Shabbat in Sderot beneath a canopy of Qassams

Moments before we met, Mayan Bar-On bolted for the center of her family’s home on Kibbutz Nir-Am along the Gaza border.

Away from the windows, away from the doors, in a hallway underneath a red-tile roof that couldn’t withstand a Qassam strike, she and her 9-year-old brother, Gabi, huddled and waited for the boom.

Now, though, the 12-year-old girl is partaking in a more peaceful ritual. She lights the Shabbat candles and prays

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam. Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

“Shabbat Shalom,” her father, Uzi, says.

Everyone shares the sentiment and begins to pass the dinner plates, knowing that at any moment, with only a few seconds warning from a public intercom, they may have to drop everything and again — again and again — take cover.

Six seconds: That’s all the time residents of Kibbutz Nir-Am have to react.Six seconds: Less time than it took to read this paragraph … Boom! And after they hear the boom, they know it’s safe to return to life, at least for now.

This is fast becoming tradition on the frontier of Israeli society. Between the rocket-launching Gaza fields of Beit Hanoun and the primary target town of Sderot, Nir-Am has been constantly under fire for the past six years. More than 6,000 Qassam rockets have been launched at Israeli cities and villages since September 2001, and hundreds have landed in this community of about 350.

It’s difficult to imagine the effect of this terror on daily life. It’s even more challenging to comprehend why a sensible person would stay here. But for the Bar-Ons and thousands of other families, living under a canopy of Qassams is simply their life station.

“You never get used to it, but you learn to live with it, you learn to compensate, you learn to do things: Teach the children what to do when this happens, keep them as close as possible to some kind of shelter that they can run to. But it’s a nightmare,” says Marcell Bar-On, Mayan’s mother. “You are really torn between trying to keep your children safe and getting them out of a situation which is terrible and being in a place where your home is and where your heart is and where everything is.

It takes about an hour and a quarter to drive the 90 kilometers from Jerusalem to Sderot. It’s a relatively short journey, but the two communities’ realities are worlds apart.

In Jerusalem, the economy is booming and the population is soaring. In Sderot, 370 of 450 small businesses have closed shop during the past 18 months, and even some of the most stalwart residents have lost faith; those who could leave, for the most part have.

In Jerusalem the last terrorist attack was in early 2004. In the Sderot region, it likely was within the past few minutes.

Even the northern border with Lebanon, the site of last summer’s war with Hezbollah, appears way ahead of its southern sibling in the return to terror-free normalcy. Travel to Metula, west of the Golan Heights and within sniper distance of Klea, and you see comfortable suburban homes and picturesque farmlands.

“You can see the parched hillsides. That is the most lasting reminder of what was here last summer,” Jacob Dallal, spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), told a group of American Jewish journalists brought to the region this month to see how donations to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), through local federations, have helped rebuild the region through small-business loans, counseling centers and after-school programs.

But to the south, the region of the western Negev that includes Sderot and surrounding kibbutzim and moshavim, where $6.5 million in donations from the UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign have been similarly allotted, the bombardment continues.

And that is the big difference between recovery in the north and the south.Cities like Nahariya and Haifa and Kiryat Shmona were given a reprieve from military conflict after last summer’s month of intense attacks. The war ended, even if no one believes it’s over for good, or even for long.

Around Sderot, by contrast, the threat continues to crest, with no break in site.::::::::::::::::::::::::::

As an agent of death, Qassam rockets are a bad selection. Since 2001, those fired from Gaza have killed 11 people. That’s only about one death per 550 rockets. But as a tool of terror, the homemade missles, packed with 1 to 5 kilograms of gunpowder and with a range of 10 to 12 kilometers, are very effective.

The emotional toll piles up when children are forced to think about where they can hide from incoming rocket fire each time they go outside; just waiting for the bus seems like a game of Russian roulette; and going to work means spending eight hours wondering if that morning was the last time you will have seen your kids.

The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma found that about 11 percent of adults and 16 percent of toddlers in Sderot have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study reported that as many as 33 percent of children between ages 2 and 6 show symptoms of PTSD.

It should be no surprise then that one of the most popular places in town is the city’s trauma center, an unreinforced one-story building with a handful of beds and blast walls protecting the front door. Here the distressed come to calm down after a Qassam has rattled the house next door or shaken the ground under their feet or simply frayed their nerves to a frenzy.

“Once you have experienced a rocket landing nearby, you are absolutely sure that when the next siren goes off, that rocket is headed directly for you, even if it is aimed a few kilometers away,” said Noam Bedein, a 25-year-old college student who lives in Sderot and is director of the Sderot Information Center of the Western Negev, which has heightened awareness on its Web site,

More than 2,000 trauma cases were opened just in the past 12 months. Some patients stay at the trauma center only long enough to get a cold drink and some comforting conversation; others need medication and a few days’ attention.