The Sound of Laughter in Sderot

[With continuous stories of life in Israel’s South, we look at a one-of-a-kind indoor recreation center built in Sderot – providing Sderot’s youth with a place to have fun, connect with friends, enjoy stimulating classes, and be children, beyond the conflict.

This post originally appeared in eJP on March 11, 2009.]

JNF Sderot playground

Children playing; enjoying themselves; laughing. We take it for granted. But for the past eight years, this scene has been in short supply in Sderot.

That changed yesterday – appropriately on Purim. For (according to JNF’s CEO Russell Robinson) “the biggest and most important gift that could possibly be given to the children of Sderot and the entire region” a new $5 million indoor recreational facility, was dedicated by JNF-US in a particularly moving ceremony.

Like many play areas, it is complete with a jungle gym, rock-climbing wall, air-hockey tables, snack area and even the latest in hi-tech devices. Unlike other facilities, this 21,000 sq. foot former textile factory has an indoor mini-soccer field and is largely built with reinforced concrete and steel – making it the only ‘safe-for-play’ indoor recreational facility in the world. Here, children who have known nothing but Code Red since they were born, can play and their parents can be comfortable they are only seconds away from one of the many sections of the facility that double as a shelter when the siren sounds. Peace of mind for all.

A long list of individuals came together to make this a reality. Most impressive, especially by Israeli standards, was the speed of it all – local people and local materials were used and the project was completed in just 7 months. Many volunteered – from senior citizens to students at Sapir College. All responding to the need that for 8 long years there has been no safe place for kids to play.

The JNF, who funds 99% of their Israel projects with partners, set out to raise the entire $5 million for construction on their own. The operating budget, estimated at $200k/year will also be entirely funded by JNF-US.

The excitement in the room was genuine. It emanated from parents, to the JNF Mission who traveled here just for this dedication, to the dozens of spring break participants here to give a bit of themselves to Israel. A young mother I spoke with, who has lived in Sderot her entire life, was happy her kids now have this place. But she added, it will be a “long haul – the reality for my children hasn’t yet changed. It will take no more than one red alert every few months before the change will begin.”

Despite all, the spirit of the 20,000+ residents of Sderot remains strong. As one 12 year old told us all at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony,

“nothing can break us – we’re here to stay.”

And today, on the grounds of this magnificent new facility, the residents of Sderot will enjoy their first outdoor Purim carnival in 8 years! Kol Ha-kavod to JNF-US for facilitating the event.