Katyusha blasts greet Bay Area volunteers

Just hours after arriving in Kiryat Shmona, a group of young volunteers from the Bay Area experienced firsthand the security threats faced by residents of the northern Israeli border town.

Participants in Otzma — a 10-month national fellowship program that allows young adults to live and work in Israel — had barely settled into their apartments when bomb alerts sent them scurrying into bomb shelters for the night.

Ironically, the Bay Area group had just finished meeting with a psychologist from a local crisis center to discuss thoughts and fears about spending 2-1/2 months in the border town. The counselor reassured them attacks are extremely rare.

Minutes later, an announcement blared from loudspeakers atop army jeeps: Everyone should go to the air raid shelters.

Katyusha rockets had been fired from Lebanon into northern Israel. Hezbollah lobbed the rockets in retaliation for the deaths of seven Lebanese civilians killed when an Israeli pilot bombed the wrong building.

The shocked Otzmaniks had time to grab their musical instruments, sleeping bags, magazines and playing cards and head underground.

"Tuesday, December 21 was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever been through in my life," said Tahg Adler, who grew up in Belmont and Philadelphia, in an e-mail to the Bulletin from Kiryat Shmona.

The group spent the evening talking, making music and playing games. Israelis brought food to the Americans in the stuffy concrete shelter. But accustomed to bombing raids, the Israelis didn't stay the night.

The bombs struck the next morning.

"Waking up at 7 a.m. to the sounds of Katyusha rockets falling was a little scary, but it didn't seem real yet," said the 22-year-old Adler, who graduated from San Diego State University. "It was not until two days later when the reality hit of what exactly just happened."

It was then the Otzmaniks had the chance to survey damage from the hits. Israel Defense Forces estimated that 20 to 30 rockets fell across the Galilee, damaging property and wounding 13 Israelis, most of them not seriously.

"Bank Hapoalim suffered a direct hit and all the windows in its vicinity were blown out," Daniella Kopstein, a 22-year-old from Petaluma, said in an e-mail. "There was a large crater in a nearby plaza where the Katyusha fell and shrapnel marks were visible in the buildings above."

The damaged bank is just a 10-minute walk from the apartment complex Otzma participants have made their temporary home. The 13-member group arrived in Israel in August and has spent most of its time working on a kibbutz south of Haifa.

In Kiryat Shmona — the partner city of the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation — participants will work with seniors, disabled youth and others.

Kopstein described the bombing ordeal as "an exciting although not necessarily frightening experience. What confused us was that we seemed to be the only inhabitants of the apartment complex who spent the night in the local shelter."

That fact also had a sobering effect on Lisa Singer.

"Witnessing the indifference in the Israelis around us made me realize this really is a way of life for the people of Kiryat Shmona," said the 23-year-old graduate of U.C. Berkeley, who will spend the next several months tutoring students at an Arab high school.

A few hours after the first attack, the group was given the option of leaving the area. Without hesitating, they said they wanted to stay. They were taken to a nearby kibbutz, where they ate lunch and spent the afternoon in a kibbutz bomb shelter, "armed with a 24 of Goldstar beer to keep us company," noted Norm Cappell, 23.

They returned to Kiryat Shmona and the bomb shelter there. Early Wednesday evening, the army gave the all-clear.

"We then returned to our smaller concerns, such as the dearth of hangers in our apartment and the fact we hadn't done laundry in three weeks," Cappell reported by e-mail.

Cappell, a U.C. Berkeley graduate, said he feels perfectly safe working in Kiryat Shmona and believes there would be no better time to be volunteering in the community. "Anyone who was hurt during the attacks wasn't in a shelter…and there's always plenty of warning."

Of the many experiences the Otzmaniks will have during their 10 months in Israel, the bombing may ultimately serve as one of the most authentic.

"It was an experience to remember, not because it was so frightening, but because it was so very real," Singer said. "The issue of what to do with the Israeli-Lebanese border is now so much more of a personal issue."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.