Life and Love in an Israeli Bomb Shelter

Jul 28, 2014 at 2:29 PM ET

By now, it’s become a daily ritual here in Tel Avivlike brushing your teeth before bed. The sirens blare and everyone runs. Cars stop on the street and no one speaks. Families huddle together in the nearest shelter or stairwell, waiting for that reassuring boom, the pitch of the explosion from the Iron Dome missile defense system, which indicates that Hamas’ rockets have been destroyed and it’s safe to go outside.

No matter how many times it happens, it’s always frightening. Though the Iron Dome has managed to destroy almost all the incoming rockets targeting populated areas, many are lethal and far more advanced than the crude Qassam variety that Hamas is known for. And as you wait inside a shelter or stairwell, the only thing you can do is try and find a sense of normality, a snippet of life beyond your own fear.

In fact, since the war began, bomb shelters have become makeshift dating scenes, even in Tel Aviv, a city called the “Bubble” because it’s long seemed immune to war. “There’s definitely a vibe in town that staircases are the new place to meet,” says Tamar Blumenfeld, a Tel Aviv-based illustrator who published a series of comic strips in Haaretz about dating during the conflict. “It actually happened to a good friend of mine. She didn’t ask the guy out yet, but they started talking during the last few alarms.”

Shira, a single woman living in Tel Aviv who asked that we change her name for privacy reasons, agrees. She says the ongoing stream of reports about soldiers being killed in Gaza makes normal life seem impossible. “As a single woman in Tel Aviv, I used to go out much more before this war, but I don’t really feel like it anymore,” she says. “In a way, staircases have become the only place to meet people.”

While every new apartment or office in Israel is legally required to contain a concrete reinforced safe room, most of the buildings in Tel Aviv predate those regulations. Israeli authorities recommend that people living or working in older buildings go to a staircase when the sirens blare. As a result, everyone in the building is often camped out on a few lower floors, some wearing nothing but towels or underwear. A Facebook group called “Bomb Shelter Selfies” dedicated to posting photos about those random encounters has become popular among young Israelis.

Many of these encounters, of course, are entirely platonic. And in times of war, even private safe rooms can sometimes become public. Yarden, 25, a student from Beer Sheba, says he woke up one night last week to find his neighbors standing in his bedroom in Tel Aviv. The sirens were blaring, and his neighbors were just standing there in the darkness. “I live in a new apartment,” he says “and it was divided by the owner and rented to five different students. My girlfriend and I got the safe room, so now everyone comes to us when there is an alarm.” The couple left the door to their room open. “In return,” he says, “our neighbors promise not to turn on the light when they come in.”

Yet as the war continues, it’s clear that there’s more sadness than love in the air. Nearly 50 Israelis have been killed so far, three of them civilians. Earlier today, mortar fire killed four Israelis along the Gaza border and many more were injured. In towns, villages and kibbutzim in southern Israel, where deadly mortar fire can fall without alarm, many families have left their homes.

Meanwhile in Gaza, the war with Israel has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, including many women and children. Almost no one in Gaza has a bomb shelter and much of the fighting takes place in crowded neighborhoods. As Israeli bombs continue to fall and the fighting spreads west, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes, many with no place to go.

In other words, there is little resembling normality.