July 19, 2024
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Entrance to Mishkan Ela, built by the state of Israel.

Location in Sderot where a rocket had landed on top of a bus.

Our first stop was on a hill overlooking the area. That hill had been used by the reporters and news photographers during the recent attacks on Gaza by the IDF (Israel Defense Force) since newspeople were not permitted to enter Gaza. To the west we saw the border between Israel and Gaza, seemingly near enough for a short walk, and in the far distant west, the outline of the Mediterranean. When we turned around to the east, we saw the roofs and buildings of the town of Sderot.

Looking at the short distance between the buildings in Gaza, from where the Palestinians were shooting the rockets, to the town of Sderot, one can understand why it takes only a few seconds for the rockets to reach their destination.

Another thing that we saw there, known to few others, are the two dirigibles floating high up in the air, near the Gaza border, on the Israeli side. Y. explained that these dirigibles have very powerful cameras in them, which automatically record the exact location of the flash from a launched rocket, transmit the picture immediately to the IDF, which accordingly directs helicopters or jets for pinpoint strikes at the launching location.

Our first stop in Sderot was “Mishkan Ela.”

Ela was the daughter of Yonatan and Sima Abukasis, whom we were going to meet inside.

Ela was hit by shrapnel from a rocket on January 15, 2005, and she died in the hospital on January 21 (11 Sh’vat 5765). She, a 17-year-old girl, and her younger brother Tamir, age 10 at the time, were on their way home on Motzei Shabbat from their Bnei Akiva youth group. When they were just two blocks away from their home, a “Red Color” alert went off and the two children ran to take cover. Unfortunately, there was no place to hide on that particular street. The second they heard the whistle of the rocket coming down towards them, Ela instinctively jumped on top of Tamir, protecting him from shrapnel with her own body. The rocket hit near where the two children were, killing Ela and wounding Tamir.

It is clear that Ela, with her heroic action, saved the life of her younger brother, at the expense of her own.

(The day after our visit to Sderot was going to be Ela’s fourth yahrzeit.)

We met the Abukasis parents inside Mishkan Ela. Silent hugs and kisses, as neither my wife nor I spoke Hebrew and the Abukasis do not speak English. Fortunately, we had the service of both Leah and Yoel to translate what our sorrow-constricted throats could express. It was, perhaps just as well that we could not communicate directly. How can one console with words, or even express in any other form, the loss of a beautiful young daughter?

The father gave us a slide presentation of their daughter’s early childhood up to and including a picture that had been taken just a week before she was killed, with pictures of the spot where she was killed and pictures taken by the police and fire departments of the street scenes right after the explosion.

I do not know how much I really saw through my tears while I was sitting there clinging to my wife’s hand. It was only natural that at that moment we were very pointedly reminded of our own pain at the loss of our son Benjie just a few years earlier. When the presentation was over, and before the lights went on again, my wife and I just stood there hugging each other, our tears crying out in pain as they mixed on our cheeks.

The parents showed us around the building, with three or four class/lecture rooms, one of them used as a shul but with the sefer being kept in a more secure room next to it.

How did the building come about? When they were sitting shiva, not only were they visited by both the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, but also by then Prime Minister Sharon. The father told Sharon that the children were coming home from the Bnei Akiva youth group when Ela was killed.

Sharon asked what he could do for them. The father replied that he would like a memorial to Ela that can be used by Bnei Akiva year around. Would the state of Israel pay for the building? Sharon, may Hashem bring him refuah sheleima soon, immediately said “yes.” That is how the building came into being. The maintenance of the building is covered by donations. The parents would like to add a patio to the building so that the Bnei Akiva groups can meet in the open air, but they do not have the funds. We said our goodbyes to the parents with hugs and kisses, and a few translated wishes and thoughts. We knew we would see them later at the kindergarten, but at the time that seemed a world away.

(To be continued next week)

By Norbert Strauss

Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and Englewood Hospital volunteer. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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