Dark Clouds Hovering Above The First Day of School

In the good old days, the opening of practically every new school year in Israel was threatened by teachers’ strikes. Today, l’havdil, it is threatened by rocket strikes.

Education Minister Shai Piron has insisted that the school year will open on time, as a statement to Hamas that it will not succeed in disrupting normal life in Israel. Besides, he adds, “We are prepared for any security-related occurrences.”

But municipal officials and parents aren’t buying it. More than 100 rockets a day have been falling, including one that struck the playground of a religious kindergarten in Ashdod. One shudders to think what would have happened if, chas v’shalom, the rocket had landed a week later, with a playground full of children.

“The school year will not start on time,” declared a defiant Ashdod Mayor Yechiel Lasri, who came to the playground to survey the damage. “Life is holy, but there is nothing holy about September 1. Nothing will happen if we open the school year later than usual.”

Indeed, in the absence of a ceasefire, it appears reckless to send children within rocket-fire range to school. Even if they have secure rooms in the school to run to, what happens if rockets fall while they are on school buses? And who will help kindergarten teachers rush 30 or 40 three- and four-year-olds to safety in less than a minute?

The Education Ministry says it understands the concern and is ready to provide national-service volunteers and soldier-teachers as aides to help guide children to shelters in the event of sirens. There has been talk of shortening bus routes and providing them with military escorts, but parents are not reassured.

Even if a ceasefire is reached by September 1, as anticipated, the school year will not open “as usual.” The children arriving at school will not be the same as those who arrive at the start of a normal year.

To begin with, they are not coming back from a refreshing summer vacation. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters have spent countless hours in bomb shelters; others have lived with the constant fear of screaming air-raid sirens and having to race to the nearest secure area.

They have lived with fear and stress, in cramped quarters, with parents on edge. Camps and recreational activities were either severely curtailed or canceled for children in the south of the country.

For many, the normal excitement that accompanies the opening of a school year has been blunted by anxiety. After the kindergarten playground in Ashdod was struck by a rocket Tuesday, four-and-a-half-year-old Yasmin Ovadia was brought by her mother to see the damage.

“My little girl asks so many questions and I [thought] the best thing [was] to show her the place,” explained Mrs. Ovadia. “She was very excited to begin kindergarten and it really hurts to see that this is the situation.”

The Education Ministry understands the problem and is talking about providing extra funding for mental-health support and stress-reducing programs for students. We hope it will follow through on this pledge — even if a ceasefire is reached — because it is crucial that the children be given an opportunity to talk about their fears and feelings.

But no amount of mental-health support will make this a normal school year for the children who were orphaned this summer in Operation Protective Edge.

Ori Greenberg, for instance, should have been very excited about moving up to junior high school this year. Instead, he’s worried that the kids will point to him and ask questions about his father, Col. (res.) Amotz Greenberg, Hy”d, who was killed after a terrorist squad infiltrated from Gaza into Israel through a tunnel.

Ori recalled in an interview with Army Radio Tuesday that his father used to take him to school every morning before going to work and went over his homework with him every night. “I was starting to have a hard time in fifth grade, when the material got more difficult, and he would go over it with me to make sure I understood.

“He taught me that I could succeed at anything I put my mind to.”

The opening of the school year, in a mood of uncertainty and tension, offers a stark snapshot of a country that has been buffeted by thousands of missiles, that has sent its sons, and fathers, to war.

Communities along the border with Gaza have been largely abandoned; normal life for the residents of Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod and elsewhere has been severely disrupted, as even shuls and wedding halls are no longer safe places to congregate.

No one is questioning the legitimacy of Operation Protective Edge. Against a cruel, intractable enemy like Hamas there was no choice but to resort to force to try to end the missile and tunnel threats that made life so unbearable for so many.

After the war ends, attention will turn to rebuilding. The easy part will be repairing the structures that were hit by rockets and restoring the confidence of tourists who have stayed away. The economy is resilient and will likely bounce back, despite the steep bill left by the war and the probable need to raise taxes.

The biggest challenge will be helping the children, restoring their childhood, giving them back the joy and excitement of the first day of school.

Our tefillos are that children like Ori will be comforted among the mourners of Zion and know no further anguish.