By Rabbi Yossi Goldman
All through the fall semester, Hillel Israel centers have been struggling heroically to attract students to programs in spite of a prolonged professors' strike that was responsible for the cancellation of a full semester of classes. Just this weekend, the strike was finally settled, and each university is re-scheduling the courses that did not take place during the fall. Hillel is eager to continue all of our programming for students across the country. We're looking forward to welcoming larger numbers of participants to all of our activities.
Another kind of heroism was shown last week in Sapir Hillel in Sderot, when 60 students braved the danger of incessant kassam attacks to attend the opening session of a film-midrash series.
Last Tuesday, Sapir Hillel held the first meeting of a film series called "Midrash Kolnoa" – a look at popular films as they relate to the Ten Commandments. Although all S'derot residents are used to the daily barrage of kassam rockets, and valiantly try to pursue their regular activities in spite of the danger, there is constant fear and anxiety at each tzeva adom (red alert). The attacks last Tuesday were exceptionally frequent, and the Hillel staff, together with their partners at the Cinematheque, had to decide whether to proceed with the plans for the evening's program, or to cancel the event because people were afraid to leave their homes.
Much work had gone into the planning of the film series, which will consist of ten meetings, each including a lecture about one of the Commandments, followed by the screening of a film that touches on the same issues. Hillel staff and students were very excited about opening the program series, but the continued rocket attacks put a damper on their excitement.
"S'derot residents have been living in a state of insecurity for almost eight years already. In the face of our difficult day-to-day reality, it's important that we continue our lives and engage in cultural activities. Otherwise all that's left is the kassams," said Eyal Mazliah, director of the new Hillel center at Sapir Academic College.
"For just an evening, people would have a respite from the kassam attacks, while participating in a Hillel program in the shelter of the local Cinematheque."
That was the plan.
That afternoon, the students and staff arrived at the café of the Cinematheque to set up for the evening's program. The café is run by youth at risk, with whom Hillel students run a mentoring program. Finally everything was arranged and decorated, with interruptions for the tzeva adom sirens at intervals throughout the day. After each alert, several seconds of tension pass as everyone waits to hear where the rocket will hit. Once each "boom" is over, life continues as before, just with racing hearts and relief for being spared yet again.
Eyal Mazliah tells the story of that evening: "At 7 PM everything was ready. The stage was set for the lecture, the amplification system was in place, and the room looked great. Students began to arrive, along with other residents of the area, in spite of the increased attacks and the danger of going outdoors. We were thrilled that about 60 people came to participate in our new program, but at the same time we were nervous about the unstable security situation. Just as the program started, with a full house, a salvo of kassams came screaming by, and we heard and felt a huge explosion right outside the building." A kassam had landed right next to the Cinematheque, narrowly missing the crowd inside, but disabling the electricity for the whole city of S'derot.
"Absolute darkness. But we decided to proceed with the program anyway, moving everyone into the protection of the main theater of the Cinematheque. The only light in the theater came from a small emergency lamp, so everyone pulled out their cell phones to use as small flashlights. Dr. Chagai Dagan proceeded to give his lecture, and the participants were able to follow the printed texts by the light of their cell phones."
The first session of the series focused on the first commandment: "I am the Lord your G-d; you may have no other gods before Me." Dr. Dagan began his lecture by quoting a famous verse from the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, "And the nation sees the voices" – then as now, seeing and hearing become one overpowering, unforgettable, terrifying experience. The participants sat through an hour-and-a-half lecture, drawing strength from one another and coming to a deep understanding of the meaning of the first commandment.
By the end of the lecture, the electricity had not yet been restored, so the planned film screening could not take place. The program organizers promised to show the Israeli film "Big Eyes," directed by Uri Zohar, at a later, quieter time.
At the end of the program, Zohar Avitan, head of the Mechina preparatory program at Sapir College, spoke very feelingly about his gratitude to Hillel for creating such an important, high-quality cultural program with the Cinematheque S'derot, and for going ahead with the program in spite of the circumstances.
Hillel at Sapir Academic College is committed to promoting the cultural life of S'derot and surrounding Negev communities, even under fire. We can all be inspired by their courage.
Rabbi Yossi Goldman is the president of Hillel Israel.
For more news like this and up-to-date briefs about Jewish campus life, subscribe to our free eNewsletter Hillel Campus Report.