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Gem of the Hills

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Why are we here?

read: How the Yehudim returned to the Shomron- recollections of Benny Katsover

Tammuz 5762
Dear Friends,

Thank you for taking interest in the settlers of Itamar. I'm going to start this letter with a question- When looking for a house, a place to live, what kind of things does one take into consideration? Proximity to shopping, schooling, doctors, or the kind of neighborhood, type of community, aesthetics, type of house, within price-range, etc

That's usually the norm. When we made aliyah 18 years ago and were looking for a place, we were only looking for one kind of criterion: where to plant our roots for the future generations to come. We were looking for a place where our (Neshamos)souls felt-Hey, we belong here. We loved the Galilee because we love trees; we loved the Golan because of its peace, tranquility and beauty. We loved almost every place we saw, but when we came to Itamar, and stood across from the very shoulders of the Land of Israel, the ancient majestic mountains of Har Gerizzim and Har Eval, and looking into Shechem, the house of Yosef Hatzaddik. We said- We want Yosef as our neighbor!

We've been living on Itamar for the last 17 years, and I'm sure you will hear from Moshe about it, but I can just tell you it is an extremely special place, very rural and spiritual. We are very privileged to spend our lives here and one day soon you will come and see what I mean.

Now, about what's going on- You know that when a baby starts to walk, he has to fall down on his behind, sometimes on his back, on his side, and even on his head. It hurts, but that's the way he learns. Today we live in a generation very different than our parents had it. Everything is instant; the computer, the microwave, the cellphone, getting into your car, hopping onto a plane Everything is easy (the question is- do we realize it) We rarely feel the pain of falling which is why today's events are so hard for us. (Incidentally, these very technologies are a sign of the speeding up of the end of days, because we are so weak, and so much time has passed since our prophets, that our lives depend on this easier way out)

Looking back 100 years, the early pioneers that came to the Holy Land had it very hard. They weren't drying out the swamps for their specific generation, and dying in the swamps for personal fulfillment. Their actions were motivated by the goal for a future and better Israel.

Today we are called pioneers. I like the way it sounds and wish it were true. I don't think that we came here knowing that some of us would die in the swamps of Oslo.

We aren't on that level of self sacrifice. But we came here to LIVE and revive the ancient earth THAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN OURS. Suddenly, it isn't so easy. Davka now, when the trees are giving their fruit, and there are permanent homes and nice lawns.

We have to find a way to rise up together to prepare Am Yisrael for her real and final goals. The goals we pray for every day and for the last 2 thousand years. We don't want to settle for The Wall. We want to build the house of Hashem. Enough political jargon, CNN, UN, etc The world is actually turning to us to see if Hashem is true to His word. That can only be done through action. Why do you think the Arabs are willing to blow themselves up? Because they know the end is very near, the sands in Yishmaels hourglass have just about run out

If we can each pull each other up in our own unique way, everyone has his own way of doing it, we'll make it I'm sure!

Praying for Besoorot Tovot,

Leah Goldsmith


Nadav Haetzni (From Maariv , Shabbat, 7 August 1998, p. 4+)

A few kilometers east of the place where Shlomo Leibman and Harel Ben-Nun z"l were murdered in the Jewish village of Yitzhar in Samaria in early August, you find one of the most incredible sights in Israel. It's one of those kind that until you get there, you don't believe such a thing is possible. All you need to do is take the road to Itamar in Samaria, pass through the main entrance gate, glance at the red-roofed houses at the beginning of the village, and then, after the first cluster of buildings, it begins: a narrow path winds and climbs eastward toward the ridges above the village. Along the length of that route are scattered individual homes of Jewish settlers -- here a trailer, there a wooden house build by hand, and next to it a goat pen or sheep or a fruit orchard. And the dirt path continues to wind its way up and up.

There is no fence or comprehensive guard duty. All that is here are new dirt paths, cleared recently on state land. Far from the village and its crowded together houses you can make out the water tower in the distance on the highest peak. A winding climb upwards for another few kilometers leads to an additional group of houses. Here, in the heart of nowhere, with a wild, breathtaking view, stand two wooden houses and a trailer. Even at the height of the summer, a pleasant wind blows here, of the type that threatens to blow away the improvised buildings during the winter. On a clear day you can see Mt. Hermon as well as the towers of Shalom Center in Tel Aviv. But even this isn't the end of the village. A few kilometers further east is the water tower of the Ron family, who live almost alone on Hill 866, named for its height. If not for the men wearing kipot, you might think this is a scene from the Wild West, and not necessarily because of the appearance of the residents -- one of them is a pilot on active duty with the Air Force, a second teaches young children, a third is a former kibbutznik from Kinneret.

A special breed. Almost all are newly religious, earning a living from organic agriculture and goat-raising, and feeling like A.D. Gordon and Yehoshua Henkin. An exceptional breed, even among the pioneering settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, of whom they have become a part. You can meet this same breed in the South Hebron Hills, in nearby Yitzhar, and in a few other villages.

A week ago, one afternoon shots were fired at a Jewish shepherd on the Ron family's hill. A few months ago nine firebombs were thrown at the generator of the Mashulmi and Cohen families. This week they buried their friends Shlomo and Harel in the rocky ground of the village just opposite. None of this slows the local determination to continue forward.

"We are the emissaries of the people of Israel, except the people of Israel don't realize it," begins Arad, the kibbutznik from Kinneret, whose parents, grandfather, and grandmother still live on the kibbutz. He became religious just a few years ago and by chance reached the village of Itamar. Now, with a large white kippa and peyot, he makes a living from agriculture, does reserve duty in the paratroop brigade, and feels he is walking in the footsteps of the pioneers of the Jordan Valley where he grew up.

"You need a lot of faith here, otherwise you couldn't last a second with all the dangers hiding behind every rock," he says, "but this village is located near the bellybutton of the earth and we are here to assure that the bellybutton won't be cut off from the body. If you want, I'm a volunteer here. The difference between us and [Kibbutz] Degania Aleph, for example, is that Degania Aleph is located on the site of an old Arab village and we are on state land far from anyone. So whoever claims that we don't need to be here should first give back Degania Aleph and then we'll talk."

The conversation takes place on a rug in the yard of the Cohen's trailer. The trailer itself comprises two and a half rooms for the parents and five little children. The father, Doron, says there is room for everyone.

"To be here is no doubt scary," he says, "especially when you have a wife and small children and you can't be sure of anyone. But there's fear in every place and you deal with it. My parents in Ramat Gan aren't afraid? This whole nation is afraid and in distress, so someone needs to set the boundary."

From the top of the mountain in Itamar you can see the houses of the village of Bracha, above Shechem. A month and a half ago I visited there at the home of Leah Ziv-Pereg, when I went to get a picture of what to expect here after the next withdrawal by the IDF. This week, just before the double funeral in Yitzhar, I couldn't help remembering our conversation.

Leah's first husband, Yaakov Pereg, together with reserve soldier Arthur Hersting, was murdered 10 years ago on the road that goes up to Bracha. She married again, returned to Bracha, and raises eight children and fruit trees.

"We're continuing here, this is our task," she told me then, "and I see today that our objective is to add as many families as possible in order to be able to continue."

The villages here were founded at the beginning of the 1980s, and since then they've been waging a war of endurance and development. In the days of the intifada, and especially since Oslo, this war has become a struggle for their very survival. In Yitzhar, as in Itamar, they are fighting, even beyond daily existence, for the oxygen that will enable their continued development -- war over land, state land.

And together with all this there is the daily struggle against terror. From the heights of Itamar's mountain ridge you can see the many sites of terror and mourning of the area: for example, the place where soldiers of the Palestinian police were caught six months ago on their way to attack the village of Bracha. They acted then on behalf of their commander, Razi Jibali. You can also see the road where Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Alon Moreh was miraculously saved after his car was riddled with gunfire from soldiers of the same group. You can also see where a roadside bomb went off as a bus full of students from the Joseph's Tomb yeshiva passed by, one of whose passengers had been Shlomo Leibman z"l. You also see the houses of the village of Elon Moreh, where they also count their fallen -- Rami Haba, Tirza Porat, Ofra Felix.

In general, the path of terror accompanies the residents of the area the way chronic cancer penetrates the body. And the villages, which are used to living with water from tanks and trailers at pristine sites, are also used to coming together as one tribe in time of tragedy. The support for the families, the immediate organization to help the life of the wounded village continue, and even the assistance to widows and widowers and orphans, has become part of the normal routine.

This even happened in the kindergarten at Yitzhar. When I visited, the kindergarten was being run by Rachel Shenrav, who came here from her home in Karnei Shomron west of here. She herself, a national supervisor for young children, needed to draw on all her skills to maintain a tone of business as usual and keep from breaking down. There are 40 children in the nursery, and while the parents tried to gather up their own broken pieces, professionals came in from the surrounding areas to assure that life would continue to flow.

"There is a sort of standard procedure for tragedies," she explains, "and to my sorrow, we're very experienced with it. You cannot imagine what a support group there is here. When tragedy strikes, everyone comes together. There is great strength in that unity and it gives you the ability to keep going, because you know you aren't alone. My work here adds meaning to my life. I just hope we will succeed in surviving all these blows -- and we will."

Rachel Shenrav has 5 children and they are carrying on the tradition of their parents. One son lives in Elon Moreh, a daughter in Ofra, another daughter in a small village. In general, many of the second generation from the new Jewish villages are widening the furrows plowed by the first generation. So, for example, the two victims from Yitzhar were second generation from the villages -- from Kiryat Arba and Shilo. And so on the ridges of Itamar, in the South Hebron Hills, in Rachelim and in the rest of the new villages, the second generation is clearly present.

Two major differences may be seen between the generations: first, the children grew up within a reality of the existence of the villages and they just can't comprehend threats to their very existence. Second, the percentage of graduates of combat and reconnaissance units is much higher among the youth than among their parents. And the connection between the education they received at home and in the army and the reality in the field pushes many to set even bolder goals than those of the previous generation.

To a great extent, this wild, agricultural type of settlement is a certain adaptation by the younger generation of the rules of the game as played by the Arabs, one closely connected to the struggle over land. The way in which they settle on the hills of Yitzhar and Itamar doesn't require big budgets or a lot of people. All you need to do is what the Arabs do -- put up two shacks, graze a flock of sheep, and plant trees. This is how borders are established and it provides a new challenge in the competition over land. Contrary to the public image, they're not involved here with revenge and redemption of blood, but with redemption of land.

How is this public dealing with the expected withdrawal, with a government that is not meeting expectations, with deep hostility in sections of the nation, and above all with the Palestinian Authority that is being built into a state? The answer, to one's great surprise, is optimistic. Very optimistic.

One of the prime movers of the generation of optimists is Yaakov Katz, "Ketzele," a resident of Beit El and one of the heads of Arutz 7 radio and the Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Standing at the edge of the funeral in Yitzhar, Ketzele remains optimistic. He, like many of his friends, speaks in a language that in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is considered packed with cliches, but next to the fresh graves it doesn't sound false:

"The reality today is that in Judea and Samaria there are nearly 200,000 Jews, and in Jerusalem there are more Jews in the east of the city than in the west. This provides another reason for optimism in addition to our vision and our faith. We believe that what we are doing is part of the struggle for the independence of the Jewish people. We are just a part of a greater effort that began more than 100 years ago. Today, after those who brought it through the previous stages have become tired, we are carrying it forward."

Q: Nevertheless, what about the withdrawal and a Palestinian state? "I know this doesn't sound like a logical process, but the Zionist enterprise is not logical and in spite of that we have succeeded in overturning logic. I remember that when we established Beit El with the first six families, I went to the U.S. to raise money. They told me then, 'Forget it, you'll soon leave,' but against all the odds there are today nearly 1,000 families in Beit El. Therefore, today as well we need not panic at the problems of the moment. We need to look at the whole enterprise, in which we are advancing all the time. And I certainly believe that despite all the persecution, hardship, and attacks, we have enough strength to continue and to go forward."

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