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NJ immigrants adjust to daily ‘crapshoot’
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NJ immigrants adjust to daily ‘crapshoot’

‘Staying-it-out kind of people’ cope with conflict

Former Jerseyan Emily Shapiro-Katz of Be’er Sheva has 60 seconds to take her four children into a reinforced room when the sirens sound; “It sucks living under rockets,” she said.
Former Jerseyan Emily Shapiro-Katz of Be’er Sheva has 60 seconds to take her four children into a reinforced room when the sirens sound; “It sucks living under rockets,” she said.

JERUSALEM — Every time a siren goes off in Be’er Sheva, Emily Shapiro-Katz has 60 seconds to take her four children, ages one to nine, into a reinforced room off her kitchen. They stay there for 10 minutes until it is clear that rockets and shrapnel have not hit her home.

Dozens of rockets have been fired at the Negev city since Hamas attacked Israel. Summer camp has been canceled in Be’er Sheva, so Shapiro-Katz’s kids have stayed at home.

“It sucks living under rockets,” said Shapiro-Katz, an immigrant from New Jersey.

Shapiro-Katz, 39, downplayed what she is enduring, noting that residents of Sderot have only 15 seconds to seek shelter while she has a full minute. But she never had to run for her life when she was growing up in Rockaway, where her family still lives.

When sirens go off in the middle of the night, she wakes up her children and carries them to the reinforced room. She said that many people in Be’er Sheva don’t have such rooms so they have to go to public shelters, so she cannot complain.

Unlike during past episodes of Hamas rocket fire, Shapiro-Katz has stayed in Be’er Sheva. So much of Israel has been under rocket fire that it did not make much sense for her to leave her home and go to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Having said that, though, she added that “the stress level is much higher here than it is in Tel Aviv. We have nowhere to go, so we are not considering going anywhere. There are rockets up north too. The comfort of being in our house outweighs the comfort of leaving.”

She has of course received many invites from Rockaway. But Shapiro-Katz has instead stayed and organized a workshop for parents of English-speaking children on how to handle such a difficult period. 

Meanwhile, she said, her children are handling the situation just fine. “My kids are awesome,” she said. “They are doing a lot better than me.”

‘We have to go on’

At least Shapiro-Katz and her family know they have a safe place to be when they are home. Her friend and fellow former Jerseyan Allison Speiser lives with her husband, Baruch, and five children in a small prefabricated housing unit known in Israel as a caravan. 

Speiser moved to Israel from Highland Park and also lived in Elizabeth. Her mother worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.

Now she lives in Merhav Am, a relatively isolated Negev community of just 47 families, 40 minutes south of Be’er Sheva. No rocket has fallen in her community, but one fell in a community not far away and another in a development town where her children go to school.

She received conflicting instructions regarding what to do when a siren goes off. She was first told to go to the middle of the caravan, then to leave the caravan and crouch with her hands on her head, then to go to a protected site — but she can’t make it there with five kids ranging in age from four months to 11 years in the 90 seconds allotted.

“It’s a crapshoot,” she admitted. “We don’t really have a solution. But we are staying-it-out kind of people. Maybe we’ll reevaluate if things get more hairy, but right now we’re staying at home.”

Speiser said her community was unlikely to be hit because of its proximity to Dimona, where Israel reportedly has a nuclear facility. While Dimona has been targeted, the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system is especially vigilant in that area.

“We think the chances of something hitting us are so far removed,” she said. “We live in one of the most protected areas of the country.” 

Speiser chose her small community after living in Mitzpe Yericho, a settlement northeast of Jerusalem, because she wanted to live in a community that needed help and had fewer native English speakers. 

“We looked for a greater challenge so we moved to the Negev to settle the land and contribute more,” she said. “Maybe we missed the boat of pioneers when the state was founded, but living in a caravan in the middle of the Negev is as pioneering as it gets.” 

‘It becomes normal’

While rockets have often rained in the south, sirens sounded several times in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a central city with many immigrants from English-speaking locations around the world, especially New Jersey.

Among them is Stuart Schnee, 50, who is from Morristown and attended Rutgers University. The first time a siren went off in Ramat Beit Shemesh, he and his wife darted to his apartment’s bomb shelter, which is the bedroom of his four-year-old daughter. She was sleeping, and the siren did not wake her. 

“The sirens are loud and they get the adrenaline and blood pressure going,” Schnee said. “I imagine the sirens are more scary than the missiles themselves.”

He recalled that the 1991 Gulf War was much more frightening because no one knew whether Israel would be attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Schnee recalled spending four hours in a sealed room wearing a gas mask because he did not understand the Hebrew directive that they could remove their masks.

Schnee said it was “miraculous” that — as of press time — so many rockets had fallen with the loss of only one Israeli life. He said he hoped that international pressure would not stop Israel from taking the military action it needs to halt future attacks.

“People don’t realize how frustrating it is for Israelis that the world would prevent us from doing what we need to do so we won’t be here again in a year,” he said. “But I have low expectations from the European Union and the United Nations. I’m already exasperated. If they haven’t figured it out yet, they never will.”

For the first time during this conflict, rockets were intercepted over Jerusalem, where sirens were sounded three times.

Alisa Brami, 24, who is from Highland Park, moved to Israel a year ago. She was on the phone with a friend when the first siren sounded.

“I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and I ran to the shelter, forgetting that she was still on the phone,” Brami recalled. “I had a mini-panic attack. I didn’t think I would be so scared. But my downstairs neighbor continued watering her plants as if nothing was happening.”

Since then, Brami said, she has gotten used to living under the threat of rocket fire, and it no longer fazes her.

“It’s kind of sad that it’s just become normal, but we have to go on living our lives,” she said. “I knew when I moved to Israel that we are surrounded by enemies and there could be a war, but no one thought rockets would come to Jerusalem. People who have never had to run for cover will never understand.”

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