Sunday, May 15, 2005

A Tale of Three Families

A Tale of Three Families
May 15, 2005

I left for Gush Katif with my wife and three of our children just after eight in the morning. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the Kissufim junction.
From David Wilder
Last year, as you may recall, following Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzma'ut), I wrote an article called "The Traffic Jam that Saved Eretz Yisrael". Tens and hundreds of thousands of people from around Israel arriving at Gush Katif to show support for a strong, continued Israeli presence in this area never made it, due to the huge traffic jam that clogged the roads leading into the Gush.

This year, the organizers, having learned from the past, set up huge parking lots just outside Gush Katif and shuttled people in and out of the Gush on buses. That's the way it was when over 120,000 people visited Gush Katif a few weeks ago, during the Passover holidays, and so it was yesterday, when over 80,000 Jews again arrived at Gush Katif.

I left for Gush Katif with my wife and three of our children just after eight in the morning. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the Kissufim junction. I was fortunate to be able to get my car through, and not have to leave it at the parking lot, and we drove on in. We made a brief coffee stop and then began the day's adventures. I told my wife that we were going to visit some places she'd never seen before, and we were off.

Our first station was 'dream village.' That's right. Shirat HaYam is the kind of place everyone dreams about, but few are able to actualize. There are sixteen lucky families who have had the good fortune to live the life you've dreamt about. Located in the heart of Gush Katif, across from N'vei Dekalim, the Song of the Sea, as the name is translated in English, borders the Israeli coast. Shirat HaYam's palaces sit only meters from the Mediterranean Sea.

We visited with Merav Cohen, married to Itamar, with three young children (and a dog). Ora (my wife) and I know Merav since she was about a year old. She and our oldest daughter Bat-tzion grew up together; for most of their childhood they were inseparable.

Merav and Itamar have been living in their Shirat HaYam palace for a few years now. Merav takes care of the kids. Itamar can't sit still. When we were at their home, he was off at work, on Independence Day. No, Itamar wasn't sitting in an office across from his computer. Rather, he was on a roof, a few houses away. Building. Building a new house.

What? Less than three months from 'expulsion'?! Who's he building a house for? Arabs!?

No. Itamar was hired to build a house for a family at Shirat HaYam, and that's exactly what he's doing. "'Disengagement?' What's that?"

I visited Merav a couple of months ago, and then found her bright and cheery. I sort of wondered how she'd be now. Any doubts I might have had were quickly erased. Smiling and as happy as ever, Merav expressed no fears or apprehension. "We are here ? this is our home. We are here to stay."

Anyone looking at Shirat HaYam's homes from the outside, well, they might ask me where they are hiding the 'palaces' I speak of. But believe me, each and every one of the caravan homes is a real, true palace. And the life, it is that of a king. Being able to look from the window at the waves of the Mediterranean rolling against the shore, or stepping outside, walking through the sand, and drenching yourself in the purifying waters of Israel's western coast ? it is nothing less than a dream.

Merav was very happy to see us and as we left, we promised to come back and visit ? maybe for a short vacation this summer, or during the fall Succot holidays in another half a year.

We left the magic of Shirat HaYam and drove to the southern-most community in the Gush ? Morag.

Driving the road to Morag, well, you wonder if you've hit the end of the world, or maybe you missed a turn somewhere. The sides of the road are sand ? and a fence. Not too far away, visible from the road, is Rafiach, not known for it's warm relationship with Israel or Israelis. The road to Morag has been shot at, bombed with mortars and Kassam missiles, and mined. Frequently, Israeli security forces discover bombs on the road. Sometimes they only find them as they explode.

The entrance to Morag dispels any and all qualms. The colorful sign, surrounded by grass and trees, is sight for sore eyes. All of a sudden, you feel like you've come in from the cold ? or perhaps in Morag's case, you've come in from the heat. It doesn't get too cold at Morag.

We drove around some of the neighborhoods and saw dozens of hothouses, which provide employment for many of the community's forty families. Then, we stopped to ask directions. Our daughter Ophira knows one of Morag's residents, and we decided to stop and say hello.

Rabbi Hagai Cohen and his wife Tirza have, if I remember correctly, nine children. A few years ago, while driving up the hill to his home, then in Eli in the Shomron, Rabbi Hagai's car was shot at and he was hit. Very critically wounded, he spent over a year recovering from his injuries. Last summer, when visiting Gush Katif, the rabbi talked to his wife about visiting a neighborhood 'all the way out.'

"No, that sounds too dangerous for me," was her response. This past winter, during the Hanukkah vacation, the Cohens moved from Eli to Morag.

Munching on homemade cookies, Rabbi Hagai, a school rabbi in Jerusalem, told us how he travels back and forth between Morag and Jerusalem a few times a week. "Next year, I won't have to make the trip; I'll be teaching here in Morag and in Gush Katif," he explained.

"You have to understand. When families first arrived here in 1983, they weren't super idealistic religious Jews. They were simple, traditional people, who came here to make a living with their agricultural talents. They transformed a tract of desert into a sea of blossoms."

How do they feel now, as D-Day approaches?

"You know, if they'd been offered substantial funds seven, eight, ten years ago, in return for their departure, they would have left. But now, after five years of war, missiles, mortars, they are adamantly opposed to abandoning their homes. And you know, it's not easy. We are new here and, of course, wouldn't receive damages following an expulsion, G-d forbid. But these people, they don't know what will be with them 'the day after'. They have many children, a job, a house, a hothouse ? and all of a sudden ? they ask, 'How will we feed our children? Where will we find work?' One man works for the Gush Katif municipality, and he knows that his employer may cease to exist. So what will he do? The temptation to sign on the dotted line, take the money and run - it's very strong. But these people have all resisted. None are giving in. Not a one."

We bade farewell to our newly-found friends, wishing them a happy Independence Day holiday, and continued on our way. We drove all the way back to the other side of Gush Katif, to our home away from home, Kfar Darom.

Independence Day was a very special day for this community, today closing in on 100 families. Kfar Darom originated in 1946 and fell during the War of Independence. It was reestablished in 1989.

Over the years of warfare, mortars and missiles were aimed directly at Kfar Darom. Five of its residents were killed by Arab terror. An IDF soldier was killed by a direct mortar strike. Others were critically wounded, including Mrs. Hannah Barat, a thirty-nine year old mother of eight, who was struck by a terrorist-fired bullet and paralyzed from the waist down. She became pregnant and gave birth to her eighth child after sustaining her injuries.

On Independence Day, thousands filled Kfar Darom, celebrating the construction of their new synagogue, built in memory of the five victims of Arab terror. A new Torah scroll was also dedicated. A festive parade, starting at a huge stone monument at the site of a bus blast that left two dead and many wounded (including the three Cohen children, who had their legs blown off), made its way into the community and to the beautiful new synagogue. The ceremony continued for several hours, with participants from all over Israel.

Following the celebrations, we made our way to our friends, Tali and Noam Sudri, whom we've known for many years. There, we found other family members visiting them, from as far away as the Golan and Jerusalem. Sitting at a decorated table, enjoying a holiday meal, the Sudris and their children showed no anxiety or fear: "The children ? no they're not concerned. They're sure ? we're here to stay." Speaking during the meal, Noam talked about the verse in Psalms (126:1), "A Song of Ascents. When the L-RD brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers."

You might expect, during an Independence Day on a date closing in on 'expulsion', an event proving just how independent we are not, people might be so bitter that they would refuse to celebrate, cursing, rather than blessing the state within which they live. But not the Sudris, and not the other hundreds of people who live in Kfar Darom. It was a holiday, the dedication of the first permanent synagogue ever built there, a synagogue waiting to be built since 1946. Just as others in Gush Katif and the northern Shomron, they continue to build, continue to look forward, continue their lives, optimistic and happy, happy to be fulfilling the mitzvah, the positive precept, of settling the land.

There is a special sanctity in Gush Katif. The fragrances of salt-water and the perfume of flowers fill the air, and the unbelievably vast faith of these 9,000 families is so tangibly abundant, that it is, in my opinion, infinitely larger than the sea so near to them. This is the tale of three families, three who are thousands, three who represent the entirety ? from Morag, to Shirat HaYam, to Kfar Darom. These are true Israelis, true believers, true patriots. These people, they are the future of our people in our Land, in all our Land. 

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