Living in Yesha

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I recently returned from a two-month stay in Israel. My investment of a small amount of money and a small amount of time yielded an enormously satisfying spiritual and emotional return. As I look back on my experience, I feel a warm glow inside of me.

To put things in perspective, my greatest accomplishment, the one I am most proud of, and would put first before the Heavenly Judge when the time comes, is the raising of my daughter, eight years with the help of my wife, z"l, and eleven years by myself with the help of family and friends.

But there has been another great event in my lifetime, one I feel privileged to have been alive for. This singular event is the return of Jews to Zion after nearly 2000 years of exile.

Being the child of first generation Americans, my main contact with Israel prior to 1967 was through cheder. The memories are mostly unpleasant: being asked to suffer the mortifying experience of standing on a street corner in the Bronx with a pushka (charity box), randomly asking people to donate money for Israel; and eating what must have been one-year-old, hard-as-a-rock Israeli bokser (carob) on Tu b'Shvat.

That is not to say that living in the Diaspora marginalized my Zionism. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, I contributed and, despite my painful experiences as a fundraiser in the Bronx, asked my fellow medical students to contribute money for the defense of Israel. In 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War, my new bride and I gave all the gift money we received, on the occasion of our wedding, to the UJA.

The merit of visiting Israel is extolled in our prayers. We read in the prayers of Yom Kippur how privileged one was who lived in ancient times and saw the happenings in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple). If that is the case, I feel as if my generation is perhaps the second most-privileged. Being born in 1943 to first-generation Americans, with grandparents who emigrated to the U.S. before the Holocaust, I escaped that tragic episode in Jewish history.

I was too young to appreciate, but was alive for, the return of Jews to Zion with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. I can remember with great pride the miracle of Israel's establishment of sovereignty over much of the rest of Eretz Israel in a stunning six-day victory in the defensive war of 1967. I also witnessed in the 1980's the miraculous release from bondage of millions of Jews trapped in the former Soviet Union, many of whom settled in the Land of Israel. But, each time, like millions of other Jews, I felt the passive euphoria of Israel's many achievements, without the satisfaction of having any direct participation in these momentous events.

How many of us realize how fortunate we are to be able to hop on a plane and easily visit the Western Wall that surrounded the Holy Temple? For nearly 2000 years such a visit was either impossible, or involved extreme risk to life. It was with this in mind, and the feeling that many Jews, myself especially, were becoming oblivious to the privilege that Hashem afforded us in our lifetime, that I decided to retire from the Federal Service in December 2000 and spend two months in Eretz Israel.

I believe, based upon my simple-minded reading of Tanach, that Hashem gave the Jewish people the land of Eretz Israel, including that part of Israel sometimes referred to as the West Bank or "occupied territory" and He instructed us to live there. Although many scholars and rabbis more learned than I ever will be have justified living in Chutz L'Aretz (the Diaspora), I think it is Hashem's plan that ultimately all Jews will live in Eretz Israel. And I don't think we need to wait for the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah) before starting to settle there. During my entire brief stay in Eretz Israel at the start of the new Christian millennium, I felt as if I was doing my small part to carry out Hashem's wishes.

I chose as my destination in Eretz Israel the medium-sized yishuv (settlement) of Maale Levona. As a result of my sojourn in Eretz Israel, I came to regard the term "yishuv" fondly. In common usage, it is an uninformative derogatory word used to describe any place where Jews live in so-called "Occupied Territory," including everything from tiny trailer settlements like Adi Ad near Shvut Rachel, which is composed of 8 trailer-homes, to small-size cities like Efrat near Jerusalem, which contain splendid stone homes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I chose Maale Levona because it is in the heart of Eretz Israel, near Shilo, the site where the Mishkan (Tabernacle) resided for 369 years. Maale Levona is on top of a beautiful mountain from which you can often see Tel Aviv to the East and, on clear days, Mount Hermon to the North. Maale Levona is only 24 miles due north of Jerusalem, an easy 1/2-hr car or 1-hr (3-stop) bus ride.

When I told my friends in America of my plans to live in Maale Levona, they said that I was crazy, that there was too much fighting near there. Let me tell you that I survived my experience unscathed. The only actual "fighting" I encountered was the residents of the yishuv "fighting" over who would get to invite me for Shabbat meals. In the nine weeks I lived in Eretz Israel, there was not a single Shabbat when I did not have to tell at least one family that I was already "booked" for all the meals. The Shabbat my daughter, a 19-yr-old college student at Columbia University joined me during inter-session, I was in real demand and after accepting three invitations for the three meals of Shabbat, I had to turn down an additional three invitations.

With regard to whether living in Yesha (Yehuda, Shomron, and Gaza) is dangerous, all I can say is that Israel is a land of contradiction. Within the boundaries of Maale Levona, it is very safe, and I routinely saw dozens of five and six year-olds wandering by themselves in the yishuv after dark (I lived next to the yishuv's lovely small zoo). On the other hand, my neighbor three doors down still carries three bullets in him after being shot by Arabs less than two miles from the yishuv gate, and a teacher from the yishuv's ulpana (high school for girls) was killed four weeks before my arrival while traveling home along the main road to Jerusalem.

I did have two "encounters" with the Arabs, one which was quite uplifting, and the other somewhat frightening. The uplifting encounter occurred the day I joined my brother and sister-in-law on Mount Massada for a wonderful ceremony celebrating my niece and nephew's bnei mitzvah (bat and bar mitzvahs). I was returning, rather tired, on the 5:45 PM bus from Jerusalem to Maale Levona. The bus was delayed for one and a half hours at one of the checkpoints, while the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) checked a suspicious object on the road that they feared might be a bomb. While we waited, everyone on the bus sat quietly. After asking two people in my best Hebrew "Dabehr Englit?" (Do you speak English?), the second called over her husband who explained to me in English what was going on.

When the bus finally continued on its way at 8 PM, the bus driver played the song Naale by Yehuda Glantz over the bus's sound system. The words of the song, "We will go up, go up, go up to the Holy Temple," reverberated through the bus as we climbed the mountain to Maale Levona with people clapping and, in one instance, dancing in the aisle. It felt like we had truly defeated the Arabs' aims. Without a shot being fired, Jews demonstrated their right to reside and joyfully go about their lives in all parts of Eretz Israel. Where but in Israel, could one participate in such a moving event simply by sitting on a bus (and doing a little clapping).

My other "encounter" with the Arabs wasn't quite so uplifting. At the time I arrived for my stay in Israel, I had neither touched, nor seen a gun fired, in my entire life. That persisted until my daughter and I were returning from visiting Ma'arat HaMachpela, the burial place in Hebron bought by our forefather Abraham, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried.

Things were going fine until we were 2 - 3 miles from Jerusalem, just south of Bethlehem. There some Arabs youths had positioned themselves on a bluff overlooking the road and were raining stones down on passing cars. The driver of our car ground it to a halt, backed up a bit, and fired his gun into the air to alert the IDF. Our tour guide from Hebron got out of his car and started running up the hill towards the Arabs with his handgun blazing. In response to our phone call and shots, the IDF arrived in less than three minutes, and, according to Arutz Sheva's Internet news-site, arrested four Arabs.

I had many positive and heart-warming experiences during my stay in Eretz Israel. I especially enjoyed the warmth and generosity of the people there. I stayed in a small yishuv called Maale Levona. You should consider visiting them.

You will surely be rewarded for the very tiny risk you take traveling there in the bulletproof Egged busses. Be sure to ask someone to show you the nearby site where the Mishkan likely resided. Yossi Maimon, a licensed tourguide, will be glad to take you there. The Rav of the yishuv, Yair Shachor, specifically instructed me to tell all my friends to visit, and that the yishuv has the facilities to accommodate and would welcome guests.

I would encourage anyone with a love of the Jewish people or the Land of Israel to do what I did. I think you would find it rewarding. Many of you have unique skills that would enable you to make a short-term contibution as volunteers. Even if you go as tourists, you will be welcome. Tourism currently is suffering greatly.

Nowhere else is there such a huge reward for so tiny an investment. Nowhere else can a Jew feel a oneness with his people, a feeling of pride with a lifetime guarantee. Why not? As Rabbi Tarfon (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter Two) said, "The time is short. The task is great". Each of us must ask ourselves why Hashem put us on Earth. Your future and that of our people is now.

The above was written in February, 2001, shortly after my first experience of living in the Shomron. You also may read about my experiences when I returned to Maale Levona in December, 2001, or when I "came home to Israel" (made aliyah) in January, 2003.

I am often asked where Maale Levona is located. If you would like to understand why this part of Israel is so important to me, see my short essay, Jews and the Land of Israel.