I awaken early in the morning and look out through the glass door in our bedroom which leads to our upstairs porch. The coolness of the Gush Etzion spring night still lingers. I view the mountaintops across from me and the first orange-yellow rays of the sun climbing over them. My gaze focuses on a cluster of varied-colored homes, fifteen of which may not exist by the time you read this. The community of Netiv Avot, which is considered by some to be a neighborhood of the community of Elazar in Gush Etzion, was built in the wake of tragedy, and its homes are slated to be demolished—an avoidable and senseless tragedy.
I met Brooklyn-born Sara Blaustein in May of 2001 at the bus stop in the Jerusalem Gilo neighborhood, where women were waiting for a bus to Kever Rachel. Those were the years when traveling to Kever Rachel required bullet-proof buses or other vehicles. (Once I traveled there in an army vehicle.) Sara was responsible for the Tuesday bus, and we got to talking. When the bus arrived, all the women boarded the bus and Sara and I sat together. We continued our conversation as if we had been friends for decades. I was struck by her friendly nature, her winning smile, her love for the Jewish People and her openness. On the way back from Kever Rachel, I had the merit to sit once again with Sara.
Unfortunately, and tragically, that was my first and last opportunity to get to know Sara. On May 29, 2001, Sara and 19-year-old Esther Alva, both from the city of Efrat, were gunned down by Arabs in a drive-by shooting. The terrorists were dressed like Jewish Israelis and they drove a car with Israeli license plates. Also in the attacked car were Sara’s husband Norman, who had been the driver, and Sara’s son Sammy Berg, 27, from a previous marriage, who was visiting from the States.
A month later, in their former shul in Lawrence, New York, the community from which they had made aliyah, Norman spoke publicly for the first time about the fatal shooting. That fateful morning, Sara had been at Kever Rachel, and she came home to Efrat to pick up her husband and go to the Kotel. (Norman had been due to leave for the US on business, and he always made sure to go to the Kotel before a departure.) The day of the murders had been on the second day of Shavuot, for those not residing in Israel. On that day, Sara and Norman had purchased a Torah to be presented to a recently built shul in Efrat.
They were discussing a passage from Torah which they had learned in their joint daily learning session. Suddenly, Norman heard a crackling sound like aluminum foil. “My glasses flew off my eyes, and blood was gushing out of my nose,” he told the audience. “I reached over to the cell phone and called my brother-in-law for help. I looked over and saw that my wife had a smile on her face, and her eyes were closed.” Norman described how the ambulance arrived quickly enough for paramedics to help Sara begin breathing again, but she was only able to breath for five more minutes until she died. Norman had been grazed by a bullet, which had damaged his vision and hearing. Sammy had been hit in the arm and shoulder.
Sara’s funeral was delayed until the day after the murder so that her son Yoni, her daughter Adina and other family members could arrive from the US. Despite his two bullet wounds, Sammy insisted on attending his mother’s funeral.
Following hespedim in Efrat, more than one hundred cars formed a procession to the nearby Kfar Etzion cemetery where many terrorist victims are interred. People lined the roads holding Israeli flags and there were bowed heads. Sara and Norman’s child Atara, 13, collapsed as she delivered a hesped. Her older sister, Adina Mark, finished reading it. Sara left four children, four grandchildren and an 82-year-old mother.
Norman and Sara had been married for eighteen years. Each had three children from a previous marriage. Sara’s last job had been for Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, where she managed their New York office. The Blausteins had moved to Israel in the summer of 2000, even before their home in Lawrence had been sold, so that Ateret could start school on time.
Upon aliya, Sara became involved in many projects, one of which was going to Kever Rachel every Tuesday morning. As she stated, “We must never allow the Arabs to gain control because we are afraid to travel there.” She and her husband were active in The Jerusalem Reclamation Project, which works hard to buy back property in the Old City and in East Jerusalem. Wherever Sara lived—Staten Island, Lawrence or Efrat—her home was always open to everyone, like our matriarch Sara.
A local decision was made that, in memory of Sara Blaustein and Esther Alva, the newly founded neighborhood in Elazar, Netiv Avot, would be built in their memories. During the almost sixteen years that we have lived in Rosh Tzurim in Gush EtzIon, I have been following the expansion of the Netiv Avot community. Whenever I saw a new home crop up, I was so happy. The community has approximately 40 families. Sadly, the building of this community has been fraught with difficulties and disappointments.
The Peace Now Movement has involved Arabs to petition the Israeli government and claim that Netiv Avot is built partially on Arab-owned land. This has led to a demolition order against fifteen Jewish homes, a carpentry business and a war memorial for two IDF soldiers slain in Lebanon — first lieutenant Ezra Ashar and lieutenant colonel Emmanuel Moreno. The two latter structures were demolished last year.
At the same time, on February 25, 2018, the government, after much intervention by political leaders, Israeli citizens and residents of Netiv Avot, finally legalized the community. This will allow for 350 more homes to be built, but this does not affect the fifteen homes scheduled for demolition. The demolition was originally scheduled for March, but then delayed so that temporary housing could be erected for the fifteen families who face expulsion.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Bayit Yehudi faction and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of said party stated, “It is our duty to minimize as much as possible the problems that were created by an erroneous decision of the High Court of Justice. For every house that will be dismantled as a result of petitions by left-wing organizations, we will establish a legal settlement that cannot be moved.” In a similar vein, Ze’ev Elkin of the Likud party said, “Each time the court imposes an evacuation on us, we will transform that event into one that expands and strengthens the settlement.”
Just as many prayed that the expulsion from Gush Katif would not actualize, so too we hope for a miracle. But even if the Israeli government destroys almost half of the Netiv Avot community, may we merit seeing its re-building soon. It is only fitting that Sara Blaustein and Esther Alva who were murdered al kiddush HaShem, have a flourishing community built in their memory to gaze upon from above.
D.N. Tzafon Yehuda
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.