My Return to Yesha in 2002

Mark Schoenberg

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Many people have read, and hopefully enjoyed, the account of my initial visit to Maale Levona, a medium-sized yishuv in the heart of Yesha.

When I returned to Maale Levona, in the center of Shomron, in December 2001, the "situation", as the Israelis like to call it, was only slightly worse than when I had left ten months previously. There were fewer cars on the road, fewer tourists, and the economy had taken a dive, as it had slightly in the US. This was still the state of affairs when I returned briefly to the States in early February, 2002 to see my mother, pay my US taxes, and attend the Bar Mitzvah of my nephew Eitan. Sadly, during the brief time I was in the States, things deteriorated greatly.

In mid-February, the Arabs killed three teenagers in a pizza parlor in Karnei Shomron, not far from where friends of mine from Silver Spring were building a house. The same day I flew back to Israel in early March, the Arabs gunned down and killed ten people at the checkpoint, ten minutes from my house, which separates Maale Levona from Ramalla. Because Maale Levona has only 500 people, and Ofra has several thousand, this massacre usually has been described in press reports as near Ofra, even though it occurred about equidistant between the two yishuvim (settlements).

Not more than a week after I got back to Maale Levona, a group of American pastors came to Maale Levona to plant olive trees with us. While they were here, the Arabs blew up their hotel in Ariel. You may not even have heard about that, because no one except the bomber was killed. But a lot of people were wounded, and one of the pastors who hadn't come to Maale Levona and stayed behind in the hotel, lost an eye.

The next motzei Shabbat, I was awakened at 3 AM by my frightened daughter who had read over the Internet that the Arabs had thrown a hand grenade and fired shots at the wedding celebration of someone from Maale Levona who was partying in Netanya, killing two people. Baruch Hashem, I had not been there, but I found out that the 9-month-old child from South Africa who was killed in the attack was a relative and guest of my neighbor, Mr Ozeri, whose simcha it indeed had been. Since the whole of Maale Levona is but a single circle, with a few smaller half-circles intersecting its perimeter, telling you that Mr. Ozeri lives just around the corner from me doesn't tell you much. But it is about a 2-minute walk. Whenever my "Po, b'vakashah!" to the bus driver wasn't loud enough (I haven't yet mastered the Israeli screech "Regah!"), I got dropped off right in front of Mr Ozeri's house and walked home.

The difficult times in 2002 were not without their moments of humor. We were having some trouble getting a minyan for the early minyan the morning after the giant "Show Strength" demonstration in Tel Aviv. While we were waiting for any latecomers to possibly show, I looked out the window and saw someone, his head covered with a talit (prayer shawl), carrying a rifle. The people in the Beit Knesset stared at me as if I was crazy when I cracked up laughing because the image popped into my head of the man with the rifle going to one of the students of the local yeshiva, pointing the rifle at him, and saying "Get out of bed now for minyan, or else!"

The two most enjoyable experiences I had during my stay in Maale Levona in 2002 involved Pesach and Yom Yerushalayim.

The thing I enjoyed most about Pesach was the opportunity to meet large numbers of wonderful people from all over the world. My daughter, who should have been at university in NY, joined me and we went to Kibbutz HaGoshrim, near Kiryat Shemona, for the holiday. We were among the first English speakers to arrive and I got to see all those yeshiva tuition dollars at work as my daughter did an excellent job of being my translator. By the time she left during Chol HaMoed to return to school, more English speakers had arrived and I had gotten more adventurous about trying out my limited Hebrew. Before the end of the holiday, I had met, and gotten to know a little, wonderful people from South Africa, Australia, England, New York, Petach Tikva, Herzelia, and Har Nof. Getting to know so many different types of people, each of whom had come to HaGoshrim to celebrate Pesach with fellow Jews despite warnings of imminent terrorist activity, was indeed a pleasure.

Even more inspiring than my Pesach experience, was participating in the rikud-degalim (dancing flags) celebration on Yom Yerushalayim. This was one of the most exciting and moving experiences of my entire life. Yom Yerushalayim, occurs on the 28th day of the Jewish month of Iyar and celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem and the return of the western wall of the Second Temple (the Kotel HaMaaravi) to Jewish sovereignty after almost 2000 years of non-Jewish rule.

A number of years ago, Chaim Bar-Lev (of the infamous Bar-Lev line) was minister of police. Shortly before Yom Yerushalayim, he asked that people not come to Jerusalem in hordes; and if they did come, they should not go through the streets of the Old City waving Israeli flags as that would, Heaven forbid, irritate the Arab population. Rav Yehuda Chazzanni of Jerusalem, z"l, organized a major aliya to Jerusalem, and supplied everyone with not one, but two flags. The participants took the two Israeli flags and defiantly waved them as they marched through the Moslem Quarter of the Old City to the holy Kotel HaMaaravi. That was the first of the big celebrations on Yom Yerushalayim, and the event has been gaining momentum ever since. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the statement, but it was announced that this year's celebration was the largest ever.

As we were dancing toward the Kotel, starting from Kikar Zion in central Jerusalem, a friend I was with noticed that as we were apparently heading towards Shaar Yaffo, there was a larger group heading to the left of the Old City. She thought that the plan was to march not only directly to the Kotel, but also to form a ring around the whole city. It turned out she was half right. What we did, as we followed the larger crowd, was to dance to Shaar Shechem, one-quarter of the way around the Old City from where we were, and then we proceeded, dancing, through Shaar Shechem, through the Moslem Quarter, and on to the Kotel.

Despite the fact that I didn't see a single Israeli or International news agency cover the event, it was quite exciting to see dozens of Israelis dance, directly facing the few Arabs that were watching, while singing "Am Yisroel Chai" (The People of Israel Live!). I say dozens, only because that is one field of view. It was impossible to estimate the total number of people participating in the dance because the line stretched for as long as I could see, even on Jaffa Street where the view is fairly straight. I am not sure the Arabs saw the dancing the same way I did, but I saw more joy and determination in the Jews' dancing than hatred, which is the only emotion the Arabs seem to feel toward the Jews.

When finally we got to the Kotel Plaza, the ceremony continued to be moving. Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Ohlmert's speech was short and to the point, as his usually are, and singer Chaim Dovid was, well, ... Chaim Dovid. I have always enjoyed Chaim Dovid's brand of very dance-able Shlomo Carlbach-like nigunim (melodies), and erev Yom Yerushalayim was no exception. Mincha at the Kotel was particularly meaningful. Unfortunately, the schedule for busses back to Maale Levona is such that it was not possible to stay for the festive Maariv service. As I was leaving early, but well after the start of the ceremony, hundreds of people were still arriving. Celebrating Yom Yerushalayim by attending the rikud-degalim was one of the most moving experiences of my life, one that I urge anyone who can to participate in it in the future.

I only hope and pray that Hashem's mercy will allow all of us to see the continued rebuilding of Zion for the first time in 2000 years. Heaven knows we certainly don't deserve it on our own z'chut (merit). We have always been, and continue to be, an Am koshei oref, a "stiff-necked" people. And Sinat Chinam (groundless hatred), which caused the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, is still rampant. But perhaps Hashem's infinite mercy and compassion will nonetheless bring his beloved people back to his beloved land.

While one of the al chaits (sins) we ask forgiveness for on Yom Kippur is Sinat Chinam, another is Timhon Levav (misplaced compassion). Many Jews seem willing to do anything to avoid going to war. When terrorism in Lebanon caused the Israelis to withdraw from there, terrorism in Yehuda and Shomron grew much worse. I only shudder to think what will happen to Jews living anywhere the Arabs consider theirs, if terror causes the Israeli government to decide to withdraw from Yehuda and Shomron.

But perhaps Hashem, who gave us a state in 1948, saved us from destruction and returned us to the holy places in 1967, and rescued the Soviet Jews in the 1990s, will continue to have mercy upon us and give us the wisdom to do what is called for.

The above was written in June, 2002, shortly after my second experience of living in the Shomron.

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.