Painless History Lessons

hero image
Pile of Books
19 Jul 2007

History is one of those subjects students distaste—dry, monotonous, meaningless dates and places, just the thing that makes school so tedious.

Yet recently the students of the Sussia Ecological High School Yeshiva were fascinated, as were their teachers, by living history lessons related by none other than their own grandparents.

The idea started last year when, while learning about the Ma’apilim, (the illegal immigrants who snuck into Eretz Yisrael during the British Mandate), one of the students cried out, “My grandfather came to Israel that way.” Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noam Peleg, realized that all his youngsters were actually connected to a rich lode of modern Jewish history right in their families. In a bold and not inexpensive move, the Yeshiva invited all 80 of the students’ grandparents to share some of their early experiences in Israel and abroad at an all day get-together in a hotel. The grandparents either wrote out their personal tales or related them in front of smaller groups of students and other grandparents.

Sussia is a settlement of 200 families in the Southern Hebron Hills, part of a block of Jewish villages that dot the barren countryside where Arab farmers still farm their plots by hand, as their forefathers (and ours) did centuries ago. It boasts an ancient 3rd century synagogue which has been almost completely renovated, and an original mosaic floor that takes your breath away. The setting is ideal for an ecological Yeshiva High School which combines traditional religious and secular studies with an increased emphasis on the Land of Israel studies. “For kids who can’t sit still, this is the right educational framework,” says Doron SarAvi, one of the tour guides and teachers. “Every Friday we take them on long and arduous hikes; they learn Eretz Yisrael by walking through it.”

This year the meeting between 9th to l2th grade students and their grandparents took place at the Ramat Rachel Hotel on the outskirts of Jerusalem. After lunch the two generations shared an educational tour of the archaeological excavations on the site, including what was probably the summer palace of kings from the First Temple Period. More pertinent to the grandparents, Ramat Rachel was a famous battlefield during the l948 War and changed hands between Jewish and Arab forces no less than seven times. Some of the grandfathers on the tour knew the site intimately. They themselves had fought in some of those battles. Aminadav Ben Shachar, for example, the grandfather of a 9th grade student, Achiah, told his story: “I was in one of those fierce battles on this hill. Both the Arabs and the Jews wanted to gain this foothold which held control of the southern approach to Jerusalem.”

After a pause he continued with another experience. “Following my placement in Ramat Rachel, I was made the commander of a unit where I knew none of the soldiers. By mistake we wandered into an Arab held neighborhood, what is today Armon HaNatziv. We found protection in the British headquarters, which is still called Government House. Outside, the building was soon surrounded by Arab mobs, who were demanding that we be handed over to them.

“The British officers explained that they couldn’t keep us there. They offered to send us to Silwan, where Jewish captives were being rounded up. We thought we were in more danger in Silwan than here, and refused to budge. So they took us to the place were the remnants of the fighters from the Old City and from Gush Etzion were held in captivity. From there we were sent to a prison in Amman over night. We knew that the next day we’d be transferred to a permanent prisoners’ camp in the desert. In the middle of the night, outside our cells somebody started whistling the Palmach hymn, over and over again. ‘Who’s there?’ I whispered. The reply from over the wall was ‘Electricians from Naaraim’. I knew that Naaraim had been overrun by the Arabs, but didn’t know anyone was left alive there. I realized then that they wanted us to let the Red Cross know that there were Jewish prisoners interned in Amman. Once we were settled in the Jordanian desert, representatives of the Red Cross came to visit us and we reported these captives. That’s how the families of the prisoners from Naaraim found out that they were alive at all. Now I know,” declares Ben Shachar, “why I was in that unit that got lost; why we were captured and sent off together with the soldiers from Gush Etzion and the Jewish Quarter—just so the families of those electricians wouldn’t remain in the dark about their loved ones.”

Sitting across the room from Ben Shachar was a white haired gentleman, who could barely contain his excitement. “I was in the Jordanian prison camp in the desert too,” he explained. “Yes,” cried Ben Shachar looking at him over his glasses, “of course I remember you.” Then Avraham Greenbaum, the grandfather of Nahum, read from a batch of yellow pages what he had prepared. “I’m not a good talker, so I’m going to read my story. We heard that the State had been declared while we were in captivity. I was a member of the young Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. We fought as long as we had weapons, and then surrendered. As they took us away I saw the houses and all our workshops going up in flames. It was a bitter experience. I had been in B’nei Akiva since the age of ten. My madrich was the leading influence in my life. Because of him I came to Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. We worked our heads off, turning the place into a settlement. Our conditions there were terrible. We didn’t have enough water; the ground really wasn’t suited for agriculture, but we were euphoric because we were realizing the Zionist dream.” His grandson looked on enthralled. He too was a member of B’nei Akiva, and maybe he was thinking, “When will I build a kibbutz like my forefathers?”

Shlomo Klein, the grandfather of another student named Achiah, spoke next. By chance he too had fought at Ramat Rachel. “After the Holocaust my brother and I were the only ones left of our large family. An uncle who lived in New York sent us a ticket to the U.S., but I decided to come to Palestine, despite the precarious conditions here. Jewish soldiers from the Jewish Brigade influenced me. I waited two years to leave Europe. We came by ship and as soon as we arrived in the newly declared State, we were sent to Tel HaShomer to train as soldiers. After a month we were already sent to the front lines. We didn’t even know Hebrew. We didn’t know how to fight, but we helped protect the young State of Israel.”

Aminadav Ben Shachar broke in, “I had soldiers like that. One dark night we were in our bunkers when we saw a figure rise up in front of us. ‘Shu Ha-dah’, (Who’s there?) the figure called out in Arabic. ‘Vus sogt er’? (What’s he saying? In Yiddish) whispered the new soldier next to me. ‘Finish him off!’ I commanded, telling him to shoot. ‘Vus sogtste?’ (What are you saying? In Yiddish). That was the level of our new soldiers who had all of a month’s training,” concluded Ben Shachar.

Many of the participants were Holocaust survivors, and spoke of their experiences in the camps. Some had come from North Africa or Asia. One woman arrived from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet. “We hid our children in cartons, because in Aden there had been riots,” she said. Yosef Ben Aaron, the grandfather of Shilo, explained why that was done: “Not too many know that after the State was proclaimed, riots against the Jews broke out all over the Mid-East. The first place it happened was in Aden, a British Protectorate, exactly two days after the UN proclamation (Nov. 29, l947). Seventy eight Jews were killed, many were wounded, and most of the Jewish shops and houses were burnt down. A subsequent investigation by the British government of that event revealed that the British police officers on duty did nothing to stop the violence.”

Ben Aaron believes that there was a reason for their indifference. These “bobbies” had served in Palestine and had seen some of their buddies hurt by Jewish extremists, and so felt no sympathy for the Jews. “That was the general situation with the British police, even here in Palestine,” declared Yehoshua Rudman, the grandfather of HarEl. “British policemen were actively involved in the explosion at the Palestine Post and at Ben Yehuda where so many people were killed. The effects of that explosion caused windows to shatter even as far away as Geulah where I lived at the time. It was British trucks which brought the explosions inside the Jewish Agency compound where another terrible terrorist attack took place,” he declared bitterly. The students all nodded in agreement. They had learned that chapter in history only the week before.

Rudman, who grew up in Israel, and whose wife is even a 7th generation Jerusalemite, remembers that on Seder night of l947, all the leaders of the Yishuv, people like Golda Meir, Ben Gurion, Ben Zvi, etc. all gathered in protest of British policy in the Jewish Agency complex and declared a general fast. “Of course they didn’t really fast,” continues Redman. After all Chief Rabbi Herzog lived right next door and he wouldn’t let a Jew fast on Seder night. The good rabbi came in through a back door, conducted a traditional seder for the nation’s leaders, made sure they ate at least some matza and marror, and then they continued their fast.”

Another “sabra” (native Israeli), Shuka Melet, described his childhood in Yokenam where he continues to live with his three generational family. “During the War for Independence, even children like me were enlisted in building barriers around our moshav. We were in danger of being overrun by Iraqi forces from the north. I had an older brother who lied about his age to get into the Palmach. He was sent to Revivim in the Negev where for weeks they were under siege from Egyptian forces. Once a plane piloted by Ezer Weizman brought in supplies and took out mail from Revivim. That’s how I received a letter from my brother on the eve of my Bar Mitzva. The letter (parts of which Shuka read out to the audience) was a real Zionist sermon—and this from a youngster of only 17. He wrote that he was fine and we shouldn’t worry about him. He wrote his conviction that we would one day be a great nation in control of our destiny, and that we had a great responsibility to devote our lives to the welfare of our land. Then he came to the purpose of his letter to me. He suggested that I forego the party they were planning for my Bar Mitzva and instead donate the proceeds for the “general cause”. As it was,” continues Shuka, talking matter-of-factly, which is so typical of sabras, “the main battle for control of the Emek broke out on the day of my Bar Mitzva so I had no choice. One week later we were informed that my brother was killed in battle.”

The unique program that characterizes the Ecological Yeshiva High Schools (there are already three of them in Israel) is their emphasis on history, archaeology, nature, and all the other sciences included in Eretz Yisrael studies. In addition to the weekly outings, the youngsters receive intensive botanical and zoological tours, and wherever possible their educators link the traditional sources, whether from the Bible or the Talmud, with the Land as they learn to know and to love it. For the last three years each graduating class has put out a well documented and attractive book on one such aspect of Jewish tradition and ecology. As noted, youngsters seem to love the Yeshiva’s approach and take to the integrated studies enthusiastically. According to Rosh Yeshiva Noam Perl, they also absorb more material and in a more personalized manner from their highly motivated and devoted educators.

One last story that was related, by a quiet and demur elderly lady, was perhaps the most moving. Mrs. Esther Levavi, the grandmother of Yosie, explained that she too was a Holocaust survivor. All her family perished and she remained completely alone after the War. Esther recalls many miracles which allowed her to survive. After the war she came on Aliyah and joined a settlement. There she married another Holocaust survivor. Today she still lives in Masuot Yitzhak near Kiryat Melachi and is blessed with a large family. She has four married children, 31 grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren (“so far”) and most of them live in the same Moshav Shitufi (cooperative farming village). Only one daughter with her ll children live in a nearby village. When she walks down the streets of Masuot from all sides she’s greeted, “Hello Savta” “How are you Savta” “What’s new Savta”, and her heart is full. One of the group asked her if she remembers all her offspring’s names, and she admitted, “If I forget, I have a large board on my wall divided by four different colors (for the names of her children and their children); so if I forget I look it up on the board.” Everyone laughed, and then in a serious view Esther continued: “Every Friday night when I light candles I give blessings to G-d for three things: that he allowed me to survive the Shoah; that we have our own State and that I’m blessed with a wonderful family.”

This message typifies the grandparents who attended this unique gathering where members of the older generation told their offspring snippets of modern history in which they themselves participated. The grandparents obviously enjoyed retelling their stories (and in certain dramatic cases were happy to meet up with colleagues they hadn’t seen in half a century). The grandchildren learned important history lessons told at first hand, but more important, they found out new things about their forefathers, and perhaps got to appreciate them more. The educators made good use of “material” easily at hand which was both authentic and often most inspiring and uplifting. It’s what they call today, a real win-win situation, and it’s very likely to become an annual tradition for the Sussia Ecological Yeshiva High School from now on.

Leah Abramowitz is a geriatric social worker who is the coordinator of the Geriatric Institute of Shaare Zedek Hospital and Melabev. She is a veteran freelance writer and active in community programs.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.