Driving down to Kiryat Malachi on Route 40 on Friday, Maya suddenly screamed. “Look at that!” she shouted from the driver’s seat, lifting one hand from the steering wheel of our minivan to point at the bright blue sky.
Directly above our windshield, there was a big white puff of smoke, with long, lacy vapor curls twisting down from its sides. The Iron Dome had snagged another rocket and obliterated it before our very eyes.
I was in the back seat, directly behind her, my knees tucked practically up to my chin and my sneakered feet resting on a big cardboard box filled with Orbitol toothpaste tubes. Behind me, the van was packed from floor to ceiling with shampoo, deodorant, cotton underwear, salty snacks in crinoline bags and plastic-bound packages of toilet paper and sanitary napkins. All of it had been collected by employees of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that English-speaking Israeli immigrants get to know intimately while making aliyah, and all of it was destined for lone immigrant soldiers waiting down south, poised to enter Gaza for a possible ground offensive against Hamas and Gaza’s other terror groups.
We headed south just before noon, taking a moment to remind each other that if a siren should sound while we were on an open stretch of highway, we would pull over to the side of the road, head to the northern edge of the car, and lie down and cover our heads. And then that was it. We turned on the radio, and we drove.
Friday afternoon traffic in Israel is notoriously nutty, as an entire nation rushes to do last-minute shopping and visit family in time for the evening’s meal, but not this time. For long stretches alongside wilting sunflower fields and beneath a brilliant sky, there was not another car in sight. There were no sirens, no explosions, no frantic screams or screeching diesel brakes. It was just us, and our donations, and a quiet, abandoned road.
Maya, a Los Angeles native, had spent the better part of Friday morning driving around central Israel to pack up the van with donations, along with her co-workers Dganit, also from Los Angeles, and Caroline, who hails from Nice, France. The three of them, in their mid-20s, have been in Israel for years now, and are poster children for the Zionist dream. Tan and dark-haired, they speak flawless, slang-punctuated Hebrew, call their time in the IDF among the best moments of their life, and spent much of our drive hailing the news of Israeli air incursions over Gaza with swift, unsentimental affirmations.
Their faith in God and his dominion over this land made me envious. I sat among them in the van’s back seat, straining my ears for sirens, while they praised the sight of a massive Israeli flag on a hilltop and shouted “Stay strong!” as we drove past a sign for the city of Ashkelon.
It’s a beautiful thing to believe in something so deeply, to have a faith and patriotism big enough to dispel fear. As we sped south on those empty, open roads, their thoughts were only with the soldiers awaiting their gifts, while I was busy calculating in my head the ever-slipping buffer zone between my own soft body and the missiles being launched at us from Gaza.
The work of Maya, Dganit and Caroline on Friday was part of a last-minute initiative to gather donations for families and soldiers in the battered south, where rocket fire from Gaza has been relentless. Teams fanned out in nine cities, Nefesh B’Nefesh said, to collect a massive outpouring of donations including toys, food, and arts and crafts equipment. Our car made pick-ups in Ra’anana, Tel Aviv and Herzliya, while others delivered goods from Givat Shmuel, Modi’in, Jerusalem and the West Bank to areas including Ashkelon, Sderot and all points south.
After our encounter with the Iron Dome, we pulled into a gas station in Kiryat Malachi to collect even more donations from Nissim, a taxi driver who works on retainer for Nefesh B’Nefesh and had brought them from a pick-up point. In front of the station, we saw a massive cement tube with four big cement barriers protecting its open sides.
“That’s where we go when there’s a siren,” said one of the two teenaged girls working the cash register. When Caroline told them we were delivering donated goods to soldiers, they came out from behind the register and hugged us, and told us we could take anything we liked from their shelves to add to our pile. Like everywhere we visited, the place was empty but not deserted; tired but not giving in. There was a thickness in the air, a palpable, prickly sense of an entire population sweating out the days and refusing to show fear.
In Beersheba, we stopped at the Ricochet outdoors store at the gleaming “BIG” shopping center to pick up shlukerim, the Camelbak hydration bladders that can be invaluable for soldiers spending long thirsty days on patrol. Dganit had called ahead, and in her lilting, lovely Hebrew, secured the ultimate Israeli combina: since the hydration packs were for troops, Ricochet would not only offer Nefesh B’Nefesh a massive discount, but also keep the store open past its 2 p.m. closing time so we could get there.
I have spent the past few days in Tel Aviv, where we have had our fair share of warning sirens and window-rattling booms, reassuring my friends and family in America that all is well and life chugs on. In the south, I expected to see some of those nightmare scenes my American relatives have been envisioning. But aside from the resignation and obvious fatigue in the eyes of the locals we met, there was mercifully little dramatic to report, even though Hamas fired dozens of rockets into Israel, largely the south, in the course of Friday.
We finally made our way to an army base, where a team of soldiers met us with more hugs, more gratitude, and plastic cups of ice-cold tea. Kol HaKavod, they kept saying to the women. Good for you – for making aliyah, for spending your Friday collecting underwear and socks and body wash, for swallowing the fear and driving down here anyway.
We didn’t hear a single siren during our drive down south, and not a single one on the way back. I followed along with the red alerts on my smartphone, and while rockets were falling all around us, including a barrage in Beersheba that came just moments after we packed up our shlukerim and got back on the road, the southern Israel that we saw on Friday was quiet and still.
“We were escorted,” Maya said simply, as we drove back north and the towers of Tel Aviv appeared in the distance. A few hours later, when Shabbat had come in and sirens wailed through the darkness in Tel Aviv, her faith made me smile.