Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Close to Home

Signs like this appear all over Jerusalem. This particular sign appears on the road exiting Jerusalem. The homemade sign reads: "Soldier, Thank you for watching over us. Come home in peace!"

Yesterday I attended a prayer rally at the Kotel. I stood next to my friend, Yael, as prominent Jerusalem rabbis led us in the recitation of Psalms. King David (who authored most of the book of psalms), had a way of penetrating the human soul and capturing the deepest of fears, joys and inner-workings of human beings. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Metzger, urged the crowd, which filled the entire plaza extending upwards from the kotel, to have special kavana (intention) for the kidnapped soldiers when reciting the last verse of chapter 142: "Release my soul from confinement to acknowledge Your Name.."

Standing next to us was Yael's mother and her neighbor from Ramot, whose son has been stationed on the southern border of Lebanon for the past week. Yael told me that her neighbor's son is allowed to send one text message a day. Yesterday, he wrote to his family: "Ti'hi'yu chazakim. Ani ohev otchem," "Be strong. I love you guys." I closed my eyes and thought about this boy as we recited chapter 22, "For dogs have surrounded me; a pack of evildoers has enclosed me..." Later I looked up this verse and discovered that one commentary explains: "dogs" refers to "frenzied mobs comprised of base people." How prescient, potent and relevant King David's words are so many thousands of years after he wrote them.

We continue to pray on behalf of the IDF and am Yisrael that, in the words of King David, "G-d will protect you from every evil; He will guard your soul... from this time and forever."

sderot "hizdahut" trip

last night i led a group of nine friends on a trip to sderot. the trip to sderot was born out of a desire to show solidarity with the people of the community. sderot has been pounded with kassams for the past five years, but in the past year since the disengagement, it has intensified tremendously.

i have wanted to visit sderot for several months. initially, before gilad shalit was kidnapped, there was the extra layer of wanting to protest the government's inaction in halting the daily kassams that disturb, disrupt and sometimes destroy the lives of israeli civilians. however, following gilad shalit's kidnapping the government finally sent the army into gaza in an effort to both rescue gilad shalit and to destroy the kassam launching infrastructure. at this point, we thought, we were traveling to sderot to let the people of sderot know that we continue to think of them and pray for their well-being and for the success of the army operation in gaza.

in israel, the experience begins from the moment you board the bus. i reserved a ten-seater nesher and a driver named sabari sabari (- from the word "sabra," the word used to describe a native Israeli, after the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which is prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside). our drivers first and last name can be translated as: "my cactus!" obviously, someone with a name like that has a personality to match! sabari was friendly and talkative from the moment we alighted his bus. he was impressed with our group and referred to us over the radio as an "achla," awesome, group of kids. as we left the hills of jerusalem behind us, someone from our group began reciting "tefillat haderech," the traveler's prayer. immediately, sabari turned off the radio and placed a kippah on his head.

after driving for just over an hour we reached sderot. i found this remarkable. only one hour outisde of jerusalem and we were as close as you can get to the border with gaza! only one hour away from our comfortable lives in jerusalem and we were standing in sderot, a place where kassams fall at random intervals throughout the day!

we met with rabbi fendel, the head of the hesder yeshiva and an american oleh who arrived in sderot twelve years ago. rabbi fendel gave us a tour of the yeshiva, which cuts through the middle of the town and took us to the edge of sderot. we followed him up the stairs of an abandoned building and emerged on the roof in time to watch an exceptional sunset.

as we gazed at the beautiful sun slipping away, rabbi fendel gave us a brief history of the town. sderot was found in 1955 as an immigrant town. the israeli government settled persians and then morrocans in sderot. in more recent years, russian immigrants have also been settled there.

rabbi fendel arrived in sderot twelve years ago as part of a large-scale program to bring torah and judaism to development towns and communities throughout israel. to his credit, rabbi fendel turned a kollel of nine guys into a yeshiva that today boasts 400 students. the yeshiva has implemented several worthwhile programs in the community, including a pensioners kollel for retired men.

after telling us about the yeshiva and the community, rabbi fendel pointed toward a lone tree, the golani tree, on a hilltop only a half-mile distance from where we stood. "behind that tree, behind that hill," rabbi fendel told us, "is beit hanoun. it is from there that the kassams are fired." i was taken aback at the proximity of this terrorist breeding ground to the beautiful town of sderot. he pointed out that the israeli government promised peace and quiet once israel evacuated gaza and handed it over to the palestinians. contrary to the empty promises, the palestinians have been working more diligently than ever at creating a "ghost town" out of sderot, as rabbi fendel describes it. this is even more striking as sderot is within israel's pre-1967 borders. rabbi fendel left us with the following: "it is immoral for the israeli government to not wipe out the kassams and terrorists of beit hanoun. there is a moral obligation to protect the citizens of sderot. we cannot live like this."

standing on the rooftop of that building, taking in the beautiful sunset, i looked back at the city of sderot. there were young boys playing on a basketball court not far from us. we saw the yeshiva boys behind us in the distance rushing to their classes. and sderot looked stunning in the sunset. i felt serene taking in the scene. it was hard to imagine the fright that must paralyze the people of sderot when they hear the blaring sound of "shachar adom," red dawn, which gives a 15 second warning for incoming kassams.

as rabbi fendel bid us goodbye, his wife, mechi joined our group. mechi, also an american-born olah, spoke with us a little while longer about life in sderot. she told us about a family who sleeps in their living room because there are no windows in the living room and that way they can be safe from kassams. she told us about children who have trouble sleeping at night. she told us about ella abukasis, who was killed by a kassam while shielding and saving the life of her brother (please see the following link to learn more about ella's tragic death and about other sderot citizens who have been killed by kassams: http://www.zionism-israel.com/vic/sderot1.htm).
we walked with mechi back to our bus so that she could show us around sderot.

before we arrived at the bus, we stopped by the protest tent next to the municipality. the protest tent was erected several months ago by residents of sderot wishing to send a message to the government: put an end to kassams falling on sderot. i had assumed that the protest tent would be empty following the idf's incursion into gaza. however, we discovered about 10 people, secular sderot citizens, sitting in the tent.

approaching the tent, one is greeted by several different homemade posters. one reads: "government of israel, you have failed!" another states: "security does not exist for us." after entering the tent, we met with the local sderot citizens. i asked one of the men sitting there, who told us he would be sleeping in the tent that night, "now that the army has entered gaza, what are you protesting?" he responded: "we are happy the army is in gaza, but that does not change the fact that six kassams fell on sderot today. in fact, one kassam fell in my very own yard today. until kassams stop falling in sderot, we continue to protest." he explained that sderot citizens have banded together to create a 24-hour a day presence in the tent.

we met another woman in the tent who told us that she had heard the red dawn siren, looked up, and saw the kassam veering toward her. she stepped aside, and thankfully, avoided the kassam. one of the men sitting in the tent thanked us for coming, saying, "with everything going on in the north, it is so special to us to know that you are still thinking of us and that you came all the way here to support us."

we left the protest tent touched by the two teenage boys, the women, the men, the russian woman and her daughter. these are the people who live in constant threat of kassam rockets!

before heading to a local restaurant, to offer a little financial support as well, we pulled over by an elementary school. our guide showed us a dip in the concrete road where a kassam had fallen not long ago. the kassam fell at 7am, just fifteen minutes before students would have flooded that very street to begin their school day. we learned that when a kassam falls in the middle of the street, even if it's just several feet from a school yard or a house, it is reported in the news as having landed in an "open area." we saw and understood very clearly that this is a gross misnomer. the term "open area" conjures images of an abandoned, large field and yet, in this case, the kassam had fallen just feet from a school yard!

we ended our trip to sderot with dinner in the local dairy restaurant. once again, we were received warmly. we enjoyed dinner and boarded our nesher to return to jerusalem. i left sderot feeling torn. part of me felt relieved to leave the city unscathed and looked forward to returning to the "safety" of jerusalem. part of me felt very reluctant to leave this beautiful city and its inhabitants who live with a constant fear of kassams. one thing was clear: i'm happy i went. i'm happy i was able to tell the people of sderot: we're still thinking about you and we continue to daven for you.

may the idf mission in to gaza be swift and thorough and safe!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"and behold, there came a great wind"

a friend from the states inquired this morning: "what is the average citizen in israel feeling right now?" underlying the seemingly casual question was a serious expression of concern. how is the country dealing with the kidnapping of gilad shalit? what do people here feel about the idf incursion into gaza? how is the government responding to the continued kassam shelling of sderot and now ashkelon and is the response strong enough or effective?

"with all of these terrible things looming in the air," i wrote, "life does continue here." israel is a place where one is forced to integrate, or perhaps, balance, the tension of a constant terrorist threat with the vibrant and enriching cultural, intellectual and religious life that exists here like no other place in the world. in fact, just this past week, jerusalem kicked off a ten-day film festival. the jerusalem film festival is said to be the most impressive in the country.

hoping to escape the radio and internet updates for a few hours, i scanned the film festival program for the days afternoon movies. one title caught my eye: "and behold, there came a great wind." recognizing, the biblical origin of the title, i clicked on the synopsis and discovered the film is a documentary about a couple from nezer hazani and a rabbi/principal of a school in atzmona.

i was immediately intrigued. i arrived in the country just a week after the disengagement, in time to witness the aftermath. this past year i volunteered at a local jerusalem hotel doing arts and crafts projects with boys between 2 and 10 years old and their mothers from neveh dekalim. i worked with this group of incredible children and women through the winter, as they remained in the jerusalem gold hotel (due to the fact that the government had still not "resettled" these families).

my weekly visits to the hotel afforded me the opportunity to get to know some of the special people of gaza. while i did spend quite a bit of time with this group, we almost never spoke about their "previous" life in gush katif. both the boys and their mothers seemed to find the art projects cathartic and soothing. i hesitated to ask questions about life in neveh dekalim, as i didn't want to open the fresh wound. consequently, i was all the more interested in seeing the documentary which followed three people over the course of eight months leading up to the disengagement.

i arrived at the theater just before the movie began. i was gratified to see that the large hall was almost full and that the demographic ranged from teens to senior citizens and kipah-wearing to bare(and sometimes bald)-headed men.

the film was an incredible piece of history that everyone must see. we meet the yefet family from nezer hazani in the opening shot of the film. we are introduced to everyday life in the beautiful community. the camera follows both mr. and mrs. yefet through their respective daily routines. i can think of no better way to describe this extraordinary couple than just salt-of-the-earth, deeply-believing people. they arrived in and helped found nezer hazani in 1977. while mrs. yefet seemed to always be cooking up some delicacy for her family, mr. yefet was busy tending to his farming business, producing herbs such as basil and chives.

the yefet family lost their son, and brother, itamar, in 2000 (please see the following link to the tragic death of itamar yefet: http://www.nic.gov.il/MFA/Terrorism-+Obstacle+to+Peace/Memorial/2000/Itamar+Yefet.htm). despite their son's untimely death in gush katif, the yefet's were committed to living in gaza. in fact, mr. yefet at one point says he does not fear the mortar shells that occasionally fall into his hothouses. until the month preceding the disengagement, both yefet parents are convinced the disengagement will not happen.

in the days leading up to the disengagement, when it becomes clear to the family that they will in fact be removed from their homes, mrs. yefet expresses her exasperation at the lack of governmental planning for the "day after." the documentary juxtaposes her concern with a clip from a news station aired the night before the disengagement. the newscaster explains the intricate plan of how the residents of gush katif will be removed from their homes. the movie then returns to rachel yefet whose post-disengagement home is still not ready. the filmaker seems to be telling the viewer: you see, the government did not spare anything to insure that the removal of jews from their homes would go flawlessly. however, the government failed to plan, with the same effort and concern, the follow-up for people who would be without homes, jobs, community.

the film weaves another story through the yefet narrative, that of rabbi rafi peretz. rabbi peretz is the beloved head of the pre-military "mechina" yeshiva in atzmona. in the months leading up to the disengagement, rabbi peretz preaches civil disobedience, not violence, to his yeshiva students. even while disbelieving, he cautions his impressionable students that they must never stop respecting the government, however flawed the government's decisions may be.

rabbi peretz invokes the persona of king david to convey his stance. when saul was still king of israel he repeatedly threatened to kill david, who was annointed by G-d as the new king. rabbi peretz points out that david did two things: 1. he never stopped treating saul with respect (see samuel I, chapter 24 as one example) and 2. he never stopped fighting for his people. rabbi peretz seems to embody this two-tiered tactic. he refuses to disrespect the government or the army, and yet he insists on remaining in his beloved beit midrash until the end.

in the final scenes of the documentary, we witness the yefet family in their yard, sobbing together. we are also shown rabbi peretz weeping and speaking in the beit midrash of atzmona to his 200 talmidim (students), who echo his cries in the background. i did not expect to cry and i did not cry until these last shots. the grief woven into the brow of the stoic mr. yefet as he watches his hothouses being dismantled is too much to bear. the yefet family clutching each other, sobbing; the tears shed by the yeshiva boys as they are asked by an army officer to leave their beit midrash.

after the film ended, the director introduced himself and fielded a few questions. the director, ziv alexandroni, is a self-proclaimed tel aviv liberal. he described the experience he witnessed in gush katif as a "tragedy." when asked why alexandroni did not include footage of the people of gush katif rebuilding and rehabillitating their lives, the director stated: "i wanted the film to end on a sad note."

that it did. after watching this film, i was struck by the beauty, depth, simplicity and richness of life in gush katif. the sight of the bulldozers destroying the yefet's, and so many other, homes was that much more tragic after seeing the life that was.

this film resonates even more clearly now. just several days ago, the army returned to a number of the jewish settlements that were evacuated almost one year ago. the army did this in a strategic effort to curb, if not wipe out, the kassam shelling of israel (pre-1967 israel). additionally, the army is in gaza to find and return gilad shalit.

it is not surprising that reports continue to be published analyzing the "failure" of the disengagement. many jewish families who were evacuated are still without permanent homes and jobs. since the disengagement more kassams have been fired into israel than had been fired since 1967. gaza is currently governed by a terrorist organization that avowedly calls for the destruction of israel. in the midst of this, olmert recently reiterated his intention to go forward with the convergence plan, removing 10 times as many people from the west bank as were evacuated from gaza.

"and behold, there came a great wind," the title of the documentary, is part of a verse taken from the book of job (job 1:19). the verse appears after we are told that job's animals, servants and sons and daughters have been taken from him. "and behold, there came a great wind," begins the verse, "and smote the four corners of the house..." the houses and homes of an unbelievable group of people were destroyed. in many ways, their lives were, at least temporarily, destroyed. one must see the film to understand the gravity of this destruction.