This article first appeared in the The Jerusalem Post.
Just days after Israel celebrated 75 years, we were flung headfirst into Operation Shield and Arrow. This latest round of missile attacks from Gaza – and sadly, it won’t be the last – gave the world a glimpse into the reality that civilians in southern towns near the Gaza Strip border deal with on a regular basis.
It’s a reality where a siren sounds its blast at any time of day or night – and no, it’s not something you get used to, ever. A stray rocket or two fired toward Israel “just because” won’t always make the news but it will never fail to sow terror in the hearts of the men, women and children for whom having to scurry to safety has become a part of life.
Welcome to Kfar Silver, a verdant, blooming youth village just eight miles from the Gaza Strip, spread out over 74 acres of beautiful grounds. The village caters to over 1,400 children, ages 6-19; as well as hundreds of dedicated staff and volunteers.
Under the auspices of World ORT Kadima Mada, the schools, catering to young students through high school age, offer advanced academics, with particular emphasis on STEAM (science, tech, engineering, art and math), in addition to rich and varied extracurricular programs.
In my four wonderful years serving here as the director, the student body has doubled and many facilities have undergone extensive renovations. From a small community in Israel’s underdeveloped periphery, Kfar Silver has grown into a modern center where youth are empowered and encouraged to develop their potential and become productive members of Israeli society.
Over 90% take matriculation exams and go on to serve in elite IDF units. Following their army service, the majority pursue an academic education.
An Israeli school evacuated due to Gaza rockets
But there’s no escaping that each round of intensive fighting in Gaza leaves its mark. Our location, so close to Gaza, gives us just 25-30 seconds to find shelter. That means that as soon as you hear the siren, no matter where you are or what you were in the middle of doing, you run for your life.
As soon as it became clear that we were in the midst of another war, Kfar Silver evacuated all students who have families. We were left with 60 students who had nowhere to go. For those kids – some of whom are refugees from Ukraine – the sounds of the sirens, the explosions and the raw fear brought back the trauma and terror they’d escaped from.
In recent years, with the help of the Education Ministry, the regional council and generous donors worldwide, we’ve built shelters throughout the village so that students and staff don’t have to run too far to safety. Nevertheless, the need is greater than the resources that are available and so we launched a campaign to build safe rooms adjoining the homes of families living here.
Unfortunately, we still have a number of families without safe rooms. After being forced to spend the night with their children in the bomb shelters at the beginning of the recent spate of rocket fire, they could hardly be blamed for leaving the village to stay with friends and family who have adequate safety accommodations.
For the kids who were forced to stay at Kfar Silver, though, it meant removing their one major source of stability. Many exhibited severe symptoms of PTSD and one child needed hospitalization.
The current ceasefire appears to be holding and for that, we’re all grateful. Our students, staff and volunteers are all back and we’re continuing full steam ahead, evaluating and reevaluating safety and security protocols, and planning safe rooms and shelters for our growing population.
Our social workers and counselors are constantly working to reassure every single student and to reestablish their sense of security. Our message to our students is one of optimism mixed with realism.
While we cannot take anything for granted, we continue our focus on quality education and providing every student with a path to a safe and successful future.
Amos Gofer is CEO of World ORT’s Kfar Silver Youth Village