Bay Area aids Kiryat Shmona

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Aaron Levin, a 73-year-old widower, sat alone in his concrete-reinforced apartment. The entire neighborhood was dark and deserted.

The former Bay Area man had remained in Kiryat Shmona this week though three-quarters of the city's 23,000 residents had fled the barrage of Katyusha missiles.

To protect himself from flying glass and shrapnel in case of a nearby missile hit, he had wedged mattresses against his windows.

A bit lonely, Levin was in the mood to crack a few jokes Tuesday night. Living in an empty Israeli town has its advantages, he noted in a telephone interview.

"I can finally sit down quietly…I want to get caught up on my correspondences," he said.

"I'm scared on and off. When I am, I go down to the shelter. I was doing my [U.S.] income taxes yesterday. That was scary enough."

This quietly defiant man isn't the Bay Area's only tie to the small city tucked into the northern Galilee panhandle. Kiryat Shmona is also the adopted city of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

That's why Natan Golan, director of the federation's office in Jerusalem, left the safety of Israel's capital and spent three days this week in and around Kiryat Shmona.

"It's extraordinarily weird. Driving through Kiryat Shmona is like driving through a ghost town…I'm one of the only cars driving through, except journalists," Golan said early Tuesday morning in a telephone interview from nearby Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, where he was spending the night.

"I've been visiting the shelters and learning about the needs of the community…I feel I have to be here. This is where my work is."

As a result of Golan's visits, federation officials this week approved $43,000 in emergency spending; combined with grants from Israel, it will pay for 12 heart defibrilators for ambulances and 15 televisions for children's bomb shelters in area kibbutzim.

Because the closest hospital to Kiryat Shmona is nearly an hour's drive away in Safed, Golan said, the life-support equipment will help keep rocket-attack victims alive.

And for children stuck in bomb shelters, the televisions offer a link to the outside world and provide a distraction. Out of principle, Golan said, none of the region's 23 kibbutzim evacuated a single resident.

The federation's Kiryat Shmona office also has been co-sponsoring a four-page daily news sheet in Hebrew and Russian that has been distributed to residents living in bomb shelters.

"We're just trying to be responsive," said Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the federation, at his San Francisco office.

For days and days, Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah continued to rain down on the region. By Wednesday night, dozens of Israelis had been injured by the rockets but no one had been killed, which Golan called a "miracle."

Golan felt frustrated that international news coverage has focused almost exclusively on Lebanon this week, ignoring the fact that dozens of Hezbollah rockets have continued to pelt Israel.

"It's much sexier to show mass evacuation in Lebanon," he said. "It makes me very angry."

As Golan stood outside Kibbutz Kfar Giladi on Monday morning and soaked in a lush, green countryside, he also saw missiles on the horizon. He threw himself to the ground.

The missiles have also triggered unscheduled stops on the road. "I quickly throw my car to the side and jump out, as if that's going to help," he said.

Missiles fell along other parts of the Israeli-Lebanese border as well.

Nechama Tamler, director of the federation's continuity planning in the San Francisco office, said she hadn't realized how extensive the shelling was until she found out Monday night that her brother's duplex in the Mediterranean beach resort of Nahariya was hit by a Katyusha.

None of the seven family members was home at the time; they have temporarily moved in with friends in Haifa.

"Basically, they feel very safe and lucky," she said.

Missiles have also fallen in the western Galilee and settlements such as Mitzpe Hila. Still, the assault on Kiryat Shmona was far more intense. Because of constant shelling, nearly every business, store and office in Kiryat Shmona was closed.

The post office was open briefly Monday, which allowed Levin to mail his U.S. tax returns in time. And a "mom and pop" grocery in Levin's neighborhood has remained open.

"Speaking of defiance, the store owners were having a picnic," said Levin, who lived in San Francisco, Terra Linda and Sacramento before moving to Israel.

Though he immigrated in 1978, Levin's ties to Northern California remain strong. Two adult children live in Berkeley and Sacramento. In the early 1990s, Levin served on the federation's Amuta volunteer committee in Israel, which helps select and monitor programs funded from San Francisco.

Other than readying his taxes and writing letters, Levin spent the week pitching in at the city's community center, where volunteers have been coordinating emergency aid.