Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sderot 4: The Spirit of Sderot

During the incessant rocket attacks against the Jewish communities of Gaza prior to the disengagement, only one or two families left. While Sderot was always a target, most rocket attacks remained focused on the settlements, which were closer at hand, and thus easier targets, than Sderot itself. Now that the Jewish communities of Gaza have been destroyed, the forces of Jihad have moved the cross hairs onto Sderot. But unlike the front line settlements, Sderot is not such an idealistic community. Jews moved here fleeing persecution in Muslim lands, poverty in Russia, and exile in Ethiopia. Life is hand-to-mouth, and there is little thought of a higher religious or national purpose. Without a higher ideal, the misery of life under constant rocket threat becomes unbearable.

"About four thousand out of the twenty four thousand residents have left," Noam tells us.

That's a sixth of the population. It seems that the overwhelming majority would leave if given the chance. Sderot's Mayor Eli Moyal made the reality of the situation clear, "Either turn Beit Hanoun into a ghost town or Sderot will become a ghost town."

So why don't they just pack up and leave? For one thing, real estate prices have plummeted by almost 50% since the attacks began. Another reason is the traditional family structure. Most of the families here are immigrants who moved together as a unit, with all their brothers, aunts, and cousins to the same little town, and don't really know anyone outside the city. For these people, there is simply nowhere to go.

While, amidst plummeting prices, building has all but ceased in Sderot, there is one place that's still under construction; the yeshiva.

The new yeshiva under construction. The Beit Midrash (study hall) located in the basement is already in use.

The beit midrash (study hall.)

"This is an important ideal of Religious Zionism," the Rosh Yeshivah (head of the yeshiva) tells us. "We need to move into the towns that are having problems. Sderot is by no means a religious town. We need to build up the spirit here." Since the death of secular Zionism, the people here have been without the motivation or idealism necessary to carry on. The yeshiva hopes to fill that void, bringing a spirit of love of the land and spiritual strength necessary to carry on the struggle for Sderot.

The Rosh Yeshivah (Yeshivah Head,) Rav Dov Fendel

"Secular Zionism is dead. We, the religious, have to offer an alternative."

He is part of a movement within the national religious which has become stronger since the destruction of Jewish Gaza, of "Hitchabrut" (connection.) It had always been assumed that, despite the tendency of the Israeli government to constantly speak of "painful concessions," the nation was largely supportive of the settlement endeavor. Upon realizing that the connection between the nation and the settlers had weakened, the national religious movement began sending "garinim," seed groups to set up yeshivot in towns not previously associated with Judaism. These groups provide a place of refuge, an alternative, for those raised without knowledge of Judaism but a desire to grow and learn.

The situation became more acute in front-line towns like Sderot. For many, the crux of the Zionist argument was that Jews, living as a minority in often hostile lands, were defenseless subjects of the often violent urges and religious or racial hatred of the surrounding peoples. Zionism, the ideology that Jews should live in and rule their own land, was to remedy this ill by giving Jews the opportunity to communally defend themselves from such persecution. But in Sderot, eighteen people have already been murdered, and the airborne torment rains down unabated. Despite Israel's military superiority, its unwillingness, in an act of moral vanity, to put this ability to use, exposes Zionism as a sham. It calls into question whether the Israeli government is truly sovereign. Because Zionism can no longer answer its critics, or defend its people, the people are searching for a more believable answer.

"In a few hundred years," Rav Fendel says, "when they excavate the town, I want them to remember not that Sderot was a town with a yeshiva, but a yeshiva with a town."

The yeshivah under construction.

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