I felt as if I had entered Gan Eden—rich blue skies; lush vegetation; majestic palm trees and a large, clean pond thrown in for good measure. I had not known that such a place existed in Eretz Yisrael!
My first date with Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip was in the fall of 1983 when a fellow staff member of the OU Israel Center and I set out to check the feasibility of having a Shabbaton for yeshiva women, many of them former NCSYers, in Gush Katif. We visited the community of Ganei Tal, and a resident showed us around. There was no question in our minds that it was a wonderful place for a Shabbaton on Parshat B’shalach. Singing Shirat HaYam on the magnificently clean beach with the Mediterranean Sea spread out before us like the heavens, was a highlight of the Shabbaton.
Before the expulsion of 8,500 Jews from Gush Katif, the area consisted of 21 communities. I became friendly with the Mordechai Family from the moshav Netzer Chazani, due to a barrage of rockets, one of which fell in the yard of a clubhouse for teens, on Shabbat October 20, 2001. I procured the family name and address of one of the injured teens, and I sent a check to her parents, asking that the money be divided between the five injured teens so that they could purchase something for themselves. Upon receiving my letter, Malka Mordechai contacted me to thank me. Thus began a relationship that continues to this day.
Malka and Ezra Mordechai, parents of five children as well as grandparents, were successful farmers. They enjoyed their life in Netzer Chazani. But less than two years before the expulsion from Gush Katif, their beloved rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, was murdered while on his way home. (Rabbi Arama was a direct descendent of the 15th century Torah and Rashi commentator of the same name who authored the work Akeida.) This was a major blow to the community in general, and to the Mordechai Family in particular. Another blow to the Mordechai Family was when one of their daughters and her husband divorced over the issue of whether to remain in Gush Katif.
Most Israelis never visited Gush Katif. To many, it was easy to say that Israel should give it to the Arabs. Who needs a piece of land that takes so much tax shekels to protect the Israeli citizens who live there? When the residents of Gush Katif realized that they needed a better PR profile, some of them established a movement called Panim el Panim (Face-to-Face). Volunteers and residents of Gush Katif would knock on doors in various Israeli cities, and if allowed entrance, would explain what Gush Katif is about and show them that its residents and the various volunteers are normative people. Another goal of Panim el Panim was to offer people the opportunity to attend Torah classes and/or learn with a chavruta. If Jews could be so hostile to other Jews, then there is a need to try to bring hearts together.
In December of 2014 I participated in a major campaign of Panim el Panim. The bus of volunteers from my community traveled to the city of Rishon L’Tzion. A friend, her young daughter and I were assigned to an apartment house. We dutifully knocked on doors. Most of the residents were not home (or pretended not to be) when we knocked. A few asked who we were, but they did not open the door for us. On one of the floors there was a young man who was turning the key to open his apartment door. He was our first guinea pig. We briefly explained why we had come, and he ushered us into his apartment. We had a congenial conversation and left some reading material. We succeeded in entering one other apartment. We concentrated mostly on the idea of the Torah shiurim and the possibility of learning with a partner. The woman, a Russian immigrant, said that she was interested in learning about Judaism. We took down her contact information.
But in the end, neither Panim el Panim nor mass demonstrations on behalf of Gush Katif , dissuaded the Sharon-run government to change its position. The government plunged ahead with its plan of disengagement. One of the most heart-wrenching moments during the expulsion was when the graves in the Gush Katif cemetery were opened so that the bodies could be interred elsewhere.
Not only was the expulsion of 8,500 Jews (and 500 from communities in the Northern Shomron) an atrocity, so was the post-expulsion plan. Placing people in hotels was a poor and inadequate housing solution. Imagine the frantic parents of a lost two-year-old attempting to locate their toddler in an 18-storey hotel.
A mother of a large family spoke at one of the bridal showers which brought in gifts and money for engaged couples from Gush Katif. She told us, “We live in a few hotel rooms. When our daughter became engaged I needed a place where I could prepare for the engagement party. A relative offered me her kitchen, but then I realized that all my recipes were in storage somewhere. I sat down and cried.”
After the expulsion from Gush Katif, the Mordechai Family ended up with their neighbors in a trailer park in Nitzan which is in southern Israel. (The government has the chutzpah to charge them rent.)
What do former farmers in their mid-50s do for a livelihood? Malka tried her hand at various jobs, but due to health problems incurred from her stressful life, as well as other health issues, she was not able to work. She spends some of her time babysitting for her grandchildren.
It took a long time for Ezra to find a job. He worked for four years in an ambulance corps in the center of the country, but the daily commute was too taxing. He also worked as a bus driver, but it is not the kind of job that is compatible with someone that has heart issues. He suffered a heart attack in the past. Two years ago he underwent by-pass surgery.
Years ago they decided to purchase a factory that produced food products. Things started looking up, but then a fire broke out in the adjoining factory. It also damaged their factory and caused it to shut down production. The bank, to whom they still owed money, demanded that their monthly payments on the loan continue. When they could not come up with the money, the bank took them to court to start the foreclosure process.
Thirteen is a very special number in Judaism—it is the age at which a Jewish boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah, there are the Thirteen Principles of Faith of Maimonides and there are the thirteen midot of HaShem. But for the former residents of Gush Katif, the number thirteen marks the number of years since they were thrown out of their homes. They lost their homes, yeshivot, livelihood, cultural centers, schools, fields and shuls, among other things. Who can forget the videos of the frenzied Arabs who happily burned down the shuls?
The Mordechai Family has been mired in the sand for thirteen years due to their financial situation. Malka feels that the government has forgotten them. They would not be in their present situation If, immediately after the expulsion, the government would have given them land on which to build a house and farm. It took five years for the government to designate land and by then, most of their money was gone. The compensation from the government did not reflect the real value of homes and businesses, loss of livelihood, psychological trauma, cost of temporary housing, etc.
Recently, the government decided to give them a plot of land and bring a mobile home to Be’er Ganim (an acronym for seven former Gush Katif communities) near Nitzan. Ezra and Malka prefer to live close to their children, rather than live in the community of Yesodot where most of their Netzer Chazani neighbors settled. The mobile home will not be theirs, and they will have to pay rent. Meanwhile, the government has been dragging its feet on the preparations of the lot for a mobile home hook-up.
Malka feels very lonely living in the mobile home site. Her children are out at work during the day. The original families have moved away from the mobile home site, except for one family who also went bankrupt. Young couples and families have been moving into the mobile homes.
May HaShem soon lead the Mordechai Family and the other families back to Gush Katif to make the desert bloom again.
If you would like to help the Mordechai Family re-build their lives in Israel, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Adina Hershberg is a freelance writer who made aliyah in 1981; she has been living in Gush Etzion for almost sixteen years.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.