Here’s what was written on the flyer, meant to attract the attention of anyone who might be remotely interested: “Come, join us in what promises to be yet another, very worthwhile, enjoyable & meaningful experience in this whole vitally strategic, gorgeous area in a full-day tiyul during Pesach. By our very visit, we bring chizuk and encouragement to the wonderful people who are holding on to our Precious Land, at the same time as seeing some of the “off-the-beaten-track” parts of our Beloved Land with which we would otherwise be unacquainted.” I should probably mention that the “whole, vitally strategic, gorgeous area” under consideration was the Shomron a/k/a Samaria, the West Bank, the “Occupied Territories,” depending on whose narrative you’re tuned into.
Ignoring its stylistic defects, I decided to show the flyer to Barbara for her consideration. We are always looking for things to do, places to go during the intermediate days of the Hagim. And there was no question that the places listed were definitely “off-the-beaten-track,” names we had mostly never heard of and could never find on our own – even if we had a car and the car had a GPS – or we had turned on Waze! The timing for the tiyul was perfect for us, sandwiched between the Sunday, when Natania was joining us for a day at a museum in Tel Aviv, and Tuesday, when our friends The Levines were arriving at our doorstep. Plus, the price was right, only 100NIS per (lunch not included). So, yes, we signed up and were rarin’ to go.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about these tiny hilltop communities (called ma’achazim in Hebrew), many of which are “unauthorized” – because you need the government’s permission to start a new “settlement.” On the one hand, that’s not a bad thing (needing permission, that is), because it is the government, after all, who will be providing all the infrastructure and the protection required for the folks who live on the hill. And maybe it’s just not cost effective to build roads and put in electricity and sewer lines and a water supply – let alone station army personnel – any time a few families get the idea they want to live somewhere.
The problem is that it’s rarely the environmental and economic costs that keep the government from approving new communities – even taking into consideration that once in a while Arabs can prove they have title to a parcel of property somewhere. It’s other reasons, which you are free to consider on your own.
Anyway, we were to be given the opportunity to see and hear for ourselves what was going on, which we did, even though the tiyul was really badly organized, and one guy in the front of the bus had to throw a hissy fit to remind the organizer that she had promised to provide a sufficient amount of English for those of us Hebraically-challenged. (As there was no official translator, and Snir, the tour guide, was not up to doing his spiel in English, one of the participants stepped up to bat and saved the day.)
We were supposed to go to ten different communities and “meet some of their great inhabitants.” In fact, we stopped at three places (four if you count the restaurant in Har Bracha, where we went to use the facilities) and heard from two “inhabitants,” both very remarkable women. And the two of them together made all the difference between a total waste of time and a very special experience.
If you’re up on your current events, at least regarding Israel, you might recognize the name Havat Gilad – but not for a good reason. That’s where R. Raziel Shevach lived, and where he was murdered on the road coming back to his home on Jan. 10 of this year. One might wonder if his wife, Yael, a widow with six children, would, so soon after this tragedy, be up to public speaking about her husband and about life in this isolated community. But there she was, standing in front of a busload of people in the small beit knesset that serves this community of forty-five families.
I look at it this way: most of us have something that drives us, something we’re passionate about or that challenges us. And then there are folks like the Shevachs, whose challenge IS their life. Why live on a remote hilltop surrounded by Arab villages? To remind everyone that The Land is ours, not by the whim of a prime minister, not by a decision of the Land Authority, not because someone in the E.U. says it’s OK, but because it says so in The Torah. To make it more difficult for the government to give away this part of the country. Whether you agree or not with this point of view, that’s how Yael Shevach sees it, how her late husband saw it, and I’m assuming how the other residents of this community see it. (To see a rather disturbing contrary view, click here.)
I will admit that I get frantic when I see a notice on the front door of our building that our water will be shut off for half a day to do repair work on the water pipes or when there is one of the infrequent power outages that lasts from ten minutes to an hour (WHAT’LL I DO????), or if the bus to and from Jerusalem is fifteen minutes late and (gasp!) it’s so crowded I have to stand for fifteen minutes on the way home. I can’t imagine living in a place where the only constant is the inconsistency of the electricity, which always goes out when you’re trying to cook for Shabbat, and you’re waiting for a truck to arrive to fill the water tanks for the whole community, so you can give your kids a bath and you’re on your own to go anywhere at all. Things have improved considerably in the last few years, but still……….
When Yael Shevach mentioned that she and her family had been living in this community for six years, somebody thought to ask where they had been living before? “Sderot,” she replied. (What’s the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Out of the frying pan, into the fire?’) Why did they come here? It was the challenge that attracted them, but, also, they felt safer here than they did in Sderot.
Take a moment and try to process this information: she’s living where her husband was just murdered, in a place named after Gilad Zar, who himself was murdered in 2001 on the same road on which her husband died, which we had traversed in a bullet-proof bus with a couple of guys packing heat. And she said it’s safer there than Sderot – or at least she feels safer.
What she said makes a certain amount of sense – if you look at things the way she does. In Sderot, in order to keep everyone as safe as possible, there’s always a bunker or shelter within sprinting distance, the buildings are all reinforced, and the warning sirens go off with alarming regularity. In Havat Gilad, nothing. True, there are soldiers guarding the road in and out, but there’s no fence around the community and there are no sirens. In the hour or so we were there, we saw no one else and heard not a sound. So it is easier not to think about the dangers all around and be consumed by them. Yael’s point is that people cannot grow emotionally or spiritually when they are living in a constant state of fear, and the Yaels of this world are very much concerned with living up to their fullest potential.
We thanked her and, as we were leaving, handed her an envelope with funds we had just collected. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, who handsomely pays off the families of terrorists who have been “eliminated” or who are spending time in a relatively cushy Israeli jail, the Israeli government provides no such largesse for the victims of the terrorists. Whatever we gave Yael, it was not nearly enough.
Back on the bus, traveling hither and yon, winding up at an area near Itamar with several welled-up springs, around which many families from the area had gathered for Pesach picnic lunches. When in Rome….. We all found places to sit and enjoy our own lunches. From there, we headed to Gvaot Olam, an organic farm, in which goats and sheep are raised, and their eggs and cheese are sold all over the country. We stayed long enough to admire the baby animals, get a yogurt drink and/or coffee, and to daven Mincha. Then we were off.
This is what I don’t understand. Gvaot Olam seemed like the quietest, least controversial place imaginable, with little kids ogling little animals. But when I got home and started doing a little googling for this article, what did I discover? These folks who live on their hill are up to their necks in controversy. Avri Ran, who established the farm, is as provocative a figure as there is in this part of the world. Now why didn’t our guide say anything about this? After all, that’s why we went on the tiyul!
The next “hilltop” we visited was Aish Kodesh. Snir got off the bus and disappeared for a few minutes, finally reappearing with Hagit in tow, who climbed aboard and shared her experiences with us, in many ways similar to Yael Shevach’s. They’ve been living in this community of sixty families for three years. Unlike Havat Gilad, which is now being “authorized” following the murder of R. Shevach, the folks who live on this hilltop have no government approval to live where they do. (It seems that the surest way to get your yishuv approved is to have somebody in it get murdered, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to do things.) Despite the uncertainty of their situation, a number of families have moved from their caravans and built permanent housing, and the community has just finished constructing a mikvah – for which they are mightily in debt. (Whether this was meant as a hint or not, another envelope was produced and sent around the bus.) Aish Kodesh has been around for seventeen years, so maybe the moral is that if you stick around long enough – even with on-and-off electricity, a water supply that isn’t always supplied, and the IDF is on duty except between 10PM and 1AM when they’re not and the locals have to guard themselves – maybe the people who get to decide these things will realize that you’re not going away and the simplest thing to do is to give you the permission you need.
That’s the lesson I drew from what I heard and saw. These folks who live on a hill are prepared to tough it out – no matter what. And maybe the toughest of the tough are women like Yael and Hagit, who are so alike they could be sisters. Despite all the glitches, we’re glad we went to visit them and learned something about fortitude.