Friday, June 5, 2020 -
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The mitzvah of the Land of Israel

Roman ruins on the coast of Israel.I’VE been to reunions. You’ve been to reunions. How mighty the surprises. This person, seemingly destined for nothing, has become an eminent doctor, lawyer, captain of industry or mother of royalty. And this person, seemingly destined for everything, never lived up to expectations.

So the wheel turns. Friendships are renewed; or, as it happens, there is nothing in common anymore and you may not even come to the reunion. Why bother? That was then, this is now.

Though it is the school class holding the reunion, it is really the people you come to see.

These reunions are individualistic. There was nothing common to that school class except what happened when you were together in those years. Once the class graduated and everyone dispersed, the commonality vanished.

Not so, this time, this place, this particular reunion.

Not so, one cool night in Jerusalem, March 6, 2011.

Not so, the reunion of Sanhedria Murchevet.

My wife Elaine and I attended a reunion not of a class. We sought not just individuals and expected not just surprises. After all, we had heard about many of the individual developments, both joyous and sad.

This was a reunion of a neighborhood, “our” neighborhood. If nothing else, it was the lasting commonality that pulled everyone to this reunion.

BACK at the very end of 1971, the very first residents of Sanhedria Murchevet, a new neighborhood in Jerusalem, moved in.

Before 1967, the land on which this neighborhood was built was barren. After the Six Day War, Israel wanted to expand Jerusalem so that its inner core would no longer be in danger of destruction by Arab armies.

The barren land of what became Sanhedria Murchevet joined other such lands encircling Jerusalem, in what are now the neighborhoods of Ramot, Gilo, Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, Neve Yaakov and Armon ha-Netziv.

The smallest of the new neighborhoods — the smallest by far — was Sanhedria Murchevet. It consisted of some 20 apartment buildings, essentially forming a circle, with a single, circular street running around it.

Elaine and I came to Israel at the end of 1972 and moved into Sanhedria Murchevet at the beginning of 1973. By then, perhaps a couple of hundred families, at most, populated the neighborhood.

With rare exceptions, our families were back in the US, in Europe, in Africa, or in the USSR. We had no one to fall back on. When the kids got sick, when the money ran out, when the war came, when the hassles with the Israeli bureaucracy became overwhelming, we fell back on each other.

We took in each other’s kids, formed a free loan fund, huddled together in bomb shelters and commiserated over the miserable treatment we received at the hands of the ever looming bureaucrats.

It was not just these things, which we all had in common, that brought us together for one glorious evening in Jerusalem 40 years later. It seemed that we flocked to the Israel Center on Keren Kayemet St. like homing pigeons, instinctively, for this reunion.

WHY? First, there was the unique religious mix.

None of us has been able to find it any longer in Israel; none of us knows where it might exist in the Diaspora. By American metaphor, call it Teaneck, Lakewood and Williamsburg crowded together in one small neighborhood. Almost all of us were religiously observant, but we hailed from modern Orthodox backgrounds, from Lithuanian yeshiva backgrounds, and from chasidic backgrounds.

We lived cheek by jowl, in the same buildings or across the street from each other. We shopped together and davened together. We did not always appreciate each other’s mentality or way of approaching the Creator of the Universe and the Torah; yet, we interacted and ended up friends, attending each other’s simchas and seeing the world through lenses different from our own.

We wore black yarmulkes and knitted yarmulkes and shtreimels; we followed this rebbe or that rosh yeshiva or attended — or had attended — Zionist yeshivas. Some of the women covered their hair; some did not; some wore a sheitel, some a tichel, some a hat, and some a hat over a sheitel. We were Sephardi and Ashkenazi. We were a microcosm of the worldwide religious Jewish community, and we lived together, not in separate neighborhoods, but in one small patch of renewed Jerusalem.

Economically, our lot was as similar as our religious nuances were different. Some of the apartments in Sanhedria Murchevet had two bedrooms, some had three. That was it; roughly 80 square meters or 100 square meters. Nothing else. No variety. Not in size and not in shape. Economically, we were pretty much in the same place. Perhaps some of us brought home larger salaries than others, but basically no one’s salary was large enough to enable anyone to move up economically, to move out of the neighborhood, for some 10 years. (Don’t ask about expanding the apartments — it wasn’t allowed.)

Most important, all of us were committed to Israel.

Some of us called it Eretz Yisrael and some of us called it the State of Israel. Some of us would serve in the army and some of us would not. But all of us had a sense of destiny. Jewish history was taking place in our time and we wanted to be part of it.

We wanted to help renew the Jewish presence in the homeland of the Jewish people, the place where the Torah intended us to live and to observe certain mitzvot that could only be observed in Israel. In fact, this reunion was held specifically to celebrate “our 40 years in Israel” (save for us, who left Israel after 12 years).

There were other commonalities:

All of us were at the beginning of our careers, or training for a career.

Most of us were raising small children. We could no more imagine being the parent of an 18-year-old than we could imagine being a great-grandparent.

All of us had to cope, for a couple of years, with a single telephone in the entire neighborhood.

All of us had to cope, at first, with no food store in the neighborhood (try walking up a long hill for many blocks to buy a bag of milk; either that, or waiting a half hour for a bus, each way).

All of this conspired to draw us to each other, to recall our founding days and years in the holy land, our common commitment to rebuilding the Jewish people in the one place where the Creator of heaven and earth could be more intensely felt and followed than anywhere else in this vast universe.

though you know this in advance, the sight gives you pause. You last saw this person with his hair jet black. You expect the same. Not only is his hair now snow white, but in many cases you need to look at the name tag to make certain you know who you’re talking to.

It would undersell the experience considerably to say that it was fun to spot the name tag and then take up with the person where you last left off. Fun is not the word. Surprise is not the note. Not just because shock is the more appropriate response to being informed that the colorful physician in the neighborhood, or someone else, has died. When you lived in your twenties or thirties with a large group of friends and neighbors, death is also difficult to imagine.

There is something much deeper than surprise and shock, and, in truth, it is right there on the surface. Yes, these people might seem like anyone else walking down the street; some better preserved, some less so; some accomplished in their fields, some less so; some with stories of success to tell, some less so — yes, all is irrelevant to the pervasive surface gesture.

Pervasive and, I must confess, difficult to convey to an audience living outside Israel.

The Talmud says — a piece of Talmud quoted amongst us often back then — that three things are acquired through suffering. One of them is the Land of Israel. Here is a group of people who had nothing to gain materially by moving to Israel, who have lived through the Yom Kippur War (1973), Operation Peace for Galilee (1982-1986), the first Intifada (1987 on), the Jerusalem bus bombings (1994 on), the second Intifada (2000 on), the Second Lebanon War (2006) and Operation Cast Lead (in Gaza, 2009-2010). They have lived through all this and didn’t have to. Nor did they have to choose a life filled with bureaucratic hassles.

Now, with the hindsight of a generation, one sees their love of Israel writ large, if quietly, on their visages. One sees how they prospered internally, spiritually. This is pervasive. This is the dominant note at this reunion.

One sees their pride in being at the heart of Jewish history.

THERE was a lot of laughter, of reflection, of sympathetic vibration.

An old war story from Shuly Brook about the cab driver who insisted on letting him off a mile from Sanhedria Murchevet because, of course, this neighborhood did not exist! So why should he drive all the way down to the isolated street lamp in the distance?

Then there was “B and D,” as in Better and Different, a euphemism for the small grocery that finally came to the neighborhood. Except, there was no place for it.

So it ended up in one of the resident apartments in Building 128. Suffice to say, as was delicately noted to great laughter, the exterminator was needed in the building twice a week.

I remember when the grocery opened. Many vyed for the right to operate it. It was eventually awarded to a worthy Ashkenazi family, a point worth mentioning because a Sephardi candidate was grilled as to whether he spoke English, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and French in order to serve the clientele. He replied in exasperation: “What is this, a grocery or a university?”

Avigdor Bonchek, who back then had not yet written volumes on What Bothers Rashi, spoke of the holiness of place (Israel) and the holiness of time (Sabbath and holidays) — a standard classification — and also noted the holiness of speech (laws of leshon ha-ra) and the holiness of humankind (kedoshim tihehu).

George Stanislowski relived our campaign against Mayor Teddy Kollek’s plan for a soccer stadium on the hill opposite Sanhedria Murchevet (now the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo). The stadium would have killed Sanhedria Murchevet — and itself. Kollek concealed a Technion study showing that winds on the hill would have lifted soccer balls straight out of the stadium. In the end, Kollek had to admit defeat.

For the Katzmans, the past is the present. Now, like then, they are busy with projects helping the poor; this time, women considering abortions due to financial difficulty. Yitzhak Frank says that in retirement he is going to expand his widely used Hebrew-Aramaic dictionary. Kendy Gross is now a master teacher of taharat ha-mishpachah. A gabbai then, a gabbai now: Aharon Kol Tuv, always with a smile. Shelly Roth’s only child — how I remember her being doted on! — is now a physician. Dovid Landesman, who published There are no Basketball Courts in Heaven, offers, with his mischievous twinkle, the title of his new book: Food for Thought: No Hechsher Required. Reuven Miller, his twinkle still more wicked, solemnly promises, as he has for four decades, that we will open the first male-run religious kindergarten in Israel.

More than one person asked what happened to my “Planet of the Apes” mask, which traumatized more than one child on Purim.

Uriel Casing offered an insight on why Moshe was not named Mashui, which would have been logical, given Pharaoh’s daughter justification for naming him, “For I drew him from the water.” Mashui means one who was drawn. Moshe means one who draws, who reaches out, who extends himself. Thus acted Pharaoh’s daughter in saving Moses’ life, and thus acted Moses throughout his life. Moses was named for delivering compassion, not receiving it.
Rabbanit Ehrenster, of the Vishnitz dynasty, and Rabbanit Bulman unknowingly lent a regal presence.

ALONGSIDE the laughter, the reflection and the thanks extended to Joan Shaulson and Joan Miller for conceiving the reunion and carrying it out, was an unstated idiom: evidence of growth in Torah knowledge.

Something of a spiritual shock back then, at least among the immigrant founders of Sanhedria Murchevet, was — I can’t think of a better word — the force, almost the ferocity — with which the idea of full time Torah study was foisted upon us.

Even those among us who had come from strong yeshiva backgrounds were taken aback by the ideological insistence that full time Torah study is a legitimate, idealistic and socially redeeming profession. The ideology held that it was not enough to attend a shiur (a Torah class), even regularly. The idea was to master the Torah, and to put in the hours and the days and the years to make it happen; or, at least, to offer moral and material support to those who attempted to do so.

Back then, we discussed and debated this issue. We lined up on one side or the other. But our children went on to traditional yeshivas or to hesder yeshivas. Suffice to say that I learned at this reunion that two of the children of American immigrant founders of Sanhedria Murchevet, of the Sylvetsky and Lafair families, are now delivering high level shiurim in highly respected yeshivas in Jerusalem.

I doubt this would have happened without that tremendous focus on Torah study that came at you from every direction — from the rabbi of the neighborhood, from the full time, married, adult Torah students, from the weekly erev Shabbat Torah addresses on the radio by everyone from Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz — from a culture of Torah study.

So it is throughout Israel today: whatever the circle, whatever the “stripe” of Orthodoxy — be it the Jerusalem equivalent of Teaneck, Lakewood or Williamsburg — the quantity and quality of Torah study is overwhelming.

IN one telling line, Kathy Stanislowski recalled how none of the mothers back then worried about their little boys going off to the Army some day because, by then of course, there would be peace!

When one’s child is two or three years old, the adulthood of one’s children seems so far away. Now, with children grown, with some of those in attendance the grandparents of tens of grandchildren, it was, indeed, time to celebrate 40 years in Israel.

That mitzvah, that satisfaction, you cannot buy with any money, any status or any professional achievement. It is its own achievement, and its own reward.

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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