Sunday, May 28, 2000

Heroes from the North

Heroes from the North
May 28, 2000

On Wednesday night, as we were discussing plans for the upcoming Shabbat, the phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line asked if we would like to spend the week-end in Kiryat Shemona, on the northern border of Israel.

My wife lived and worked in Kiryat Shemona almost 25 years ago. In spite of the fact that we have good friends there, we hadn't visited Kiryat Shemona is almost 20 years. They always came down here to see us, but we never managed to find a way to make the trip north.  Being familiar with the pressures of a city under siege, we decided to take the plunge. We didn't take the whole family with us - some of the kids stayed in the Hebron area with friends. But three of them made the trip with us, from Hebron to Kiryat Shemona.

We weren't alone. Two full buses, including close to 100 students from the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva high school, led by Hebron resident Rabbi Avinoam Horowitz, and several other Hebron families came along. We boarded the buses at 11:00 and arrived at our destination at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Don't think it was a boring ride. It wasn't. The view, through the Judean Desert, through the date-studded tree streets of Jericho, climaxes after about two and a half hours. All of a sudden the lush green view is almost swept aside by the magnificence of the Golan Heights, from the right-hand windows of the bus. This stark-looking mountain range, stretching for kilometer after kilometer, is the security line bordering Israel with Syria. It is unimaginable that such a strategic land area should be transferred to our archenemy, Syria. Last week, I spoke to one of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's top aides about PR work in the US. He said to me, in these words, "The problem isn't with the United States. I was there, in Congress. When I started speaking to Congressmen and women from the western United States about the Golan Heights they stopped me in mid-sentence. 'You don't have to tell us - we were there. And anyone who has ever been there understands why the Golan must remain under Israeli control.' The problem isn't there - it's here with us, in Israel."

And on the other side of the bus, beneath the Golan  Heights, is the Kinneret - the Sea of Galilee. What a breathtaking site - on one side the Golan, and on the other side, the Kinneret.

The ride continues, and the road signs show that Kiryat Shemona is getting closer and closer. To the west, the Hills of Naftali. To the East, the Hula Valley. Green, and green, and more green.  What makes the scenery more amazing is the fact that less than 100 years ago the entire area was swampland.  Only after the sacrifices of hundreds of people who perished due to malaria and other diseases, were the swamps dried and the land made arable.

Hebron-Kiryat Arba were not the only visitors in Kiryat Shemona. According to the organizers, over 2,000 people arrived from different parts of Israel to give encouragement to this border city. On Shabbat evening visitors scattered around, praying in one of the 30 or so synagogues in the city. Saturday afternoon, after lunch, the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva high school students, together with their dean, Rav Avinoam Horowitz, visited hundreds of Kiryat Shemona residents, bringing with them a special gift of Hebron wine produced in Kiryat Arba, and proclaimed together with them a special "l'chaim" - "to life" blessing.

On Saturday night the visitors, together with Kiryat Shemona residents, celebrated at a large outdoor gathering in "Kikar Tzahal" - the "Army Square."  A festive atmosphere quickly developed, with yeshiva students dancing side by side with Kiryat Shemona's heroic population. Musical entertainment was supplemented with short speeches by Kiryat Shemona Mayor Haim Barbevai, the city's Chief Rabbi Rav Tzefania Drori, and special guest Rabbi Nir ben Artzi. It was a wonderful couple of hours, leaving everyone feeling the unity of various segments of the Israeli populace, joining together, giving support one to the other.

Many times in the past few years we have organized special Hebron events, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the city of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Countless times I've overheard guests speaking amongst themselves saying, "I came here to give them support, but feel that I am being strengthened more than I am giving them strength."  That is exactly the way I felt after a day in Kiryat Shemona.  These people have lived with, and still live with the threat of an instantaneous missile attack, with Ketusha flying into their homes from Lebanon, only a few miles away. Every time you hear a booming sound, (something we live with constantly in Hebron), everyone looks at each other, asking, "what was that?" A Ketusha attack is translated into the reality of living in tiny bomb shelters, men, women and children of different families, cramped together, perhaps even for a few days. Leaving the bomb shelter may seem the "brave thing to do" but it also means putting your life in jeopardy. Stories of Kiryat Shemona residents wounded or killed in Ketusha attacks are far from being pleasant.

Following the withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon, there is no longer a 'buffer zone' between Israel and the Lebanese-Hizbullah terrorists. Now Kiryat Shemona is the buffer zone between the terrorists and the rest of the country. It is not an easy fact to live with.

But, live with it they do, and it was a pleasure to watch all the children running and playing as do children all over the world. But these children are definitely special because they are living the kind of existence most of us cannot even imagine, no less try to duplicate.  When the Israeli media describes of residents of northern Israel, the residents of Kibbutz Manara and Misgav Am, Moshav Margaliot, the cities of Metullah and Kiryat Shemona, as the heros of Israel they are not exaggerating.  May they be an example to us all.

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