Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Letter from Alon Shevut ...

People have asked me how it is living in Alon Shevut at the current time. The answer, in short, is… it's complicated.

On the one hand, there is pain, tension, some fear and much frustration.

Let's start with the pain. Last week, a beloved friend and community member, Yaakov Don z"l, was murdered just outside the gates of our Yishuv. (In the same attack, 18 year old Ezra Schwartz z"l was killed.)

The entire community of Alon Shevut has been thrust into deep mourning. Yaakov was an incredible dynamo of warmth and positive energy in the community and a dear friend to many. (I have written more about him here.) Many of our children are friendly with his children, or were inspired by his teaching and leadership in one of our local schools. Yaakov's terrible murder has brought the recent wave of terrorism home to us in a most immediate manner - into our hearts and souls - emotionally, viscerally, as an ever-present consciousness.

Tension - as the roads and sidewalks are simply unsafe. The violence, knife and car attacks started in Jerusalem some weeks ago, but now, Gush Etzion Junction, not 3 minutes from my house, has the unsavory status as the most dangerous spot in Israel, with over 10 attacks in the past month and 4 people killed just this week.  If Alon Shevut wasn't "famous" before, for its hitchhiking station nearby from which the "three boys" were abducted and murdered in the summer of 2014; now - with almost daily attacks - we feel vulnerable, tense, even fearful for our safety and that of our loved ones. After the 3 boys were abducted last year, we instructed our children not to hitchhike, but now after our friend Yaakov was murdered in a drive-by terrorist shooting, what shall we say to our children and spouses? Not to drive to work? Not to cross the road?  

And here comes some of the frustration, because prior to this, Gush Etzion was perceived, by its residents and by others, as a place of moderation and tolerance. Our local supermarket, Rami Levy, was a paragon of Arab-Jewish coexistence with Arabs and Jews shopping side by side, smiling at one another as we queued at the checkout, wishing each other a "Ramadan Karim!" and a "Shanna Tova!" Business was expanding, and the community was looking forward to the opening of a new shopping mall, for Arabs and Jews alike, a further step to normalization in the district. Gush Etzion's key rabbinic figures – Rabbis Amital, Lichtenstein and Riskin - were political moderates; its highly-educated population represents a more tolerant and open model than the classic "settler" stereotype. Gush Etzion was a pastoral, rural area in which our kids would walk, guitar in hand to swim in the local spring, as Jewish joggers and bikers would ride in-between Arab farmed vineyards in their weekend exercise. Our boutique winery, bakeries, restaurants and beauty spots had become increasingly attractive as tourist venues.

But now it feels as if this has all radically changed. Now, Gush Etzion Junction looks like a fortified army camp with security barriers and close-circuit cameras in every direction, a military watchtower and over 20 infantry soldiers in full battle gear keeping us safe.
Soldiers at Gush Etzion Junction
The Arabs are not shopping at the local supermarket. And the prospect of any co-existence seems elusive, and maybe completely impossible. In order to protect my children as they take an 8 minute walk to school, they pass at least four points at which armed guards are stationed. This is what we have to do to be safe; but it is a steep price to pay.

And we wonder - will it all return to normal after this wave of violence, or is our neighbourhood forever changed?

But in contrast to all this, the events surrounding Yaakov Don's murder has exposed real dignity and beauty, strength and determination, and yes – hope!

Mosaic in Yaakov's memory
Let me share a little about what went on in Alon Shevut this past week.

From the moment that we received the terrible news of Yaakov's murder, the entire community sprang into action in the most remarkable of ways. That weekend was supposed to be "Shabbat Irgun," an annual celebration of Bnei Akiva, the local youth movement. It is the crescendo of a month of frenzied youth activity, and that Thursday night had been earmarked as the annual "White-Night" as the kids would stay up through the night having fun and putting the finishing touches to their plays, presentations and the like.

At 6pm we heard the awful news, and celebration turned to mourning. At 8pm, the kids – over 300 of them from age 9 to 18 – gathered in the local youth center. The recited Psalms, they cried, they sang slow songs of yearning and sorrow, they divided into discussion groups to voice their fears and sadness. Parents guided some of the events behind the scenes, but in truth, the youth demonstrated such maturity, such greatness of spirit in absorbing the shock as they took comfort, in prayer, tears, and togetherness.

Some of the youth proceeded to the site of the murder, setting up a memorial stone and lighting candles. Some spent the night in a mosaic studio, making an incredible mosaic of a verse that encapsulates the sorrow over the death of Yaakov (Jacob) as well as their determination to continue: God will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. (Isaiah 14:1).

The circle of song
Friday was the funeral. Thousands came. The celebratory youth Shabbat was postponed. However, 24 hours later, after Shabbat, the entire community gathered in our basketball court. It started with a small circle of youth singing songs from the Rosh Hashanna liturgy: "Hamol" – Have mercy of Your creations, "Ochila La-el" – I plead to God, "Rahem" – Have mercy upon Israel Your nation… on Jerusalem your holy city; "Hassoph" - … the days are long and there is no end to the days of evil; and other such songs. The circle widened and widened, until it filled the entire stadium. An entire community of children, surrounded by their parents, arm in arm, grieving together, singing together; it was a beautiful moment of faith and spirit.

After the songs, we proceeded to march to the Gush Etzion Junction with flags and song. What were we saying? I don't know!   - That we are here, that this is our home, that we will overcome! We stood together, sang Hatikva, Ani Maamin and returned home as a community - united.
A new parochet for the Bnei Akiva snif, Inscribed in Yaakov's memory,,, a reference to Yaakov and Torah (and Shevet Morasha) "The Inheritance of the Community of Yaakov"

The entire week of the shiva has seen the community rally around the Don family - the youth with their friends, the adults providing an endless supply of food, cleaning, and assistance of every kind . The house could barely contain the size of the minyanim, the endless flow of friends, neighbours, students, politicians who came to greet and console the family.

The violence has spurred neighbours and local people into remarkable activity. One woman organized a rally of several hundred mothers, demanding safety on our roads. On Thursday morning, as the Shiva came to an end, in a gesture of commemoration and defiance, "Derekh Avot" - the school in which Yaakov Don worked, held their morning prayers at Gush Etzion Junction and then marched and danced the kilometer back to their school.

The security forces that have flowed into the area to provide security and protection, have been met by droves of people in Efrat and beyond, families who have barbecued for the troops, offered food, laundry and showers. I encountered two soldiers yesterday in the evening cold. I offered to buy them a coffee from the local café. They replied: "We've eaten far too much today; people have been overwhelming in their generosity." The kindness and strength of the wider Gush Etzion community has revealed beauty and resilience, friendship, love and determination to continue.

And life continues... Alon Shevut celebrated two weddings this week as its children build their own homes! Next week, "Shabbat Ha-Irgun" will be celebrated in the Yishuv in the traditional manner.

I have yet to hear one person express a sentiment of "Death to Arabs" or a call for revenge. I have heard words of determination to continue, despite the violence, to develop our communities and institutions so that Gush Etzion can continue to thrive. I have heard people speak of the Jewish roots here in this region, with a Jewish presence that extends to Temple times. I have heard people recall Gush Etzion of 1948, four small settlements, that were overrun and destroyed by Jordanian troops on the eve of Israeli independence, many of the residents massacred, and the years of yearning to return, eventually realized in the Jewish restoration of the region following the Six Day War by a small, resolute group of idealistic pioneers. Today, Gush Etzion numbers over 50,000 people living, working and studying here. Despite the violence, we have the privilege to live in a beautiful region of our national homeland. Our educational institutions are among the finest  in Israel. Our children are proud of their home, despite the price it sometimes demands.  We are truly blessed.

One year ago, a Palestinian killed a young woman, Dalia Lemkus z"l, by ramming his car into a local bus stop. Our children decided that the best response would be to create a human chain,
an act of hope and defiance, to express that they embraced life; not death. Our enemies seek to kill and we embrace life; they destroy and we build. We vow that our enemies cannot deter us from building our special communities in this historic place.

This is the source of our hope.