THE SEFER TORAH THAT WAS EXPELLED FROM GUSH KATIF
I first saw Elchonon Hellinger when I was visiting Hevron on Shabbos afternoon… well, maybe that was the second time. The previous Wednesday, during the Seuda, festive meal, at the HaChnoses Sefer Torah, welcome reception for the new Sefer Torah, Elchonon and friends were seated in the men’s section and I noticed him when Rabbi Danny Cohen gave him an honorable mention and he and his friends responded with noisy approval.
Now that I know the story of the Sefer Torah, I think Echonon should have been the most honored guest. But the event was set on the auspicious date of the Yartzeit of Rebbitzen Menucha Rochel, illustrious leader of the Chabad community in Hevron in the 19th century and granddaughter of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, so the program centered on her distinguished descendents who come to Hevron every year on this date.
My conversation with Elchonon that Shabbos afternoon was very short. Elchonon is deaf. He does communicate well, but you have to warm up a bit. I realized I would have to wait to learn his story. I wanted to hear it at a time when I could take notes, and write him notes, to facilitate communicating ideas difficult to understand through lip reading and hand gesturing.
A few weeks later, Elchonon was in New York in preparation for some medical treatments. Anxious to hear his stories I invited him to my house together with friends who were skilled at communicating with him. Getting everyone together was not so easy. One of the friends works a full day and then takes a class at night. We finally got together at 11 pm one night, and after countless bowls of microwave popcorn, I heard all there was to hear before the boys headed home at 4am. (If you think getting a story is easy, think again. If you think it is fun, you’re right!)
When I asked about the Sefer Torah, Elchonon started at the beginning. He first moved to Gush Katif before Pesach last year, 2005, four months before the Disengagement, and was one of the first to settle in the abandoned hotel, Maoz HaYam, Palm Beach Hotel, near Neve Dekalim, which was later raided and evacuated by top brass commandos outnumbering the hotel residents twenty to one. The conditions at the time Elchonon moved in were, shall be say, rough. Not lacking ingenuity, Elchonon managed to make things more comfortable for himself. For instance, to make up for lack of air conditioning, sorely needed to get a good might’s sleep, Elchonon would tap into the electricity of lighted street lamps and connect a number of fans that kept him cool. During daylight hours, when the street lamps were off, there was no ready source of electricity.
As the officials were tightening the noose around Gush Katif, Elchonon managed to smuggle in much needed supplies to help make the hotel more suitable for habitation. He rented a car for a few days. Traveling with an American passport and his friend Yosef Berkowitz, also with an American passport, they would cover their stash of renovation materials with personal affects and tell the checkpoint guards that they were tourists on the way to the beach in Gush Katif… When I showed Elchonon this article via email so he could make corrections, his only complaint was that I did not mention Yosef enough. That is due to the fact that it was Elchonon I interviewed, and everyone involved insists it is his story. But Elchonon is adamant that Yosef was a major player. He told me that Yosef was his earpiece. Yosef would be the one to speak on the phone when something had to be done and then he would communicate messages to Elchonon.
With the help of personalities such as Nadia Matar of Women in Green and Baruch Marzel of Hevron, the hotel started to become more inhabitable and more people moved in. A large room was designated as a Shul. Elchonon felt it needed a Sefer Torah.
Before setting out to Eretz Yisroel, Elchonon had visited his friend Ari in Flatbush. He had noticed that Ari’s family had a collection of Sefrei Torah. The Sefrei Torah were not new but they looked like they still were usable. Elchonon called Ari, and the family agreed to send one of their Sifrei Torah to Gush Katif. But how? It’s not the kind of thing you send with FedEx.
It was the time of the Israel Parade in New York. Amidst fanfare, Dov Hikind was taking a group straight from the parade to the airport for a solidarity mission to Gush Katif. Ari tried to get someone in Hikind’s group to take the Sefer Torah, but it was not an easy favor for people to agree to. Not only was it heavy and valuable, it also needed to be handled with honor. No making sure it is ‘stowed safely under the seat in front of you for take off!’
I am not sure who thought of it, but the boys came up with a great plan. Great because it worked! They rented two the local Crown Heights school buses and went to 770. Soon the busses were filled with Bochurim, young men (in this case rabbinical students) who were happy to go to the airport to dance with the Sefer Torah that was headed for the endangered Gush Katif.
It was a grand scene at the El Al terminal with tens of Bochurim, orange t-shirts showing beneath their suit jackets, accompanying a Sefer Torah under a Chupa. The people on Hikind’s mission could no longer refuse to take the Sefer Torah… It was on its way!
The Sefer Torah needed a fresh cover, Mantel in Yiddish. And one of the bottom handles had broken off. Elchonon and Ari decided that the Sefer Torah should be dedicated to two personalities whose dedication to Eretz Yisroel had cost them their lives, Hillel Lieberman of Elon Moreh and Nati Ozeri of Hilltop 26.
Time was short. The government was threatening to close Gush Katif to all visitors. Elchonon traveled to Yerushalaim. He ordered the cover with the names of Hillel and Nati. To purchase new Eztei Chaim, wooden handles around which the scroll is wrapped, he was told by a number of people, to go to Avraham Hershkowitz.
Elchonon told Hershkowitz that his Sefer Torah was intended for Gush Katif, but only if he could get back into Gush Katif before it was sealed off by the army. Within twenty minutes he was out of the shop with exactly what he needed. Elchonon later learned that Hershkowitz is considered the best in his field. Famous Rebbes come to him for their Eztei Chaim. The average wait for Hershkowitz’s customers is two months!
The Mantle was ordered at one p.m. and picked up at seven. By the time he got to the central bus station, Elchonon had missed the last bus to Gush Katif, but he managed to hitch, Sefer Torah and all, back to the Moaz HaYam. “The Sefer Torah was beautiful,” remembers Elchonon, “we got an Aron, special closet for a Sefer Torah, from somewhere and a bookcase full of Lubavitcher Seforim. We had a real Shul in the hotel.”
Meanwhile, back in New York, Eli Poltorak was busy for weeks forming a Chabad Yeshiva to be located in Neve Dekalim. Most Yeshivas take more than a few weeks to organize. I personally thought Eli was dreaming. In fact, I guess he was. Only his dream came true!
I’m not the only one who thought Eli was dreaming. After the initial whirlwind attempt to get students Eli had only one Bochur registered. As is the custom for many Chabad Chassidm, Eli wrote a letter to the Chabad Rebbe about his plan, all the problems he had encountered and that he was about to reconsider staying in New York to take the bar exam, a more conservative way for a recent graduate from Columbia Law School to spend the summer.
When Eli placed his letter in one of the printed volumes of the thousands of published letters of the Rebbe, the letter he opened to was addressed to a Melamed, teacher of Jewish studies, who had been planning a special summer program and was about to cancel the program due to low enrollment. The Rebbe was encouraging the Melamed that his program was valuable and should he pursue it – he would meet with success.
Eli found it hard to discount the doubt whether his idea could really work, but with the Rebbe’s faith in him (and his trust in the Rebbe) – he pursued and he succeeded!
Before long a dozen students from America were signed up and other serious students from in Eretz Yisroel would be joining them. They arranged to stay in the Moaz HaYam hotel. The Shul which Elchonon was so proud of would be their Beis Medrash.
Before the Yeshiva even got to Neve Dekalim, early signs of Disengagement disrupted their plans. In their unrelenting campaign to demonize settlers, the press reported ‘right wing extremist fringe element settlers’ from the hotel killed an Arab who was walking on the beach. As the evidence for the story came to light – the Arab came back to life. All the same, the image of the hoodlum settlers had been sufficiently reinforced. The stage was set for the public to approve when the hotel was stormed by riot police in full gear. The television footage was amazing, and because the violence was targeting those ‘right wing extremist fringe element settlers,’ the viewers felt safe. To refresh my memory of this incident while writing about it, I googled it and read on Ynetnews.com: “The wild saga by the hooligans, the brutes who were here has ended," said Dan Harel, head of Israel's Southern Command. ‘We will return to our routine lives and learn from this.’” I am not sure what Dan Harel meant when he said we will learn from this. What I learned was that if freedom of settlers is obstructed by martial law, it won’t be long until other segments of society will also lose their freedom.
When the assault on the hotel began, Elchonon ran to the Shul and took the Sefer Torah from the Aron. The picture of him sitting of the chair holding the Sefer Torah was widely published in the media. In an interview with israelreporter.com, Elchonon said: “The decision to take the Torah was to appeal to their souls as Jews, I tried to show them that we are not wild animals or the enemy; we are good Jews like they are. When they came crashing in they froze for a few seconds, some of them even bent down to kiss the Torah. I was going to walk out with the Torah and lead the Jews of the expulsion as was the case throughout history when Jewish communities were expelled, the Rabbis used to walk in front with the Torah.”
The calm that came with the initial shock of seeing the Sefer Torah did not last long. The Sefer Torah was ripped from Elchonon and he was carried out by four soldiers. Let’s just say, he did not go without resistance. He was handcuffed and put on the bus. Some of the captives were dropped on the roadside in the middle of nowhere, without shelter from the burning summer sun. Elchonon was taken for questioning. The police had thought he was someone else and tried their best to get information from him. When they finally realized their mistake, and that they had just made fools of themselves, they became enraged – but they did grant Elchonon his freedom.
With no one left in the hotel, the Sefer Torah was abandoned. Although the contents of the hotel had been burned by the brave combatants of the special evacuation forces, one of the current residents of Gush Katif, Arik Yitzchaki managed to find the unharmed Sefer Torah and brought it to Shirat Hayam, a town on the beach neighboring Neve Dekalim.
Within a few days, following the hotel expulsion, Poltorak came with his students. The checkpoint at Kissufim Junction, the only entrance where Jews are allowed to enter Gush Katif, was getting even stricter than previously, but the Yeshiva boys managed to get in. Once in, some of the boys did come and go for various reasons, getting back in which ever way they could find, even if it meant suffering a few scratches from the barbed wire fences. With the hotel no longer an option, Poltorak found alternate accommodations for his students, with a separate cabin for his wife and himself. Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the Yeshiva started to operate. It was six weeks before the scheduled expulsion. The Sefer Torah was moved back to Neve Dekalim to be with the Yeshiva.
When the boys first arrived in Gush Katif, they wanted to know where the rockets were. Elchonon told them that they did not need to look for the rockets, the rockets would find them. A few days later, as they were pulling out the rocket – which had just made a direct hit through the roof of Poltorak’s cabin – another rocket landed nearby.
Yeshiva student Shmueli Albukerk, who came with Elchonon for the interview, was one of the students who arrived with Poltorak. Shmueli said, “Instead of watching for cars and traffic when you were out, you would be looking up and watching for Kassam rockets. The noise they made was frightening. Only Elchonon wasn’t bothered by their high pitched whizzing sounds,” Shmueli teased. “That sound was so creepy, and it came so fast and could be so deadly.”
The weeks passed and soon it was Shabbos Chazon, the day before Tishu B’Av, which was the day before the Disengagement. Many Chabadnikim gathered in the home of the local Shliach, Rabbi Yigal Kirshenzaft. Danny Cohen from Hevron was there. He offered to house the Sefer Torah, should the Disengagement eviction actually come to be.
Tragically the Disengagement did come to be. A monumental stain on the page of Jewish History.
At the height of the transfer of Jews from Neve Dekalim, the Sefer Torah was with the Chabad Yeshiva who had locked themselves in a bomb shelter with ample food supplies and make shift bedding. There was communication through a small window with the army, who were concerned about making an all out aggressive attack. The boys coated the floor at the entrance of the bomb shelter with oil making an advance awkward, but not impossible, they just need to throw sand on it. But the army did not know what to expect from these boys. Finally they did force their way in. An officer confronted the boys, “Walk out with dignity or we carry you out like dogs!” Chaim from Crown Heights proudly answered “You will carry us out with dignity!”
Amidst confrontation and shouts of ‘Yehudi Lo Migaresh Yehudi,’ a Jew does not evict a Jew, the students were forced onto buses. The Sefer Torah went with them to Yerushalaim. Later in an email, Poltorak told me, “We really developed an emotional attachment to that Sefer Torah.”
The Chabad Yeshiva of Gush Katif put up one of the best resistances of the entire process. If two dozen boys could put up such a defense, the Hesder Yeshivos surely could have blocked the entire Disengagement.
The boys brought the Sefer Torah with them to the Kotel, the first stop for most of the Gush Katif refuges. The Sefer Torah was then safely housed in the Ramban Shul in the Old City of Yerushalaim, waiting to re-locate, while the Bochurim went to continue fighting against the Disengagement, this time in the hills of the Shomron.
When the final battlefield of the Disengagement was cleared, Elchonon focused once again on the Sefer Torah. Menachem Porter, a Chabad Hevron activist, came with a van and brought Elchonon, together with a handful of the Gush Katif Yeshiva students, and the Sefer Torah to Hevron. It was a good feeling for all involved to have the Sefer Torah, which had been evicted from the hotel and then evicted again from the Yeshiva, to come home to Hevron, where it will stay until the day it will return to Gush Katif, with G-d’s help.
After careful examination, Danny Cohen, who had originally suggested the Sefer Torah come to Hevron, realized that he would like the Sefer Torah repaired so it would be Kosher without a doubt. Elchonon got in touch with his friend Ari. They decided that together they would sponsor the restoration.
The Sefer Torah was ready in time for Chof Daled Shvat, and the grand HaChnoses Sefer Torah I mentioned at the beginning of my story, was held in Hevron. The parents of Nati Ozeri came to share in the Simcha. They were particularly touched by the Sefer Torah in honor of son. Mrs Ozeri told me Nati was her only son.
This Sefer Torah embodies the message that the Rebbe repeatedly stressed, the message of the first Rashi in Chumash, that Eretz Yisroel belongs to the Jews because G-d says so as recorded in the Torah. The Torah is the proof that the land is ours. The Elchonon-Ari-Hillel-Nati Sefer Torah made that statement with its repeated appearances throughout the Disengagement. When someone comes to evict you, you show him your deed of ownership. This Torah is the deed of ownership which proud Jewish youth carried in Gush Katif.