Like the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Sderot is now a must-see stop for those who support Israel or are being urged to do so. Several groups have set up offices to arrange visits to a damaged home or a trauma center. Foreign diplomats have been bused here by the government; a United Nations officer says he has brought top officials here five times; Senator John McCain came last month; Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, residents say, cannot be far behind.
Israelis and their supporters are lining up to volunteer. Money is pouring in for bomb shelters, social services and an Orthodox religious seminary.
"For years, the government and others thought of Sderot not as a national problem but a local one," Mayor Eli Moyal said, just before the ribbon-cutting for an elegant first aid and ambulance center built with money donated largely by American Jews. "They now understand that if Sderot falls, Israel falls."
The sense that Sderot is actually Israel's front line in its battle for legitimacy and self-respect has gained real currency, just as in the Arab world the suffering of Gazans has taken on a special significance. For Israelis, the conviction of Sderot's importance began growing with the huge increase in rocket fire since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and after the 2006 war with Hezbollah, which sent thousands of rockets into northern Israel.
With both Hamas and Hezbollah gaining strength on Israel's borders and developing rockets with longer ranges, Sderot, its advocates say, is a bitter sample of what more prosperous and distant parts of Israel may face if the threat here is ignored. And to a growing number across the political spectrum, it has inspired a collective rescue operation.
"In Tel Aviv, you have great cafes, nice clothes and you live an illusion as if everything is all right," reflected Ilanit Swissa, a theater director and one of about a dozen liberal intellectuals setting up camp in Sderot who moved here a few months ago to work with high school actors. "But it is not true. Here I feel like I am contributing something. We are at war and you feel it here."
Surrounded by orange groves and wheat fields, guarded above by a military blimp that sets off an alert with each rocket launched from Gaza, Sderot has been a tough place to live. There have been days when more than 50 rockets have landed in or near the town, bringing panic, destruction and occasionally death to a town of 20,000 that is heavily populated with Israeli minority groups Moroccans, refugees from Central Asia and Ethiopians. Panic is widespread. Businesses have closed. Three thousand residents have left.
Residents have grown accustomed to though hardly comfortable with the constant sound of a townwide alert known as "Code Red," produced when the blimp detects an incoming rocket. Once the alarm has gone off, there is 20 seconds to get to a shelter before the rocket hits. Given such a short warning, kindergartners are kept inside all day rather than risk their failing to move quickly.
Hundreds of rockets are on grim display in the courtyard of the police station. The town itself, while typical of many its size in Israel, is now pockmarked with rocket holes and shelters and has developed a fierce black humor about its predicament, with sculptures made of rockets in a number of places.
A sense of pride in Sderot's gritty refusal to yield and an interest in finding ways to protect and enhance the town have spread rapidly. World WIZO, a Zionist women's group, found that Sderot campaigns elicit visceral support from donors.
"We printed T-shirts saying 'Sderot Needs You.' In one day, we raised $1 million," said Helena Glaser, the group's president, as she toured Sderot.
The other day, David W. Lentz of Livingston, N.J. was pounding the pavement here with fellow Israel advocates, looking for ways their community could help.
That same afternoon, a busload of Jewish fund-raisers were inspecting new care centers they had sponsored, passing some of the dozens of bomb shelters, some of them donated by evangelical Christians; a rabbi was going over plans for a $5 million seminary, financed mostly from abroad.
For people who live and work here, all the attention, especially from wealthy outsiders, can seem overwhelming. Several said they were unable to get anything done.
"It has gotten out of hand," said Dror Marsha, the director of the local volunteer center. "It has become a trend a good trend but I can't handle it. We have 1,000 volunteers a month now." Two years ago, he said, the number was 200.
Among the projects donated by evangelical groups are some of the nearly 80 small shelters and bus stops that double as shelters as well as a set of "resilience centers" to coordinate social services. Run by the Israel Trauma Coalition, a project of the UJA-Federation of New York, the resilience centers send social workers on house calls, provide training for single parents and offer workshops for the elderly and new immigrants.
Apart from the donations and support from the outside, another big change in Sderot in the past year has been economic, and the surprising reason for that is the Israeli evacuation of Gaza. Until 2005, there was an industrial park just inside Gaza of companies jointly owned by Israelis and Palestinians. With the withdrawal, the companies relocated to Sderot and employed locals, bringing the city's unemployment rate from a crushing 20 percent in the late 1990s to a near national low of 3.5 percent, according to Shalom Halevy, a municipal spokesman.
Still, 30 percent of Sderot's population show symptoms of stress, five times as many as in similar populations in Israel, according to studies carried out by Marc Gelkopf of Haifa University. Many families sleep in one room together for fear of missing an alarm.
As much as Sderot is a symbol, it is also a kind of Rorschach test a screen onto which various political factions project their hopes and fears. For the right, it is evidence that only force will stop the rockets; for the left it is evidence that force is not the answer and that the rockets cannot be stopped without a new approach.
One attempt at a new approach involves a group in Sderot that has started holding discussions with Palestinians in Gaza via speakerphone. The group, Another Voice, is urging a cease-fire. There is also a new blog, a discussion between a resident of Sderot and one of Gaza, both anonymous.
But for Rabbi David Fendel, who has run a 500-student yeshiva here for years, the rockets are proof that withdrawing Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza was foolish. He has raised millions of dollars to build a new yeshiva. The point of his project is to make a statement to those who wish Israel ill.
"The Palestinians are trying to turn this into a ghost town," he said as he stepped through the construction site of his school. "We're not going to let them. We're going to make it a dynamic center of Zionism, Torah and building."
The building here is a bit unusual the new yeshiva study hall will have 1,500 tons of concrete in its ceiling as protection against the crude homemade rockets known as Qassams and other rockets that assault the city on a nearly daily basis from Gaza.
Rabbi Fendel recognizes that there is plenty of work ahead. He is marrying off his eldest of seven children in the coming weeks. But even though his son and future daughter-in-law will live here at the yeshiva, the wedding will not be here because so many guests are afraid to come.
Avi Farhan, who was a settler in the Sinai before it was returned to Egypt and then in Gaza before the Israelis withdrew, said he agreed with Rabbi Fendel that the withdrawal was a mistake. Standing on a bluff near his new apartment, he can see what remains of his former Gaza settlement, now a staging ground for rocket fire.
"From my old house, they can now shell my new house," he said ruefully.