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Beautifying a necessary evil


What are more ubiquitous in southern Israel than corner coffee shops are in Seattle?

Bomb shelters.

Elyasaf Miara of Sokeda, Israel, stands next to the kind of art he creates for bomb shelters in south- ern Israel — which he actually created at the JNF-USA Global Conference for Israel last weekend.

While coffee shops are pleasurable, bomb shelters are an unfortunate necessity in a region that has been bombarded with rocket fire from Gaza since 2005.

After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the subsequent onslaught of rocket attacks from Gaza against non-military targets in the “Gaza envelope” — the area abutting the Gaza Strip — the Israeli government started placing small, strong concrete bomb shelters almost everywhere people gather in the communities in southern Israel.

Trucks with cranes would drop these 6 x 12-foot boxes at schools, bus stations, soccer fields, dog parks, seemingly everywhere.

People were trained how to get into the bomb shelters within 15 seconds.

In 2014, Elyasaf Miara, a teacher and education advisor living in Shokeda, a remote moshav in the Gaza Envelope, noticed how ugly those concrete boxes were, making them an even more unpleasant reminder of the stress of living under the constant threat of attacks.

“Overnight, our area looked like an army base with shelters everywhere,” he says.

He asked the leader of his moshav if he could try his hand at applying his hobby as an amateur artist to beautifying the bomb shelter at the entrance of Shokeda.

Using a paint brush, Miara covered the exterior of the drab concrete box with a whimsical mural that took the edge off its presence in the community.

Soon, Miara’s hobby turned into a full-time profession. He now only works as an educational advisor one day a week. He is 40 years old, and he and his wife Yael, a midwife, have six children.

Since 2014, he has “beautified” the exteriors of more than 50 bomb shelters all over the Gaza envelope in partnership with Jewish National Fund-USA. He also paints murals on protective border walls.

Miara was on hand in Denver last weekend for the JNF Global Conference for Israel, where he created paintings on canvas in real time while visiting with JNF supporters.

He explained that JNF donors who sponsor the bomb shelters often request specific themes for the murals on all four sides of the structures. He has executed themes such as Legos, chocolate, strawberries, the Seven Species, the New York skyline, music, dogs, space, smiley faces and Sesame Street.

One girl from Boca Raton, Fla., collected money for her Bat Mitzvah project and donated it for a shelter. The theme reflected her Bat Mitzvah, and her family came to the kibbutz where it was placed and had a small celebration when it dedicated.

Denverites who have commissioned shelters to be painted include Barbara Burry and Bruce and Nora Schrutt.

Miara painted a shelter on a kibbutz inhabited by olim from Brazil, so he included the flag of Brazil and Brazilian landscape to remind those people of their original home.

Each bomb shelter takes two days for Miara to complete.

He started out using just a paint brush and exterior house paint. From there, he graduated to using an air brush which utilizes an air compressor to blow out the paint onto the surface. Then he discovered painting with spray paint.

“It’s amazing because this technique expresses my personality. As soon as you push the button, the color goes out and you don’t have a second chance. You have to go with the flow.”

Miara has perfected his technique of applying the spray paint to exactly where he wants it and manipulating the juxtaposition of the colors to create shading, depth and perspective. His murals are colorful and whimsical, but mostly they are soothing.

“All the time, you see the shelter . . . shelter . . . shelter. The kids, even adults, think about this all the time.”

He believes that having these decorated shelters makes going into them less scary, especially for children. Instead of calling them bomb shelters, children, their parents and teachers call them by their themes: “the Dog Shelter, the Strawberry Shelter, the Butterfly Shelter.”

“The moment you give it another name, it changes their perception, their emotions about it.”

Since Oct.7, however, the perception has changed again for some. Hamas terrorists entered bomb shelters and murdered their occupants. They basically became death traps.

Miara has been faced with the task of repairing these shelters, although he cannot bring himself to go inside some of them, knowing what happened there. He debated in his mind whether to leave the bullet holes on the exteriors as a reminder of what happened, or fill them in and paint over them.

He has opted to paint murals expressing optimism, “so whoever passes by will see a path and a horizon and continuity and goodness.

Miara acknowledges that his uplifting murals do not erase reality. “If I had a button, I would make them disappear, but as long as they’re here, at least let them be nice and fun.”

In a video, Miara said, “I hope that we won’t need these shelters, that they will become refreshment stands or small museums, with lighting, air conditioning, music, telling a story of what happened, perhaps with a cute coffee corner.”

The person listening to him answered, “Amen.”

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Associate Editor | [email protected]

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