BE’ER SHEVA — Shawn Aster was walking to school to pick up his eight-year-old daughter last Sunday when an air raid siren told him a missile was on its way to Be’er Sheva from the Gaza Strip, 18 miles away.
He ran to the nearest cover, an eight-story building with no accessible bomb shelter. In the stairwell, he found five children from two families, ages 18 months to 11 years.
Their mothers had gone to pick up their other children from school, leaving the 11-year-old in charge. Aster told the terrified children to sit down against the wall and face away from Gaza.
“I kept telling them that it will be OK,” Aster recalled. “I held the baby, who was already too heavy for the 11-year-old’s arms, and hoped that someone was holding my daughter, too. We waited for the inevitable boom, which was much louder than usual. I didn’t let them get up, because we’re supposed to wait 10 minutes after the siren.
“Finally, when one of the mothers arrived, I told the kids to listen to her, and I ran again, faster this time, to get my daughter.”
Episodes like that were not what Aster expected when in August he moved from Teaneck with his wife and daughters, eight and four, to Be’er Sheva, a city of 200,000 people in the Negev.
Since Nov. 14, when Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense, rocket fire aimed at Be’er Sheva has been nearly continuous. While most are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, enough rockets fall that the city is in a state of constant alert.
“Two, three, five rockets, every hour, or half-hour, or hour-and-a-half, completely unpredictable,” Aster complained. “The siren wails, the kids cower, the booms sound. My kids don’t want to leave the bomb shelter, even after 10 minutes. They know it’s coming again.”
To escape the rocket fire, Aster took his family to stay with friends in Kiryat Arba and Shaarei Tikva in the West Bank, which has ironically been one of Israel’s safest regions. He said his children were gradually getting over the terror but his oldest was angry at the world for letting the rocket attacks go on.
“We moved to Be’er Sheva because we liked the community,” Aster said. “We knew there would be rockets, but the continuous rocket fire for several days is much worse than we could have expected. When people say it has to stop, it has to stop. We cannot have a flare-up every few months.
“People from New Jersey don’t know what it’s like to live under continuous fire. It’s not livable.”
Aster’s family is one of many who have made aliya to Israel in recent years under the auspices of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Paramus-based organization that facilitates immigration to Israel and which has been contacting every immigrant living in the affected areas or serving in the IDF.
When Shira Pruce, who made aliya from East Brunswick, left Be’er Sheva to stay with a Jerusalem friend who is a fellow graduate of Rutgers, she described her escape in a blog post about her “reflections as a war refugee.”
“We were in no shape to pack, having had no sleep for 24 hours, and we were probably too tired to drive,” she wrote. “We arrived in Jerusalem, with only one air raid siren catching us in the car on the way. No, we didn’t stop and get out and lay on the ground as we are told to do. I put the pedal to the metal and speed-racer-ed my ass northbound.”
Pruce, 30, moved two years ago to Be’er Sheva, where she lives with her partner Omri and her terrier schnauzer mix, who is named — appropriately — Jersey. She said her first experience with a rocket attack was terrifying. It was the middle of the night, and she realized she did not have a key to her building’s safe room.
Since then, the rocket attacks have become routine but no less scary. On Sunday, when she was already safe and sound in Jerusalem, a rocket fell in an area near her home where she regularly walks Jersey.
On her blog, she wrote: “At least once every hour we would hear the soul-piercing whine of the air raid siren, announcing incoming rockets. We grab the dog, run down the stairs, and enter our neighbors’ back door to the bomb shelter we share. With tired half-smiles we warmly greet them, and we pack into the small room, with our dog and their dog, and we wait. The siren goes on for 15 more seconds. Sometimes in the case of multiple rockets the siren will be run two or three more times in a row. Then we get quiet, waiting to hear the release of the Iron Dome, our anti-missile messiah.”
Asked how her family in New Jersey was taking her ordeal, Pruce said her parents are Zionists and very supportive, but it is hard for her family to understand why she insists on staying in a war zone.
“I tell them I love Be’er Sheva, and this is my home,” she said, describing the city as a budding metropolis that reminds her of her other home in New Jersey.
Pruce and her partner are managing to work away from home. She was in shock when a siren sounded in Jerusalem. That missile just missed the city.
“I could not believe it,” she said. “I was really trying to relax. We were the only ones in the building who ended up going downstairs to the shelter.”
Vivian Futran stayed in Be’er Sheva the entire time since the IDF operation began, but she and her fiance, Leo, drove across town to stay with his parents who have a better-equipped bomb shelter, complete with beds.
Futran, 27, moved to Be’er Sheva from Westfield in June 2011, because she liked the college town atmosphere and Leo grew up there. Then she started dealing with rocket attacks.
“I remember being shaken the first time, but because other attacks didn’t come for a while, I shook it off,” she said. “It was scary at the moment, but it doesn’t stay with you like it does when rockets are falling every hour like they are now.”
Futran said she and Leo avoid leaving the apartment and when they do they are constantly looking where to run should a siren go off. They said they have gone back home when possible to avoid “going stir-crazy” and to use their treadmill.
“My parents know I am OK but it’s getting to the point that they’re worried,” Futran said. “We check in on Skype. They know the news there doesn’t portray correctly what’s going on here, and it’s not nearly as dramatic as it looks on TV. It is scary yet strangely undramatic. Part of living in Israel is knowing that life goes on.”
Futran said that when the siren ends, people just carry on where they left off doing what they were doing before. She said she had mixed feelings about how the operation should run its course.
“On the one hand, of course I want it to end soon,” she said. “But on the other, if the IDF already called up reserves, maybe Israel should just move forward. If we don’t move forward, we’re just where we were before. Going back to how things were won’t bring us closer to peace.”