ASHKELON, Israel — Udi Ben-David is a difficult man to miss, but an even harder man to catch.
He's hard to miss because he's tall, rail-thin, wears the black suit and hat of a follower of the Lubavitcher movement and sports the wispy red beard of an urban hipster.
He's hard to catch because, as Ashkelon correspondent for Israel's Radio of the South, it is his job to leap up and chase every missile that streaks high above the sky and report on its trajectory.
Was it intercepted, causing huge echoing booms?
Did it plunge into the sea?
Did it land in someone's yard?
The latter is the case on Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of an interview, when Ben-David gets a phone call that causes him to take off like an arrow.
He is so well-known a character that citizens often call him before calling the police to report on any event.
Eschewing the seatbelt, Ben-David, 31, the father of a two-month-old daughter, drives so quickly that he makes it to a prosperous residential neighborhood before the first responders arrive. "This is the advantage of being a local reporter," he says, screeching around corners. "Even if the police set up barriers, we know how to get wherever we need to go. We know every inch of land."
He leaps out of the car and runs to the site, which, at that moment, is still lightly smoking. It is a yellow stucco home on a wide street, and the sign outside says "Dr Béatrice Suissa—Pediatrician."
Cell phone pressed to his ear, Ben-David is in live communication with his station the entire time, reporting on the incident and reminding his listeners of standing instructions issued by the Home Front Command. "Don't touch any shard you find. They could still be dangerous."
Radio of the South has become a phenomenon in Israel since the renewal of hostilities between Israel and Gaza 10 days ago, hosting nationally-famous anchors and synching in with Tel Aviv stations that want immediate updates about life on the southern periphery.
Shimon Parnass is one of the celebs who ventured south to broadcast his popular afternoon rush-hour world music program from the Ashkelon studios. "Here in Israel we are caught up in this eternal infighting among ourselves, and broadcasting from there in a difficult time is a sort of radio solidarity — they're very community-minded and generous," he says.
The station becomes a phenomenon "every time something like this happens," Osnat Marciano, the station's veteran top news announcer, sighs.
Marciano, 50, is an authoritative host who takes frequent smoke breaks and reports on the situation in a deep, evocative voice that has become ubiquitous.
She is supported by a team of young women including Hadar Yevtushenko-Yaacubovich, 26, the station's sparkplug news manager, Anna Roytman, also 26, the producer and announcer, and program director Noga Zeibel, 34.
The modest studios, located in an Ashkelon mall, have the usual journalistic accoutrements: computers, editing screens, coffee, chocolate in many manifestations, adrenaline, by necessity, displays of the Home Front Command's incoming-missile advisories.
Left: Udi Ben-David. Right: The radio team in their Ashkelon studio. (Noga Tarnopolsky)
Irony abounds: when an alarm sounds in its own vicinity, the radio crew switches over to the Home Front's droning instructions and scurry three floors down to the nearest shelter.
No: there is no safe room in the station that has become Israel's voice of security.
And while they may be the hardest working journalists in Israel today, a national media personality tells GlobalPost, "they live off of nothing. At the salaries the local radio stations pay it’s a miracle they can keep talented people on staff."
Ben-David's breathless call is fielded by the crew. "No injuries, thank God," he says, after verifying that the pediatrician's 17-year-old daughter, who was home alone at the time of the explosion, is shaken up but not hurt. In contrast to the Israel Defense Forces’ more sophisticated airstrikes, Hamas rockets — despite over 1,241 having been launched through July 16, according to The New York Times’ ongoing count — have only resulted in 1 death.
Ben-David, an Ashkelonite born and bred, grew up as a not particularly observant Jewish Israeli. After service in an elite army unit he followed the wanderlust in his heart to the great expanses of the United States where, in Pleasanton, CA, he met a Lubavitch rabbi who changed the course of his life. "It can happen anywhere," he smiles. "You begin to find yourself."
In his formal, dark attire he is a unique figure among the ratty swarm of local media, and is universally recognized as the most expert.
"Oh, Udi Ben-David, he's, wow …" beings Asaf Pozailov, who reports on southern Israel for the national Reshet B radio, Israel's version of NPR. "You know those guys you hear about, who just know everything and bring in huge stories? He's one of those. Really. His work is a mission.”
Marciano, too, is a local legend, in particular for the probing questions she addresses to the local officials who appear frequently on her show.
"Radio of the South is a pillar of our community," Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimony told GlobalPost. "It lives and breathes our city and it’s a 24 hour-a-day source for everyone who lives here. It's like oxygen."
The criticism he faces on-air is "absolutely ok. It doesn't upset me in the least," he says. "To the contrary, I'm grateful. It brings me closer to the people."
The crew, all of whom are lifelong residents of the zone affected by rockets, applies itself to its task with an unusual sense of passion. "I take things very much to heart," Marciano says, remarking that one of the first rockets lobbed from Gaza into Israel, seven years ago, landed just outside the studio by a neighborhood clinic and injured a doctor.
While music plays, the group chat about their latest near misses — for example, on Tuesday, a siren that sounded as Roytman and Zeibel drove to Beer Sheva, requiring they abandon the car on the highway and lie flat on the ground several yards away. Casualties have been rare since 2011, when Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile batteries became operational, but the rockets have shaped identities in this region.
"I live in fear like everybody here does," Marciano, the divorced mother of three young adult children, says. "I cook a lot. The more sirens sound, the more cakes I make — I have no idea why."