Mixing Euphoria with Emergency Needs – A report on the AFSI Chizuk Nov. 10-16 Mission to Israel

Helen Freedman

Mixing Euphoria with Emergency Needs

A report on the AFSI Chizuk Nov. 10-16 Mission to Israel

By Helen Freedman, Co-Executive Director, AFSI

The November 2016 AFSI Chizuk mission began November 10 with the usual high expectations.  AFSI’s Co-Executive Directors, Helen and Judy, were once again leading the group, with Glenn Richter’s able assistance, and Ami Dadon, our beloved driver, at the wheel. We had many returnees, but also, a number of first-timers. The mix was terrific. The camaraderie and friendship continued throughout the trip.

We started in Beit Horon, meeting the extraordinary, courageous, soldier and emergency medical responder, Yehudit Tayar. We saw the ugly wall which supposedly protects Beit Horon from its unfriendly neighbors, but Yehudit showed us the memorials to many of the victims and told us the courageous stories of many of the residents. We were taken to the bee keeper’s special workshop and enjoyed some treats while we listened to the story about beekeeping in Beit Horon.

We then left to drive to the 9/11 memorial which Israel built in memory of the WTC terror attack in NYC. We were probably the first busload to arrive at night to view the memorial. Most Israelis we spoke to about it didn’t know it exists and had no idea how to find it. We trusted Ami to do the job for us. We drove over unpaved roads and arrived at the memorial, which, even in total darkness, was powerfully impressive. The names of all the victims are etched in bronze plaques surrounding the memorial.

Dinner that night was at the popular Piccolino restaurant in Jerusalem. Arieh King, our favorite Jerusalem Councilman and founder and Chairman of the Israel Land Fund, joined us for dinner and then spoke to the group. He was one of the Israelis we met who was amazed and delighted by the Trump win, believing that the restraints placed on Israeli building of Jewish homes in eastern Jerusalem and throughout Israel, would now be lifted. He was opposed to Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat’s plans to build 7,000 more apartments for Arabs in Jerusalem while illegal Arab building has continued unabated. In 2014, Barkat had approved the building of 7,000 apartments for Arabs and King had appealed to the court to stop it. When asked why Barkat would initiate such anti-Israel actions, we were told to follow the money.

Friday, November 11

The day began with a visit to Oz V’Gaon in Gush Etzion. This park, created in memory of the three boys killed in June, 2014, Gilad, Naftali and Eyal, is one that AFSI has partnered with through its leaders, Nadia Matar and Yehudit Katzover. Ariel Kahane, political commentator for Makor Rishon, was the guest speaker. He, too, believes that Trump’s election has opened an incredible window of opportunity for

Israel. He urged the people to pressure Bibi to act now as the leader of a right wing government and to present a plan to Trump for Israel’s future.

Our next stop was the Efrat medical Center, a state-of-the-art facility established in 2001. Rabbi David Marcus guided us through the impressive center which is totally self-sustaining. Rabbi Marcus continued to tell us about the new, 80,000 square foot facility being built in Binyamin. It will be a dialysis center treating those with kidney failure. Since Arabs are susceptible to that, they will be treated at the center.

We then drove on to Aleh, an amazing treatment center for physically and mentally severely impaired children and adults. We were taken to see the special pool under construction for hydrotherapy treatment. Our good friend, Cherna Moskowitz, has made this one of her projects, and it is so rewarding. We were also taken to see some of the children, so badly damaged, but tenderly cared for by the staff at Aleh.

We returned to our hotel, the Leonardo Plaza, for Shabbat preparations. Dinner was in the dining room, and we were joined by NIra and Ken Abramowitz. Ken gave us a great talk on the threats to western civilization, and the remedies.

Shabbat, November 12

Following morning services at synagogues of one’s choosing, the group enjoyed Shabbat lunch at the hotel and then walked thru the shuk to the Kotel and our meeting place with our host for Shalosh Seudot. Barak Weinberg met us, as arranged by Dan Luria of Ateret Cohanim, and escorted us through the streets of the Old City. We stopped at Beit Har Nof, the latest acquisition, and climbed to the roof for an extraordinary view of the Old City. We then went to Barak’s home, Beit Zion, where we met his wife, Irit, and their eight children. They treated us to a beautiful shalosh seudot and havadalah and then escorted us back to the Kotel. We learned that both Barak and Irit had been expelled from Gush Katif. Despite the fact that they now live in a beautiful apartment in the holy city of Jerusalem, they both said they would return to Gush Katif if that were possible.

After returning to the hotel and wishing everyone a shavua tov, we got into taxis to take us to the Avraham Bernshtein Klezmer happening in a basement at 52 Yermiyahu Street. This was our third time there, and great fun, as always.

Sunday, November 13

We awakened early in order to make signs protesting the Amona expulsion. At 10 AM we joined the hundreds of children from Amona who had come to the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem with their parents to ask that their homes be spared from demolition. The scene was too reminiscent of the efforts made to stop the Gush Katif expulsion. We failed there. We pray these efforts will not be in vain and the severe decree, scheduled for Dec. 25, 2016, will be cancelled. As we were demonstrating, the Knesset was meeting to pass legislation that would replace demolition with compensation for the Arab claimants.

We left the demonstrators and went on to Beit-El to meet with Yehuda HaCohen. Yehuda is an “alternative peace activist.” While touring ancient Beit-El with him, he spoke to us of his new Zionist vision. This includes teaching children values and making them feel they are real characters in Jewish history. Independence from the U.S. would be another essential.

We then traveled to the caravan community of Amona, established in 1996, with 40 families and 200 children. We were greeted very hospitably by Elad Ziv and other activist leaders in the community who are working tirelessly to save Amona. They voiced appreciation for our support and we promised to help in every way possible. They, too, are looking at Trump’s election as a positive factor in their personal plight.

Continuing on to Ofra, we met Yoav Elitzur and Aharon Lipkin, community spokesmen. They explained that Ofra started under Peres in an abandoned Jordanian army base. Immigrants came from Ethiopia and many other countries. Aharon moved to Ofra in August of 2000, one month before the second intifada started. It was explained that nine homes, similar to so many of the homes in the lovely community, are scheduled for demolition. Ofra has joined with Amona in working for the compensation bill in the Knesset. Again, we promised our help.

It had grown dark, but we knew that Rabbi David Marcus, Eve Harrow, and Yael Weissman, with her one year old daughter, were waiting for us in Michmas at a new Pina Cham, a welcoming, warm place for soldiers. Yael, 23 years old, was widowed when her husband, Sgt. Tuvia Yanai Weissman, bravely confronted a terrorist at the Rami Levi grocery store on February 18, 2016, and was killed. The Pina Cham, although unfinished, looked as though it would be a very special place for the soldiers. We returned to our hotel and dinner, keenly aware of the bravery and determination of the Israelis we were meeting. Kol hakovod to them.

Monday, November 14

The day began with our 7AM departure for the Temple Mount, where, with the help of Aharon Pulver, head of the Israel Independence Fund, we were scheduled to meet our guide, Yaakov Hayman. We were anticipating the usual abusive treatment we had received in the past from some of the Israeli police in charge of giving permission to Jews wishing to ascend Har Habayit. To our great pleasure and surprise, we handed in our passports, were invited to proceed inside, had our passports returned, and were “free” to walk around the perimeter of the Mount. Of course, as always, we were escorted by Israeli police who prodded us along, as well as some members of the Islamic WAQF, who carefully watched us to ensure we were not praying. Despite being encircled by guards, this was one of our most pleasant experiences on the Mount. We understand that the Minister of the Interior, Gilad Erdan, is responsible for the improved situation. Motti, the policeman who was the most discriminating against the Jews, has been demoted to being a traffic policeman. We trust he’ll do a good job in that position.

We then drove on to Kiryat Arba/Hebron where Yehudit Tayar and Ayal Gelman took us into the Security Center where women doing community service monitored the TV screens. Ayal lost his brother and brother-in-law in terror attacks, but he spoke to us without bitterness and left us to join his wife who we learned gave birth that very night.

In Hebron, we visited Beit Shalom, which has a long history of court cases on ownership. Finally, the court decided the building did belong to the Jews and although it is in decrepit condition now, three families have moved in and made it their home. The Akobis and Gelmans are two of those families. The need to renovate the place is extreme and anyone interested in helping should contact AFSI.

We then joined our good friend and guide, David Wilder, for a tour of the Maarat HaMachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. For many of us, this was a welcome return to a familiar and beloved location. For the newcomers it was eye-opening.

David then took us up to Tel Rumeida where Jews are living in double-decker caravans, side by side with ancient ruins tracing an almost continuous Jewish presence of 4,000 years. Anyone doubting the Jewish claim to the land of Israel need only visit these ancient ruins to learn the truth about Jewish history.

We continued on into the southern Hebron hills to the community of Otniel. The names of the many victims of terror,some very recent, like Daphna Meir and Mickey Mark, are on the wall of the Yeshiva as one enters the building. Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, the Rosh Yeshiva, greeted us and briefly explained the five year Hesder Yeshiva program which combines study with military service in the IDF. Otniel, and Rabbi Nagen, are promoting a program of love and peace based on living together with the Arabs and establishing interpersonal connections. To promote this, rabbis and sheiks meet regularly. The residents of Otniel, although suffering from the many personal losses, support the idea of learning to live with and even love their Arab neighbors. They believe that 80% of the Arabs want peace. Tragically, 20% are ready to commit terrorist acts. Learning to deal with this situation is a great challenge, but Rabbi Nagen believes a small group of people can change the world.

Moving along, we traveled to the Har Shemesh farm, run by Shushi and Moshe, their son, and son-in-law. The family started the farm 25 years ago under very difficult conditions. Arab thieves were a constant threat to their sheep. The Shomrim Hadash, begun by the Israel Independence Fund, under Aharon Pulver, has now been taken over by the JNF. Daniel Mitchell, an employee of JNF, explained that all the Shomrim are volunteers. They stay on the farms during the night to protect the sheep and allow the farmers to get some rest. Another such group operates in Judea and Samaria and again is supported by IIF. JNF will not go into the disputed areas so the Shomrim of J&S will not be receiving any financial help except that raised by IIF.

Tuesday, November 15

Our first stop was Sederot. Unfortunately for us, Mayor Alon Davidi was out of the country, but we were met by Daniel Berkley. He led us up a hilltop so that we had a commanding view of Gaza in the distance. We could easily see the smokestacks of the power center in Ashkelon which provides electricity to Gaza and Israel. We had predicted that this power plant would be targeted if Israel was forced out of Gush Katif. We were not surprised when rockets were launched against Ashkelon and came alarmingly close to the power center.

Sederot, built in the 1950’s with Olim primarily from Morocco and Iraq, was a community of 10,000. In the ‘80’s, Olim from Russia doubled the size. In 2001 rockets from Gaza became commonplace. To date, over 20,000 rockets have landed in Sederot. Although the city has grown wonderfully under the leadership of Mayor Davidi and the Hesder Yeshiva leader Rabbi Fendel, there are still so many adults and children traumatized. To ease this, teenagers volunteer to work with the children in public  shelters. Sapir College is growing, and with 300 Zionist families, the student village is invaluable.

Our meeting that afternoon with Josh Hasten, new director of Regavim, was filled with anticipation. We were to have the very special opportunity to go down into one of the tunnels that had been dug by Arab terrorists from Gaza into Israel. We met Josh at Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha, along with Rav Shatz (security head) Elan (Keith) Isaacson. Keith, whom we had met previously in a failed attempt to enter the tunnels, had arranged the event with the IDF. The army had closed off the portion of the tunnel coming from Gaza. We descended on steps created by the army. When we reached the bottom of the ladder, many feet underground, we saw the tunnel extending into the darkness. Keith advised us not to go further since the tunnel could collapse on us. Of course, we too his advice and happily returned to ground level and the warm, wonderful sunshine. One cannot begin to imagine what was involved in digging the tunnels. It’s a nightmare scenario. Shachar Butler, a Rav Shatz from a nearby community, Kibbutz Nir Oz, then guided us through the kibbutz, only 20 miles from Egypt, established in 1955. First he took us to a large field filled with creative sculptures made by residents of the kibbutz. Standing there, we heard periodic explosions coming from Egypt, and saw Israeli tanks stationed nearby. Despite the obvious dangers in living so close to the border, we saw a beautiful community with lovely trees and flowers, where we were told the people live traditional kibbutznik lives. What a tribute to the Israeli spirit.

Nightfall came early, as it does in November, but we had one more activity scheduled. At  the suggestions of Rabbi Alan Schwartz of Ohab Zedek in NYC, combined with the efforts of Glenn Richter, we met with Rabbi Shlomo Raanan in G’var Am,  a secular community near Ashkelon. There, amongst the hundreds of residents, there were a handful who wanted to have mezuzot on their doorposts. With the mezuzot Rabbi Schwartz had given us, we went to five homes, previously designated by Rabbi Raanan, and hammered mezuzot onto the doorposts while reciting the appropriate blessings. The experience was heartwarming for all involved.

Rabbi Raanan explained that his organization, Ayelet HaShachar, has 200 employees dedicated to helping secular and religious people  live together. Forty synagogues were built in five years, because, he explained, attitudes are gradually changing. Starting 25 years ago, younger people began bringing a new spirit to the communities. The soldiers in the army bases nearby needed synagogues. Sefer Torahs were beginning to be donated. Although the kibbutzniks are hard to convince, the Rabbi believes that a growing acceptance of religion will take place. That is his mission.

Wednesday, November 16

Unbelievably, we had come to the last day of our mission. Laurence Beziz, our dear friend from the former Gush Katif communities, met us at our hotel in Ashkelon and led us to the Shai Yemeni greenhouses in B’ar Ganim, outside of Ashkelon. Shai and his father had been farmers in Gadid, one of the 21 Gush Katif communities destroyed in the 2005 garush (expulsion). They are amongst the very few who had the courage and strength to start farming again after everything they had was destroyed. Shai proudly showed us his bug-free lettuce, sold under Alei Katif or Alim Yarokim. Shai explained the arduous work that goes into his farming, all under rabbinical supervision.

We were distressed to hear that tomatoes grown in Gaza were being brought into Israel by the IDF and sold in the Israeli markets while Israeli grown tomatoes would go unsold. Uri Ariel, Minister of Agriculture, was a great defender of the Gush Katif communities before their destruction. It’s hard to understand why he would support Gazan agriculture over the produce of the struggling former Gush Katif farmers. The subject bears investigation.

We then drove to Nitzan, a caravan community that once housed 600 families from the garush. Fortunately, in the eleven years that have passed, many of the families were able to move to permanent homes. Unfortunately, 200 families are still living in the caravans. The barren spaces where caravans have been removed, the sewer-pipe bomb shelters, and the air of despair that permeates the remaining areas is incredibly sad to see. The community leaders, like Dror Vanunu, are doing all they can to help the remaining families find new homes, so the blight of Nitzan can be removed.

However, the expellees do not want people to forget what happened to them in August 2005. Nor do they want to forget the beautiful and thriving communities that had been created. Therefore, in Nitzan, one can find the Gush Katif Heritage Center near the very entrance to the community. Laurence left us there in the care of Dror Vanunu, a leader of the Gush Katif community before during and after the garush.

The Heritage Center tells the story of the government sponsored settlement of Gush Katif, starting in 1969 under then Prime Minister Golda Meir. Prime Ministers Rabin and Sharon continued to encourage the growth and in the ‘80’s the twenty-one communities flourished. All of that ended on August 15, 2005. We saw films of the people resisting the expulsion, but refusing to raise arms against their own soldiers. The pain and suffering of the evacuees, as well as some of the soldiers who had to follow their orders, was difficult to watch.

Over the years, Dror has taken us to see the eleven new communities that have been created, as the Gush Katif expellees insisted on remaining together, attempting to re-create their community living. The unnatural edict against Gush Katif, proclaimed and enacted by PM Ariel Sharon, will forever be a stain on the history of the Jewish people in Israel.

After a sumptuous lunch at the Ulpana in Nitzan and meeting some of the teachers at the Ulpana, we drove to the new community of NETA, where expellees from Kfar Darom and Tel Katif are planning for 300 families. Riding in trucks over the area of Lachish, where 1000 caves remain from the Bar Kochbar era, we came to an overlook point. We saw the synagogue under construction and understood that monetary support is needed for its completion. We also saw the many Arab minarets and sprawling homes of the 100,000 Arabs surrounding NETA in this southern Hebron area. The need for co-existence, expressed by Rabbi Nagen of Otniel, and Yehuda Ha-Cohen of Beit-El, came to mind as one realizes the realities on the ground.

Our last visit of the day, and the mission, was with our dear friends, Rachel and Moshe Saperstein. Formerly residents of N’vei Dekalim, where they had a beautiful home and Rachel taught in the girls’ Ulpana, Rachel became the spokeswoman for the community in the days leading to the garush because of her good English and ability to speak for the people. She and Moshe now live in B’nei Dekalim, a developing community in the Lachish area, where once again we learned of the need for monetary support. AFSI has always worked with the Gush Katif expellees and will continue to do so to the extent possible. We thank the many participants in the AFSI Chizuk mission for their support over the years.

After our traditional farewell dinner, where appreciation was expressed for every participant in this Nov. 2016 mission, as well as for our always loyal and competent bus driver, Ami Dadon, we said our good-byes, knowing that many of us will be reunited in the May, 2017 mission. At that time we’ll be celebrating, with all Israelis, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 victory that brought the reunification of Jerusalem and the restoration to Israel of Judea, Samaria, and the Golan. Reservations are being taken now. Don’t miss out on a great experience. Call Judy at 212-828-2424; judy @afsi.org

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