A Family’s Last Shabbat in Gush Katif

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26 Aug 2005

Through a Father’s Eyes

I’m sitting in my son’s house in Neve Dekalim. It is Erev Shabbat, perhaps the last “normal” Shabbat in this very cozy Yishuv of 750 families, the ‘capital’ of Gush Katif. Outside, the wind is kicking around the sand, as if it has nothing else to do, perhaps in despair. In front of the house, a couple of children of the Bnei Menashe community are figuring out how to climb into a tree house overlooking this mild, back street on the edges of this amazing settlement.

Strewed over the table at which I am sitting in this small but very inviting home (with the aroma of the cholent signaling the approach of Shabbat) are papers distributed over the last few weeks by this and that source. They call on the residents to stand firm in their resolve:

“In the next three weeks be sure to stock up with the following supplies…”

“Thank you for your sterling efforts to rouse the spirits of Israel during these hard times…”

“Our aim is to strengthen Emunah in Hakadosh Baruch Hu…”

Among the various instructions, is found a clue as to what awaits these unbelievable people, staunch in their faith in Hashem, their love for Eretz Yisrael, and overall concern for Am Yisrael. For example: “Photograph the police so that your grandchildren will know who threw them out of their homes!”

My wife and I traveled to Gush Katif to join our son, Avi, his wife Shira, and their daughter Emunah, together with our married daughter Michal’s family – and to meet up again with our 17-year old daughter Dina who had already spent several days in Neve Dekalim with hundreds of other youth. The goal: to show our identification with the cause, with an eye to helping out wherever possible. In all, we were told, some 5000 people swelled the ranks of the 8000 residents of the Gush. Who knows how they all got in?!

We had a Ishur, permission to spend Shabbat with our children. (Just think!) Consequently, we passed through the three check posts on the way with little trouble. Suddenly, to our right Gaza loomed up, the hundreds of squalid buildings on the horizon reminding us of the bigger picture and to whom all of this abandoned area was to be transferred. I shuddered. Across the bridge into the Gush an Israeli tank kicked up dust as if to offer up a last few moments of darkness to confuse the incoming visitors.

We make it first to Shirat Hayam where my niece’s son (to be quoted in the Jerusalem Post as ‘lanky 16-year old Ilan’) picks up the care package sent by his grandmother in Jerusalem. “I’ve been volunteering in the vegetable packing,” he says, with a bravado look on his straggly face, representative of the scores of kids roaming around in this barb-wired haven on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The girl-soldier at the gate seems not to notice as she tirelessly lets in the incoming cars, as if the Queen of England invited everyone to a Gala Ball.

Finally, we enter the gates of Neve Dekalim. Who could believe that the Gush is about to undergo a siege? People are going about their business, to and fro; cars are weaving in and out to avoid the throngs. But there were those who went in the other direction. For only that morning, Avi’s neighbors left in the early light, without even the whisper of farewell. Only a half-hour later, the first squatter settled in the abandoned house. He recognized me when we arrived: “Menachem!” he exclaimed, “Do you remember that I was one of the founders of the army volunteer program Sar’el? Now, I look at their cynical use of the soldiers. I’m shattered.”

Meanwhile, there is a fight over another desolate apartment that I have been designated to clean up in anticipation of my daughter’s arrival. I’m clearing up the debris, feel like I’m prying into someone else’s lives. Among the broken toys, broken AC unit and food remains that I’m sweeping, I discover that the tenants had been out of work. For, in my hands, I’m holding their record cards at the unemployment office in Gush Katif. Now: no job; no home. Even these cards have been discarded.

Another family has turned up. “We were promised this house,” they exclaim. Soon a compromise is reached. In days like this it doesn’t pay to argue. “You sleep here; we’ll sleep there.” Now, the electricity has to be connected to the next house and the one water tap that works checked out. And a lot of patience is summoned for the ten children about to trip over one another.

It is Shabbat. We are in shul. So are thousands of others packed into the main sanctuary, the annex, the courtyard outside, and the Sephardi synagogue. What a sight! What power! The Rav stands up to talk. Words of inspiration flow: “Who could have believed the degree of spiritual awakening among the people, the transformation that has overcome both young and old in the country in the last few weeks? We must not forget that whatever the outcome, there is but one King that we serve…”

We sit around the Shabbat dinner table marveling at what is going on. How, in the face of such anguish, can a community hold itself so high? Look at the people of Israel. We looked back to Erev Shabbat when two girls from Bnei Akiva brought in cakes for Shabbat, and others brought some beautifully illustrated children’s books of animals in Gush Katif to raise money for the cause, and another offered flowers with a message of hope… Non-stop was the outpouring of love, concern, and brotherhood, from all directions.

It is now Shabbat morning. We read the fraught words of the prophet in the Haftarah and cannot but dwell on the meaning of Shabbat Chazon at this time and place. Soon, however, after the Tefilla, the somber tones dissipate as we join in the celebration of a Brit Mila in the Bet Knesset Merkazi. When the father of the baby boy cries out Shema Yisrael, the response of the Tzibbur is thunderous. Are you sure this is not Yom Kippur? – I ask myself.

As the crowds tumbled out the shul, everyone gravitated to the communal kiddush for long-time residents and visitors alike. In shuls around the country kiddushim were held in honor of Gush Katif. No less than 150 full-sized kugels had been donated, just a fraction of the many gifts that found their way to Gush Katif that Shabbat. Harav Meir Yisrael Lau shlita was among the guests. He spoke about the significance of the baby’s new name Levanon Menachem, alluding to the Bet Hamikdash and the Mashiach (may they come speedily in our days).

The shadows are falling on Neve Dekalim. I escort my son-in-law to Ma’ariv at my son’s yeshiva, Torat Hachayim. Now it is time for Eichah. Now we hear the voice of Rav Tal, the Rosh Yeshiva, like the Shevarim sound of the Shofar – broken. It takes forever to hear the lines of the Eicha dirge, as one by one they come alive. The Rav is weeping; Jerusalem mourns her glory. Soon the talmidim are crying and real tears splash on the floor of the yeshiva. There is a break in the rendition as all one hears are the moans and sighs. Is this real? So this is what Tisha B’av is really meant to be? Or are we also crying for Gush Katif, for our lost pride, for all that we could have done but fell short?

Somehow, it is over. No one says a word. We have just experienced something too authentic to be talked about lightly. Silently, we return home. We sit around on the floor – a precious family moment As we awake from the reverie, we recall that there will be a town-hall meeting of all the residents of Gush Katif this Motzei Shabbat, the night of Tisha B’av, 5765. It is the last opportunity for all the residents of Gush Katif to assemble as one.

I pick my way among the thousands who have come to listen. The date does not lose its impression on me. Hashem chose this day to get even with us for the sin of the Spies: Were we not diligent enough in our love for the Land, for each other, for G-d? One by one the speakers deliver their message about the righteousness of the cause, about the Kiddush Hashem attached to the campaign, about our respect for those who felt they had to leave, about the need to be firm in the face of psychological and physical abuse. Most of all, steadfastness must not be accompanied with violence of any kind: the soldiers and police are not the enemy.

I am amazed. No one is shouting, no one is catcalling. Everyone should work together (easier, of course, said than done, given the variegated composition of the thousands of ‘visitors’.) Everyone duly claps as the righteousness of the cause is espoused. But most impressive was the realization that even when it is all over (it shouldn’t happen!), the struggle must continue. The way ahead will be difficult; everyone will have his station; every family will ultimately do what it has to do. And meanwhile, the officials in each yishuv will organize life, will delegate tasks and the “home front” will cooperate in complicating the evacuation process. In many ways, the leaders of the struggle are correct when they claim that “we have won.” A lot has been achieved. Now we are finally attending to some of the important questions regarding the meaning of a Jewish state and what our role and responsibilities are to the wider K’lal. Now, more of the Israeli public understand what the struggle means.

Before leaving, our little family group sings Ani Ma’amin. It seems to sum up everything experienced in these two memorable days. We leave Gush Katif with mixed feelings, leaving behind Avi, Shira and little Emunah together with our representatives, one daughter and one son-in-law. We also leave behind a determined group of people, the likes of which this part of the world has not seen since the classic days of the Yishuv. We leave a mixed group, most of whom will handle things responsibly, while a few might let the cause down with thoughtless actions.

Our car rolls over the bridge once again, this time on the way to the Kissufim crossing. Suddenly, a sentence jumps at me from our Tachanun prayer: “Spare your people, Hashem, and do not let your inheritance be for a reproach so that the nations should rule over them.” I let out a sigh and we continue on our way.

What Next?

It is now a week later. We can sit shiva for Gush Katif. The last Sifrei Torah were taken out today. They also came to remove the contents of Avi and Shira’s house from what remains of Neve Dekalim.

I am on my way to see the tent camp near Netivot, set up by the evacuees from Atzmona – Jewish refugees in a Jewish state. Their only sin is that they want to stay together as a community. My children are “safe” in a hotel in Upper Nazareth, that is, until they are taken from the hotel with the rest of the yeshiva on Erev Shabbat.

My daughter Dina recovered from her two-days and night ordeal in the Bet Knesset in Neve Dekalim. One thousand girls in the Ashkenazi shul sat, prayed, sang, and listened to shiurim until the girl-soldiers came for them. It took five of them to separate my daughter from her friend and take her to the waiting bus. Nowadays, she is busy running to the Kotel to meet the evacuees, entertaining some of their children in a hotel in Yerushalayim, or visiting one of her terror-victim summer campers from Netzarim who lost four family members in one incident.

It is time now for the recriminations and the soul-searching. How did we let this happen? What must we do on a personal level? Was our Avodat Hashem found wanting? The wonder we felt at the reactions of our young people; where did such ideological youth spring from? How can we now prevent their disillusionment? We hold tight to a determination to rebuild shattered dreams – what kind of societies should we build? It is a time to pray. Is Hashem listening? It is time to reach out. Did we closet ourselves too much from the rest of the country? It is the time to pick up the pieces.

Menachem Persoff is Program Director of the Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union World Center in Jerusalem.

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