-being, no matter who they are. We aren’t putting anything on. And third, people can feel the Rebbe’s blessing. They know he is with us in everything we do, and it gives people strength.”

Still, the material support offered by Chabad is important. Most public bomb shelters have been neglected for years, and lack basic supplies such as air conditioners, baby food, diapers and more. Rabbi Auerlichman even said he has received requests for help from several municipalities in the area, who said Chabad was better equipped than city hall to respond to people’s needs.

That is apparent at a run-down shelter further inland. There are no chairs, tables, televisions, and the only relief from the heat is a fan one woman, Shoshana, brought from her home across the street.

“We called the Akko municipality to try and get some chairs or air conditioning here, just something to make this hell a bit more livable. They couldn’t have cared less; all they said was ‘sorry, we’ve got no time for you,’ “she said.

 While Shoshana and neighbor Zahava Yossikovitch were thankful to receive several sandwiches each from Rabbis Auerlichman and Makmal, it is hard to say they were “happy” as they loitered tensely outside their neglected shelter with a smattering of small children. A patient Rabbi Auerlichman took mental notes of the things they needed, and the visit clearly served to relieve some of the stress.

 But there is only so much that one visit can accomplish, and demand in such places is higher than can possibly be totally fulfilled. Shoshana said she had no choice but to continue making the dash across the street several times a day, but that she looked forward to the end.

 “We’ll keep dashing, and keep praying,” she said. “What else can we do?”

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