Sunday, December 14, 2008

First, Steal a Lamppost

I had to admire Josh. First, he had advertised that the buses would be leaving at 10:30AM; now he was sending all the participants an e-mail saying he wanted everyone there twenty minutes early, so he could collect money and get everyone onboard to leave on time. Once a yekke, always a yekke! At any rate, Barbara and I took him at his word, and we left our house especially early so we could get the bus from Maale Adumim first to the Central Bus Station and then another bus to the Inbal Hotel.
It was the second day of Chol Hamoed. If I had forgotten that this was “duchaning day,” when tens of thousands of Jews would converge at the Kotel to hear the priestly blessing recited by thousands of Cohanim, I would surely have remembered when I saw the fleet of #1 buses, the one that goes to our holy site, lined up opposite the Tachana Mercazit, with passengers scrambling to get aboard. Whenever I think about this twice yearly celebration, I remember back to our experience exactly 28 years ago when we were at the Kotel. To be more precise, we were trying to leave the Kotel after the Birchat Hacohanim. It wasn’t quite as crowded then as it is these days, but still, there were thousands of people all trying to get on a #1 bus. As many of you know, Israelis are not noted for their ability to form a line, especially to get on a bus. But to make it worse, it never occurred to the drivers taking people from the Kotel to stop their vehicles at any one designated spot. So no matter where you were standing, it was the wrong place to get on the next bus. You can imagine the chaos that was ensuing. Here it was, only a few minutes after the “shalom,” the final word of the final blessing had been amplified around these ancient walls, and a small scale riot was about to break out. Finally, we were about to board a bus, and there was a woman standing behind Barbara who was going to push her way onto that bus, come hell or high water. She began shoving Barbara as hard as she could. The problem was that my wife was standing directly behind a small boy, and this woman was inadvertently causing Barbara to crush this child. After remonstrating with this woman several times, Barbara, in complete frustration, turned around and smashed her fist on top of this woman’s head, almost knocking her sheitel off. The woman finally stopped pushing and started shrieking, “She hit me, she hit me” to everyone within earshot – several thousand people. I will never forget the bus ride back. Barbara was sitting and pretending that she didn’t understand what the woman was saying, and I was pretending that I had never seen either of these women before.
That was then. Today I would be playing hooky from my priestly responsibilities and heading to Sderot, the town which has come to symbolize the dangers facing Israel today and the fortitude of its residents. We got to the Inbal Hotel real early, giving us an opportunity to go inside, use the facilities and look around. For those of you who don’t know, the Inbal is one of the swankiest hotels in Jerusalem, definitely out of our league – except to use the bathrooms. It has an enormous dining area in the center of the lobby which must have some sort of retractable roof, because it had been turned into a very, very large sukkah. There were all these families, parents with two, three, or four children having breakfast in the hotel before starting their day of sightseeing. And all I could think of at that moment was how much it would cost for a family of six just to have breakfast at the Inbal Hotel, and what percentage of our weekly food bill that would be; and how nice it would be to have that kind of discretionary income. And perhaps how different Israel would seem from the respective vantage points of a posh lobby in downtown Talbieh and a yeshiva in hunkered-down Sderot. For it was the latter which was sponsoring our tour, officially the Max & Ruth Schwartz Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot (a hesder yeshiva is an institution in which for five years young men combine learning and serving in the Israeli army).
Soon we joined the growing number of people in front of the hotel, all waiting patiently to board their bus to somewhere. Josh was right; it took at least twenty minutes for him to gather all the Sderot people together, collect our money, and get us all on the appropriate buses. It turned out that the guide for our bus was someone we had met before in the home of friends in Beit Shemesh. Win and his wife live in Beit Shemesh half of the year and in NYC half of the year, when they are not globe-trotting and photographing. They had recently been in India and had together taken 20,000 digital images (the equivalent of almost seven hundred rolls of film), some of which we had the opportunity to see this past summer on a Shabbat afternoon in June. Win had previously been to the yeshiva and was so impressed with their efforts that he spends a considerable amount of time doing volunteer work for them, talking, writing, and, of course, photographing.
Since we arrived here last summer, there has been a lot of activity in support of Sderot. For example, our friend Jeff was one of many to organize a shopping trip there to support the local merchants. Someone here in Maale Adumim for a while had arranged to have challot and other baked goods sent here every Friday. But we were always doing something else to take one of these trips, and, frankly, I didn’t care much for the challah. So we never really got involved in the Support Sderot campaign or thought that much about it. Thus, the first thing I needed to do was get up to speed about Sderot, to realize that it was more than just a landing place for the Kassam rockets which have been falling for over seven years. Like a lot of other communities in Israel, this one began as a development town in the early 1950’s, providing a permanent place to live for Jews who fled from Asia and North Africa and had previously been living in tents in refugee camps elsewhere in Israel. There had been almost 20,000 residents before the Kassams began to rain; no one has a handle on exactly how many people left and what the population is today.
As we neared the town, Win pointed out that Sderot has two main attractions: the Osem plant (a very large manufacturer of food), just off the road, still operational and the largest single employer in the area, and our hosts at the yeshiva (to be inclusive, I should also mention Sapir College, an academic institution with a highly regarded program in film making, which has been in the news because it too has been the target of rocket attacks and because of a dispute involving an otherwise qualified Arab film maker who allegedly refused to allow a student doing reserve duty to come to class wearing his IDF uniform). The first thing noticed as we entered the town was that, just as in most other Israeli communities, there were hundreds of campaign posters for a host of candidates in the local elections on November 11 (many of them in Russian – testament to an ubiquitous presence in The Land). Believe it or not, there was a food festival going on in downtown Sderot when we arrived; the main road into town was cordoned off and we had to go around the back way to get to the yeshiva. One might have expected to see a town reduced to a pile of rubble; but at first glance Sderot did not look much different from a number of other not-so-upscale towns we have visited – except for the existence of a bomb shelter next to every bus stop. The damage done to the community was in many ways more subtle. We were supposed to meet some of the local residents and hear some firsthand accounts of living under the constant threat of attack when you have fifteen seconds to find shelter when the sirens go off and the long term psychological damage caused by living under such conditions. However, there just wasn’t time for such interviews in our busy schedule. Nor did we speak with any of the students from the yeshiva either because, being Chol Hamoed, they were all away. But we did get a tour of the facilities and an idea of why this facility is so special.
To understand anything about this hesder yeshiva, it must be placed in context. It is October, 2008 (in our secular calendar), a point in time which everyone understands is a temporary lull in the fighting with Hamas. The same “everyone” is aware that Hamas is using this time-out to improve their rocketry, increase their fighting strength, build tunnels to infiltrate our side of the border, and in general prepare for the next round of fighting in their on-going effort to drive us out of our homeland. What the IDF is doing is uncertain – and whatever it is should be rightfully cloaked in a veil of secrecy. But what the town and the yeshiva are doing is public knowledge: they are all digging in, increasing and improving their fortification. The townspeople, by and large, are not leaving. The yeshiva definitely is not leaving, and that was the main point of the tour.
There are about five hundred young men currently learning at this facility in Sderot. While hundreds have already graduated, only a few have ever left because of the fighting. To make it possible for the school to continue to grow and thrive, they are, building by building, fortifying every nook and cranny: the dormitories, the beit midrash (house of study), and every other structure on the campus, in a way which will be both safe (according to the regulations of the Homefront Command) and esthetically pleasing. They are, as I said, not leaving; on the contrary, the yeshiva is expanding.
After stopping for a snack in the dining hall, looking at the existing dormitories and the new ones under construction, we headed over to the new beit midrash, which is being used as it is being built. We davened mincha there, and then we ascended to the roof, two stories up. This is, I believe, the highest point, not only in Sderot, but in the Western Negev. On one side you can see across the central plains all the way to the hills of Hebron. On the other side, you can see Gaza. We were asked to notice a large hill not too far away; from over that hill have come the kassams. It reminded me of the big empty hill near us in E-1, the “contested” area to the west of us in Maale Adumim. Place a rocket launcher on top of or behind that hill or any hill, and the hostile forces that surround us would be in control. It is that simple.
Looking down and around from on top of the roof, you realize fairly quickly that the yeshiva is right in the center of the town. Of course, that is no accident; the whole purpose of this institution is to be part of the community. Now you could say that about most hesder yeshivot. But here, they take that idea to the next level. Not only do these “yeshiva bochers” serve in the army, they drive the local Magen David Adom ambulances and form an emergency response team. They have formed another “army,” dedicated to performing chessed: bringing food for Shabbat, giving gifts to children and emotional support to adults, creating a climate of caring and concern. The boys dance through the streets on Yom Haatzmaut; last Simchat Torah, students from throughout the country came to Sderot to participate, strengthening the spirits of the entire community. Perhaps the best way to describe what is going in Sderot is found in a publication which the yeshiva distributes with the following caption: “A World of Chessed Will Be Created.”
Somehow, in this world filled with confusion and animosity, a simple message is going out: “Torah is the light of the world. It is not there to be a ladder for one’s own success, a vehicle to show how smart or important one is, a bludgeon to hammer others into submission, a means to show that some of us are different, better, or more moral than the rest of us. It is to share G-d’s glory with anyone who hasn’t noticed it until now; and to do that sharing is the reason why some of us were put upon this Earth.” (Note: these are my words, not the yeshiva’s.) The students who learn at this institution look like thousands of other typical Israeli young men who will go to school and ultimately to the IDF. What distinguishes them is their desire to serve and to inspire: to share their learning with elderly men, to befriend and serve as role models for adolescent boys, to join local families at their Shabbat tables. And when they graduate from the yeshiva, they do not run away; many of the young men begin their married life in downtown Sderot.
How can you quantify the value of all this? How can anyone begin to assess the importance of this institution to the survival of this town? There are no delicate instruments to measure the effect of an act of kindness on one’s heart or how one’s resolve has been strengthened by an act of valor. But, as the former mayor expressed it, “It is hard to imagine Sderot without this dynamic young force.” Here is a Jewish response, a Zionist response, a Torah response to the forces that are hell bent on annihilating us.
None of these activities or even the continued existence of a yeshiva in a war zone could have happened without the vision and leadership of Rav David Fendel, the American born Rosh Yeshiva who discusses (and embodies) what Maimonides describes as a ruach Hashem, a special spirit of G-d, which has enabled Jewish people throughout the generations to perform acts of extreme heroism. Talk about a “man with a plan.” His (Rav Fendel’s, not the Rambam’s, although I am sure the latter would approve) intention is to turn the beleaguered “development” town of Sderot into a center for Jewish learning and culture in the Western Negev. Not content with only one program, six years ago the yeshiva opened a satellite center to accommodate students with limited backgrounds from Southern communities; this program, using former students as instructors and role models, has grown from eight to one hundred twenty students. Following this model, the yeshiva has now opened a similar program in Kiryat Gat, a community of 50,000 a half hour away. Both of these institutions focus on preparing young men spiritually and emotionally for a regular stint in the IDF.
Perhaps the most ambitious project is the construction, now underway, of the Jewish Identity Center in Sderot, a cultural and pedagogical center which will serve in a number of capacities: audio-visual programs for students; a resource center for teachers; a place where graduates can continue their studies and obtain an academic degree. I am certain that should we revisit Sderot a few years hence, we will find some additional programs up their sleeve (Can one say that a yeshiva has a sleeve?). But more fundamentally, many hundreds of young men will have had an amazing yeshiva education and will spend their lives influencing for the good untold numbers of others in ways too subtle and diverse to consider.
After a much needed break for lunch, we were escorted on a shortened tour of the town. Although, as I mentioned, we were not able to meet any of the residents to hear their first-hand accounts of life in a war zone, we did hear some memorable stories of miracles in Sderot, the kind of remarkable incidents which have been happening in The Land for the last sixty years. When you hear one story about this person or this group of people trying to seek shelter from a kassam attack and somehow being prevented – perhaps by a door which is always open mysteriously being locked – from going to the one place they believe will be safe, whereupon it is precisely that place where the rocket lands, perhaps you can reasonably say, “It’s a coincidence.” But when you hear variations on this theme which have occurred over and over again: a kassam landing in the next room six or eight feet away and no one is injured: a rocket lodges in the ceiling between two floors and never explodes; at some point, even the most committed rationalist would have to calculate the odds against such a series of events re-occurring and would have to wonder if maybe – just maybe – there is something (gasp!) super-natural, non-rational, otherwise unfathomable, going on to explain this incredible safety net.
But it was time to confront “the belly of the beast.” For this we were taken to the local police station, which has become de facto a kassam museum, a showcase for thousands of rockets which have landed in Sderot and neighboring areas. (Actually, this is only part of the treasure trove; many thousands of other rockets have been discarded because there was simply no place to store them.) A volunteer police officer explained to us how a rocket of this type is constructed. I immediately thought of the recipe for chicken soup from a fictitious Hungarian Cook Book: “Step 1) Steal a chicken.” A kassam rocket is made using a hollow, cylindrical tube, about four inches in diameter. Where would one find such a tube? A street sign, a lamppost, or something similar. An Arab terrorist would simply remove such an object from its base (preferably from a Jewish source, as in the following true story: the residents of a nearby kibbutz woke one day to discover that all the street signs nearby were missing. They were soon “returned” when a series of rockets landed nearby, still retaining the original inscriptions on them.) However, if you can’t steal a sign from a Jew, take one of your own from Gaza. If you are contemplating sending your child laden with explosives to kill as many Jews as possible, you probably don’t need traffic lights. One point of interest: just as American Indian tribes would create distinctive markings on their arrows, each Arab terrorist organization has a slightly different way of making the tail of their rockets, so we should know exactly who our attackers are. For weeks after, every time I would see any similar object on the streets of Maale Adumim, I would think of its potential as a weapon of destruction, something to blow up our apartment.
So that our tiyul shouldn’t end on a “downer,” our last stop was the main shopping area, so we could do our part in improving the local economy. Nobody was going to buy a refrigerator and have it shipped to Jerusalem or wherever, and there wasn’t time to go grocery shopping in one of the local superrrrrrrrrrs, but our tour-mates did spread out and buy a few things. Barbara went to one of the chain drug stores, and I walked around the mall and checked out the shops on the adjacent streets, which went on for several blocks, all the way to where the food festival was going on. I was amazed at how many shops there were in this relatively small town (a little more than half the size of Maale Adumim). Then something which had been mentioned earlier in the day began to make sense. Sderot is not an isolated town; there are any number of small kibbutzim and other communities nearby. No doubt, people from the surrounding parts come here to shop. To put it simply, the destruction of Sderot would have a devastating effect on the economy and morale of the entire Western Negev. You may, if you wish, take that thought a step further. If I hadn’t until fully comprehended the importance of this hesder yeshiva as the moral backbone of the Jewish resistance to Arab terror, I did now.
A few weeks later, I met one of my buddies on the bus, and I began to describe our tiyul and my admiration for Rav Fendel and his bochrim. My friend asked me if there were any Americans at this yeshiva. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we simultaneously realized how absurd this question was. No, there were no American students on a one year program, or any program, in Sderot – or the “Muslim Quarter” of The Old City, or any number of other places we could think of. Maybe that, in a nutshell, summarizes one of the differences between the Israeli experience and that of the Exile. If G-d gives me the strength, I will elaborate on this point – and infuriate some of my audience – when I discuss the General Assembly in my next article.

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