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Four Days and Four Nights
by Judy Lash Balint
May 22, 2002

What can visitors to Israel accomplish in four days and four nights? They can inspire and be inspired, if they open themselves to the people and experiences of Israel. If the travelers are flexible and can adjust to spontaneity, so much the better.

The group of twenty people who went back to the US after a whirlwind Shavuot trip to Israel with Rabbi Avi Weiss, fit that bill. Young rabbis in their twenties, to seasoned professionals in their 60s, took a couple of extra days from work to experience present day Israel. Arriving with the usual misgivings about safety, the visitors ended up seeing places and people way off the tourist track, deep in the heart of most people's "no-go" land. They emerged with a clearer understanding of the resolve of their fellow Jews living in the Jewish state, and a deeper sense of how today's troubles fit into the large sweep of Jewish history.

THURSDAY/FRIDAY

Their first morning, a revealing tour of historic eastern Jerusalem, led by Jerusalem reclamation expert Chaim Silberstein, showed the visitors a side of the ancient city too few Jews experience. Chaim emphasized the urgency of reclaiming Jewish neighborhoods before they are overwhelmed either by Israeli governments willing to offer the eastern part of the city to Yasser Arafat, or by demographic facts on the ground. Viewing Jewish developments on the edge of the Mount of Olives cemetery, and at the Shimon HaTzaddik site gave new meaning to the concept of a united Jerusalem.

That afternoon, we confronted the terrible results of the Arab onslaught against the Jews. Almost an entire floor of Hadassah Hospital's Mt. Scopus facility is dedicated to the healing of terror victims. Here lie those long forgotten by the media. Young lives shattered by the terror attacks of several months back. Sharon Mamman, 22, whose handsome face and deep brown eyes still harbor the pain of the Ben Yehudah bombs of last December where ten of his friends were killed.

Doctors cannot remove the poison-soaked nail embedded in Sharon's brain for fear of causing even further damage. So, he lies inert, with no power of speech, and only the use of his right hand and a slight turn of his head to express himself. We sing to him, and let his mother Gila, tell us about his life before the attack. Sharon is one of nine kids--a shining star in his religious mother's firmament, who was destined for a happy life, she says. Today, Gila spends every waking hour at his bedside, trying to devise ways to stimulate her son back to some semblance of a normal life.

In the room across the hall are two young soldiers who miraculously survived a shooting attack in Neve Yaakov just before Purim. Adam, the more talkative of the two, tells us in a matter of fact way, enlivened by his Sydney accent, about what occured that horrible night when he almost died. An ambush took the life of a young policewoman as Adam and his buddy, Amichai tried to kill the terrorist. Adam looks forward to being released in the next few weeks, despite rounds of surgery on his mutilated legs.

Amichai, just 19, is not so optimistic. Sitting in a wheelchair, still wrapped in bandages over a significant part of his lower body, Amichai looks downcast. He answers questions with a unisyllable. We gather around to listen closely to their tales and offer a song to try to soothe their pain. Rabbi Adam Starr pulls out a few letters written by young Hebrew school students from Riverdale and translates them into Hebrew. The only time Amichai perks up a little is when Rav Avi, a Cohen, ask if he may give Amichai a blessing.

In the room next door, Clara Rosenberger, 72, a victim of the Netanya Passover massacre is being treated. Hadassah officials won't let us go in to see her, since she is in such a state of deep depression. Clara, a Holocaust survivor, is paralysed from the waist down with little prospect of recovery.

We move on to a talk by new American immigrant Gila Weiss, a survivor of the Machane Yehuda explosion. Gila, an animated young woman in her late twenties, has made a miraculous recovery. She had gone to buy rugelach at the market that Friday afternoon in April and was waiting for the bus home when the female terrorist blew herself up just yards away. A severe gash on her head and extensive damage to her eyes and face from flying shrapnel destined Gila for several operations. Today, she looks forward to returning to her work as an accountant next week, and picking up the threads of her pre-attack life. Gila's not into the "touchy-feely support group scene" but she has found herself an Israeli psychologist to help her through the trauma.

Finally, we crowd into the room of one of the Chinese workers injured in that same Machane Yehuda attack. He was not as fortunate as Gila. The young man's arm was amputated and he too suffered severe burns over much of his body. Isolated by his inability to speak either English or Hebrew, he walks the halls in his hospital pajamas with a petite Chinese woman by his side.

Rav Avi has an extraordinary way of connecting to each patient. The effect on each one of the wounded of his quiet, empathetic manner and reassuring words is immediately apparent. It's as if he's imparting some of his own strength to them, with a squeeze of the hand, or a deep look into the eyes.

The hospital is quiet, since our visit takes place just before the start of Yom Tov, but we still see a number of Arabs being treated there. The hospital, located just above the Arab village of Izawiya, has been firebombed twice in recent weeks.

The traditional Shavuot all-night learning took place at the Israel Center, where rabbis and educators who were part of the group managed to keep the rest of us awake with well-prepared, innovative and interactive classes. The Center had hourly lecture-style classes going on downstairs, and had advertised a talk by Rav Avi for the 1 a.m hour. Speaking to a packed auditorium, a caffeine-fortified Rabbi Weiss engaged his students in a thought-provoking discussion of relationships in the story of Ruth. We finished off the night with more learning and coffee before setting off for the Kotel around 4:30 a.m

Thousands converged from every part of Jerusalem on the Old City in a re-enactment of the ancient tradition of going up by foot to the Temple on the three festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. We stood together in front of the Wall, as the midnight blue sky turned a paler shade of blue and the swallows started to swoop. Every type of davening could be heard as the plaza continued to fill up with observant Jews of all persuasions.

On the quiet walk home though Zion Gate and down the valley, past the quiet Cinematheque and up through the deserted streets of the German Colony, I began to wonder how the reality of Jerusalem was impacting the group. Almost all of them had spent extended time in Israel before, but not during our current "situation." Many had been asked by family members back in New York not to visit certain places. Would they be able to go back and explain how they felt walking the streets of Jerusalem at night....

SHABBAT
Shabbat morning saw most group members walking to Yakar, the Old Katamon shul renowned for its melodious davening. A few went off to the kotel. In the afternoon, Lee led a tour of the Old City, and linked up with Yossi Baumol of Ateret Cohanim for a view of Old City reclamation.

A spirited havdala on the 12th floor balcony of the hotel overlooking the city walls led into a soulful kumsitz at the windmill just above Yemin Moshe. We sang and told stories until we were enveloped by the chill edge of the night air. Rav Avi's craving for shwarma led us to Ben Yehuda street. There's a return to a semblance of the Saturday night street scene that prevailed during pre-terror attack days. Scores of the young and the restless yeshiva students congregate in Zion Square. Some are enticed to dance with a lone, blissful young Bratslav chasid dressed in white from top to toe. Others hang out on the edges smoking, eying the scene.

Most of the cafes are closing as we arrive, but Cafe Rimon, scene of one of the Ben Yehuda attacks, is more than half full as we walk by.

Batya Walker, a Jerusalem friend of a member of the New York group, invites us up to The Rap, a new center for disaffected kids, located right above the square. The large, Arab style building features a string of freshly painted rooms designated for different activities. There's a workout room; rooms to watch videos; play ping pong and pool; fiddle with computers; drink Coke. Kids between 16-21 are the target group for the privately funded initiative. At the moment, The Rap is open only two nights per week for boys, and one night for girls. All the boys wear kippot--mostly black velvet, with a few sporting the hippie style, large crocheted variety.

Zev Oretz, the energetic American born director, tells us that his goal is to help the boys "get a life." He explains that these are kids who have either been kicked out or have left their religious families. They're just kids who are "a little bit lost," Oretz says. The Rap provides a safe place off the streets, for the kids to regroup and find support to get back to a focused life.

Back out on the street, well past midnight, we see many kids who could be candidates for Oretz's program.

SUNDAY

The final day of the trip was packed with another round of intense experiences. Lee guided us out to Gush Etzion, the group of historic Jewish communities just south of Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Pina Chama--the warm corner--provided by the women of the Gush. The Corner is a manifestation of love and gratitude from the people of the Gush for the soldiers who protect them. A small building houses a place where weary soldiers come for home baked goodies and a warm cup of coffee, all accompanied by a dose of maternal love. The 250 women who run the Pina are volunteers known by the soldiers as "doda" (auntie).

Notes of appreciation from the soldiers line the walls. One reads, "To the aunties and the mothers, We've been on this frontline for only five days and we've already fallen in love with you. Lots and lots of thanks. May you be healthy and happy." Signed, The Golani guys.

Another says: "To the sweet aunties, We love you. Our thanks to all the families who are in this area and are staying put. Continue! Don't give in and don't give up." Signed, The tankists of Yehuda brigade.

We meet Ruthie Gillis there. She's the widow of Dr. Shmuel Gillis, a renowned hematologist who was driving home from work at Hadassah Hospital when he was gunned down by a drive-by terrorist last year. Ruthie, a short woman with dark hair and a shy smile, tells us that her five children, ages 4-14, are doing well. It was her idea to found the Pina in memory of Shmuel, to ensure that something good would come out of his death.

After leaving a significant contribution with Ruthie, we move on to nearby Kfar Etzion. The modern Kfar Etzion was founded in 1934 on land situated on the ancient miuntain route between Jerusalem and Hebron. The area also housed a thriving Jewish community during Talmudic times. Destroyed by rioting Arabs in 1936, the kibbutz was revived in 1943, only to fall again in 1948 with the massacre of dozens of its inhabitants. The land lay in ruins throughout the 19 years of Jordanian occupation until the Six Day War, when the children of those murdered decided to return and rebuild.

Today, Kfar Etzion is a kibbutz maintaining itself with industry and educational institutions. We watch a moving film on the history of the area, before climbing to the rooftop for a panoramic view of the entire Gush Etzion region.

On to Efrat, where many in the group have friends and relatives. Vicki Riskin and her mother jump on the bus to drive us around town. The former New Yorker proudly shows us the schools, medical facilities and attractive housing options in the town of 7,000 inhabitants. We're joined by Eve Harow, member of the Efrat Regional Council, who takes us to a park at the summit of the Zayit Hill. She gives a passionate, speech articulating her feelings about raising her 7 children here. The group peppers her with questions, which she answers clearly and informatively. Back down at the Efrat Pizzeria in one of the original shopping centers, our host, Mordechai, takes a break from rolling pizza dough to tell us a little about his life. "I went from working in the Empire State Building, wearing double breasted suits and having a daily manicure to this," he says, gesturing around his small pizza place. "And I couldn't be happier," he concludes.

After lunch, it's off to Tekoa in the company of Shani Simkowitz, director of the Gush Etzion Foundation. Shani, a dark haired mother of five, has lived in Tekoa for more than twenty years. As we roll along the road traveling east toward Tekoa, she tells us how she deals with the "two minutes of hell" that she drives every day going to and from work. She's referring to the short dash through an Arab village where the large houses line the road. "It's a little irrational," she admits, because the fatal incidents have occurred further on where there are "dead patches." With the houses so close to the road, it's harder for the terrorists to get away. It's the "dead areas" where they can run off through the hills that have posed the greater danger, she concludes.

At the entrance to Tekoa, we're met by Harvey Millstein, a jeep tour guide and former New Yorker. The burly Harvey takes us to Tekoa Gimel, a relatively new area, which overlooks the cave where two Tekoa teens met their grisly deaths almost exactly a year ago.

Harvey tells us how his son, Judah, was supposed to go on the outing where Kobi Mandell and Yisrael Ifshan were beaten to death. But Judah opted to go to baseball practice instead.

In the small library, we're introduced to Kobi's mother, Sherri Mandell. Sherri looks frail, but speaks with strength and conviction. She describes her reaction to Kobi's first yahrzeit a few weeks ago. It was the first time she was able to visit the cave where her son was murdered. But instead of horror, she found a place lit with hundreds of candles. "It was a beautiful place," she says wistfully. "Jews always try to bring more light in the world." Rav Avi struggles to compose himself before addressing words of comfort to Sherri. He speaks of the impact of the words of her husband Seth, at the Washington rally for Israel, but Avi is incensed that Seth's personal message is relegated to the end of the program, after the political speeches, when only a few thousand people remain. "A real rally is when the people talk to the politicians, not the other way around," he offers.

From Tekoa, we travel back to the Gush junction for an opportunity to combine some last minute shopping with an opportunity to support the people of Gush Etzion. The Judaica Center offers a wide array of goods, many made by local artists and artisans, at reasonable prices. Our group drops a significant amount of money into the local economy with their purchases.

One last stop remains in our day. Even though it wasn't planned, we find ourselves drawn to Hebron, just a few miles down the road. All my local contacts there are unavailable, so we head for the Avraham Avinu section to see who we'll find. I'd been told that Rav Avi's son-in-law, Michael Fischberger, had donated a room in his honor somewhere in the complex. In the office, we determine that the only person with the key to the donated exercise room has given birth that day. So, outside in the courtyard, amongst a gaggle of toddlers happily playing in the sun, we discover that Miriam Levinger is home. She invites us in to her living room, where the original modern-day Hebron settler tells us of her pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish community. Some of her grandchildren live in Hebron, and she explains that for her, seeing the next generations following in her footsteps, fulfilling her ideals, is the most important thing. Miriam is confident about the future of Hebron because of the commitment of the youth to carry on.

Since the Maarat HaMachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs) is "closed for renovations," we daven mincha at the historic Avraham Avinu shul. As we turn to head for the bus, we're beckoned into the recreation room across the courtyard. There, a rambunctious group of a dozen 8-11 year old girls is rehearsing for an Israeli folk dance performance. We're the perfect audience. Their teacher, Ruti Tabachnik, a 32 year veteran of neighboring Kiryat Arba, is their patient teacher. To the delight of the girls, Rav Avi and a few of the others join in the dancing. We're only allowed to leave after we take a group photo with the girls.

At the end of the day, the travelers head off to the airport to resume their New York lives. They'll be back.



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