Bomb shelters drain your spirit, Kiryat Shmona residents say here

In downtown San Francisco, taking a cigarette break can be hazardous to your health.

Taking a cigarette break in Kiryat Shmona can kill you.

"During the bombings last year, two young men walked outside a shelter to smoke a cigarette," Kiryat Shmona resident Chana Manne said during a recent visit to San Francisco.

"They barely had time to light their cigarettes before being killed by a rocket. They were only above ground for two seconds, but two seconds can be fatal in Kiryat Shmona."

Manne and four other Israelis who live near the Lebanon border were in San Francisco last week to meet with leaders at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

They are members of a 15-year-old group called the Amuta, an Israeli committee of volunteers who advise the JCF about worthwhile projects.

Among the projects funded in Kiryat Shmona and the Upper Galilee as result of the program are a Russian emigre center, a stress prevention center and a rape crisis center.

Several of the Amuta advisers who sat down for an interview in the JCF office spoke extensively about their safety concerns.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared a state of emergency in northern Israel earlier this month, compelling Israelis to take cover in bomb shelters in anticipation of a possible Lebanese guerilla attack.

"Without a doubt, there is a heavy mental toll to pay when you live in Kiryat Shmona," said Manne, who runs a psychotherapy clinic in the city. "The two men who were killed left the shelter to do something routine. People need to go above ground to get more food, or bathe, or just to preserve their sanity.

"But preserving sanity can come with a heavy price."

Another Amuta adviser, Carlos Goldberg, who lives about seven miles from Kiryat Shmona, talked about the heavy toll the repeated shellings take on the fabric of the community.

"Living in a tiny shelter with your own family for two days can be stressful," said Goldberg. "But when you are forced by dire circumstances to live with your neighbors, some of whom you don't even know, it can really denigrate your humanity."

Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel from Argentina in 1972, served as a paramedic in the Golani infantry, and currently works as a school principal. Well-accustomed to stressful situations, Goldberg said very little compares to the chaos of a bomb shelter.

"You really have to take a deep breath before you go down to the shelters," Goldberg said. "Everybody's angry and upset. It just drains your spirit. After two days in a bomb shelter, all the ugliness of the world comes crashing down on you."

When discussing the problems facing the city, the Amuta advisers reached a consensus on two points: There is much less stigma attached to leaving the city during periods of heavy shelling. And, when all is said and done, Kiryat Shmona — a city of about 20,000 — has much to recommend it.

"I would say that maybe 30 to 40 percent of Kiryat Shmona leaves during the heavy shelling," Manne said. "And it's no longer considered taboo."

"I think the precedent was set during the Gulf War in '91, when so many people left Tel Aviv," Goldberg added.

When asked why anyone would want to stay in a city where Hezbollah bombs could fall at any moment, the Amuta advisers responded with a rare display of Isareli unity.

"Kiryat Shmona is seen as the crybaby of Israel, always complaining about how bad things are," said Yuval Shamir, who works as an engineer in the Upper Galilee. "But the truth of the matter is that many people who live in Kiryat Shmona would never live anywhere else."

Goldberg concurred, saying that "without a doubt, Kiryat Shmona is the most beautiful place in all of Israel. It has the snow, the gorgeous mountains and most of the country's water resources."

When Johanna Nezri, a 20-year resident of Kiryat Shmona originally from the Netherlands, mentioned that crime was almost unheard of, Manne laughed and said that many things were unheard of in Kiryat Shmona.

"We just got our first traffic light about two months ago," she said.