Stephen Epstein with his wife Alison and their daughters.
On the first night of the attacks from Gaza, we heard our first siren in Rehovot. There was a surreal split second when I wondered, is this really happening? Could it be an ambulance or fire truck? Or the TV?
The blaring wail brought me back, and my mind and body switched to automatic: Put shoes on – is anyone in the shower? Is the stove turned off? Grab a phone. Lock the door. Switch the staircase lights on. Ring neighbours’ doorbells on the way down the five flights of stairs.
The siren seemed louder by the time we reached the bomb shelter on the ground floor of our building. The shelter started to fill with other residents. We soon heard the telltale sign of the Iron Dome – a loud boom, then silence. The Iron Dome had successfully intercepted the rocket.
Relieved to be OK, I took a “selfie” photo to let friends and family know that we were safe and sound. In subsequent rocket attacks since that first one, I kept taking pictures and sharing them.
There is a curious custom among the Bnei Menashe (known as Manmasseh), one of the 10 lost tribes that are now returning to Israel. After the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel, they were exiled and moved eastward, and found themselves in the hills of northeast India. After a life-threatening event such as an earthquake, they would run from their homes and shout at the top of their lungs, “The children of Manmasseh are still alive!” It was a declaration of survival, of resilience and of faith that despite what was thrown at them, the tribe lived on.
And from this universal need to say, “We are still alive,” my wife Alison started a Facebook group on the night of that first rocket to Rehovot. It’s called “Bomb Shelter Selfies,” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/bombshelterselfies). The group invites Israelis to “send us your selfies taken in the bomb shelter. Make the best of a bad situation. Upload your photos to show the world that we’re strong and hanging in.”
To date, more than 1,600 people have joined the group, with hundreds of comments and images posted.
The pictures offer a glimpse into the lives of Israelis who try and carry on living while a storm of rockets rains down on the country. The parks are empty as parents keep children close to home. Some restaurant and bars are nearing bankruptcy as patrons avoid public places and hover closer to bomb shelters and protected rooms.
The tension is palpable and the rockets and the Iron Dome are the subject of conversation when people meet. One of the ways people have of communicating and expressing what’s going on is through social media and the images they share.
The attacks come without warning and without a pattern. One day we had three attacks, none the next and three within an hour the next day.
Everything becomes a calculation: I know how long it takes to get to the shelter. Can I take a shower? Is there enough time to rinse out the shampoo, put on clothes or just a robe or towel, and get down five flights of stairs? Even walking down the street to the grocery store involves calculations. I scan the street for possible buildings to run to should an attack happen.
Every area of the country is divided into zones, and each zone has a time for a rocket to reach from Gaza. We’re lucky. We have 90 seconds to take cover. Residents of southern communities have 30 seconds or less, barely enough time to rouse children or turn off the oven. They just run.
All these moments have been shared on Facebook since the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge started. The group is a way for Israelis to capture and share what happened when the siren started and how everyday life is interrupted while we all dive for safety.
A quick scan of the group shows posts and pictures describing everyday events that have been interrupted by the rocket attacks:
• While shopping at IKEA, shoppers quickly learned the location of the closest shelter.
• An attack occurred during a college final exam. Ironically, the essay question was about tensions between Gaza and Israel.
• A family paying a shivah call and having to run to the shelter shows that even the mourning still have to worry about the living.
• A young man, calling on his date at her home for the first time, forced to share moments together in a safe room in a way that was not planned.
• Driving on the highway and hearing that there is an attack forces drivers to the curb, abandoning their cars, while diving for cover and assuming the well-known position of lying on the ground with hands covering the head to protect against shrapnel.
• A woman who decided to pamper herself with a facial mask was caught in a raid and had to face the lens of an amused family member.
• Families that thought they could escape the tension of the conflict by attending a movie had to flee the theatre to find shelter. (The theatre operators rewound part of the movie after they were given the all-clear.)
• A mother and her son running to a shelter at the swimming pool. They were there for his first swimming lesson.
The pictures show children – lots of children in pajamas, smiling, and ones who had to be woken from their peaceful sleep to be carried to safety by their parents.
Each rocket attack is like an earthquake, and we run to our bomb shelters, safe rooms and stairwells. When it’s all over, we take our pictures and post them for the world to see, our declaration of survival, resilience and faith that despite what’s being thrown at us, our tribe lives on and we declare: “The Children of Israel are still alive!”