TEL AVIV — About four years ago, the Tel Aviv chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous had a problem.
The only place it could find for its meetings was a local school. But that "wasn't really adequate because when it came to the school holidays, we couldn't meet," recalled one longtime member. The group couldn't meet on Saturdays, either, because as a municipal building, the school was required to close on the Jewish Sabbath.
Finally, a city official came up with the ideal alternative. "How would a bomb shelter suit you?" he asked.
The AA group jumped at the offer, and it has been meeting in an underground bunker ever since. "I'm really delighted about it because we can meet when we like and how we like," the longtime member said.
Predictable Bad Jokes
The meeting place prompts the predictable bad jokes. "It gets lots of comment, especially from the people from overseas when they come in," the member said. " 'Fancy being bombed in a bomb shelter!' "
Meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous are just one of the alternate uses for the thousands of bomb shelters in this country, which claims to be the only nation in the world with a law requiring every new public or private building to have one.
In nearby Ramat Hasharon, the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music--more commonly known to its friends as the Israeli College of Rock 'n' Roll--uses a bomb shelter for its jam sessions. The acoustics aren't very good, but using the shelter averts complaints about noise from the neighbors, a faculty member said.
The shelter at the Weizman School in Nahariya, near Israel's northern border on the Mediterranean coast, is used as an indoor firing range.
Favored by Teen-Agers
Bomb shelters in cooperative apartment buildings are a favorite site for teen-age parties. "Most Israelis got their first kiss in a bomb shelter," said author and former government press spokesman Zev Chafets.
An Israeli woman in her 20s, who requested anonymity, confirmed that she was first kissed in a shelter. "It turned me off to kissing," she said, explaining that she now gets claustrophobic whenever the mood turns amorous.
A colonel named Jacob who heads the department of shelters for Haga, the Israeli civil defense organization, estimated in an interview that 40% of the public shelters have been turned into what he termed "multi-use facilities" under a national program to encourage such alternate uses.
"Our ambition is to make that 100%," said the colonel, who cannot be fully named because of Israeli censorship.
Most private shelters, in individual homes or apartment buildings, also have other purposes.
The shelters are normally rather Spartan. They are required to have fluorescent lighting, plumbing and safety exits but little else.
However, the colonel said, the civil defense organization provides money to municipalities for furniture and other basic amenities to make the shelters more suitable for alternate uses.
The motive is straightforward, he said. Since the nation's early days, the law has required bomb shelters because of the nearness of Israel's Arab neighbors and the danger of hostilities with them. But, in fact, "the need for the shelter is once every blue moon."
First Hours of War
Other than in the northern border areas, the last time most Israelis sought protection in bomb shelters was in 1973, during the first frightening hours of the so-called Yom Kippur War, when Syria and Egypt launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel.
By encouraging Israelis to find other uses for their bomb shelters, the colonel explained, authorities are helping to ensure that the facilities will be properly maintained for the time when they might again be needed for protection.
Haga particularly encourages apartment dwellers to use their bomb shelters for children's clubs. "If kids are used to the shelter--if it's a place where they play--it's easier to get them to go down there if it's necessary," the colonel said.
Haga is quick to approve any alternate use that serves the community, he said, and added, "This saves public money, too."
Among the most popular uses are as sports facilities, adult education or vocational training classrooms, clubhouses for youth groups, day care facilities for children and synagogues.
A few small theater groups in Tel Aviv and elsewhere perform in bomb shelters. And, in Jaffa, one is used as a clubhouse for a group of hunters. "They put carpets on the floor, stuffed heads on the wall and everything," the colonel said. "The club is still there, but somebody stole the animal heads."
Occasionally, people make unauthorized use of the shelters.
The colonel recalled an incident several years ago when a shepherd took over one in a condemned neighborhood to house his sheep.
And during the summer, residents and visitors in Israel's southern port city of Eilat sometimes sleep in the shelters to escape the heat.