I had been staying for a few days in Hevron. When I awoke on Erev Shabbos, I walked over to Maaras HaMachpela to Daven Shachris and say Chitas1 , as well as to use the early morning opportunity to photograph the students of the Talmud Torah Hevron as they Daven and study in the Maara before re-grouping to their classrooms elsewhere in Hevron.
The previous time I photographed them, about two years ago, there was only one class. Now there are three. The sound of their learning Torah in the Maara is beyond words to describe. All the boys looked so well disciplined and participated so nicely I assumed the registration was limited to a certain type of child. But when I inquired, I found out that registration is open to all children from all families. And when I photographed them on their way out of the Maara I saw they were real boys by the way they charged down the flights of steps to the field below the plaza, where they played ball before proceeding to their classes in the Beit Hadassah area of Hevron.
I always find Davening in the Maara to be special. I am very visual and sometimes picture the Maara as I mention the names Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov in Shmone Esrai. So to be standing right there – what can I say? – it is very uplifting! And then to say Tehillim for my children and grandchildren, it is heartwarming to know I am in the company of our ancient grandmothers and grandfathers.
When I finished Davening that Erev Shabbos and crossed over the plaza of the Maara, the fresh morning air was crisp but not cold, even though it was still February. Thinking about the day ahead, I decided that it would be best to stay in the vicinity of Hevron until Shabbos. The Gush Etzion winery was less than fifteen minutes away. I considered that to be in the area and decided to pick up some local wines for Shabbos.
I pulled into the parking lot of the winery at the same time as a carload of other English speakers. Once inside the winery I found myself discussing with them about the different wines and liquors. The store tender offered us tastes of a sampling of wines but did not have an open bottle of the wine I was most interested in which was made with organic grapes grown by the Ferenzi family in nearby Bat Ayin.
I decided to buy one bottle regardless, but wanted to taste it to decide if I wanted to buy more. So the store tender opened my bottle. It had a very unusual taste; I did not know what to make of it. I decided to buy a second bottle. As my new found friends were also interested in tasting the different wines, I decided to do a little pre-Shabbos Hachnoses Orchim and gave everyone who wanted a taste. The winery provided the glasses. (I mention that so you don’t think you were passing the bottle and taking swigs.)
Meanwhile, a young couple wandered in. They were clearly from Eretz Yisroel but they also spoke English, so they joined in our impromptu party. (Does this happen any where else other than Eretz Yisroel?)
I began talking to the young couple and I don’t know how it started but I mentioned that my intentions were to stay in the vicinity, and at the same time I was longing to make a quick trip to Givot Olam. I was worried about being back in time for Shabbos. There was a little more than five hours until Shabbos. It was not a question of mileage. Givot Olam is about ten minutes from the turnoff at the entrance to Shechem, Nablus, which is approximately sixty miles from where we were. But the roads are full of sharp curves and inclines. They are two lane most of the way and it is not uncommon to get stuck behind slow moving trucks. Plus you need to pass through the entire Yerushalaim, which can go smoothly with the new roads, but not always. I felt there was a risk involved with the timing.
The young couple assured me that traffic would be light on Erev Shabbos. They told me they had never been to Givot Olam and would love to accompany me. No one should think it was the wine tasting that led me to decide to make the trip. I drink four cups of straight wine every Seder and barely get tipsy. The wine was not what made me decide to drive to Givot Olam on Erev Shabbos – it was the mission.
Givot Olam, which translates as “Hills of the World,” is the farm of Avraham Ran and his family. Avraham, widely referred to as Avri, is known as the father of the outposts that surround the settlements in the Shomron, the heartland of Eretz Yisroel just north of Yerushalaim, reaching up to south of the Galil, Galilee. More than ten years ago Avri realized that near the settlements the Arabs were grabbing land by grazing their flocks on it, cultivating it and even building on it. Laws are obscure in the Shomron. These activities grant Arabs rights to the land and the same activities deem Jews to be lawless. Avri understood that the Arabs could grab land all the way up the security fences of the settlements and thereby block any expansion by Jewish communities.
To counter the Arab aggression, Avri moved with his family outside the security fence of the Shomron community of Itamar which is in the close vicinity of the city of Shechem. Other families joined him and as the outpost became established, Avri moved his family a kilometer further away from the settlement.
Following his example others established outposts in various settlements. It became clear that these outposts were more effective than security fences. The outposts represent surveillance of the outer lying areas. Many of them have trained guard dogs. The dogs are trained in the town of Tapuach, a settlement in the Shomron known as an enclave for followers of Meir Kahane.
Avri kept moving until he reached what he has named Givot Olam. It is perched at the height of a mountain overlooking miles of the ancient hills where our forefathers walked. It has a lookout instead of a security fence. The Arabs in the vicinity have respect for the Jews who do not hide behind fences.
At the time of the Disengagement last summer, Avri was framed, arrested and ordered to remain under house arrest far from his family. Just a few weeks before my visit, he was cleared of all the false charges and had returned to his hilltop.
I had visited Givot Olam a few days before. It was one of my first stops upon landing in Eretz Yisroel, along with a visit to Izik Sandroi and family at the outpost of Mitzpeh Yitzhar on a neighboring hilltop. I had gone with Meryl Dalven who moved from Crown Heights, Brooklyn to Emanuel in the Shomron, more than 20 years ago.
The final stretch of road leading to Givot Olam is no longer a two lane road, it is more like a one and a half lane road, and it is full of sharp turns… as well as being breathtakingly beautiful. It was February, well into the rainy season, and we enjoyed the rich green foliage competing for space along side the stones of the rocky terrain, characteristic of the Shomron. Highlighting the scenery were poppies spotting the hillsides with red dots, majestic lavender blossoms of almond trees and occasional patches of tiny yellow flowers.
Givot Olam operates as a farm. Spread out on the hilltop are a number of barns housing sheep, goats and chickens; a building where milk products are made and packaged for resale; a beautiful circular structure which is the communal kitchen and dining room; along with homes and a Shul. In the vicinity there are fields of organic vegetables, and olive and apricot groves. All the work is done by Jews, including caring for the animals, cleaning the barns, farming the land and constructing the buildings – and I don’t mean overseeing the construction, I mean hammering in the nails!
Much of the work is done by youth who are attracted to the farm as an alternative to establishment systems in which they are uncomfortable. At Givot Olam they become productive and self-confident. The youth love and revere Avri.
During our visit Meryl and I met a young designer who was beautifying the grounds with artwork in stone, a most natural element in the Shomron. With a closer look, these stones exhibit their own hues and textures. In contrast to the stonework in the Mittler Rebbe’s Shul in Hevron – which happens to be magnificent – in which the stones are polished and smooth, and in places decoratively carved, the artist in Givot Olam uses the stones au natural, as he finds them.
We went to look at his handwork, including the Aron Kodesh in the Shul.
Once in the Shul we saw Chabad Bochurim learning and we met Rabbi Yechzkiel Nuema. Nuema lives in one of the outposts we passed on the way. His caravan had been quite discernable; it was the one with the giant poster of the Rebbe. He has recently opened a branch of the Chabad yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Givot Olam. A teacher and two students come to study on a regular basis.
From the Shul we went into the communal dining room, a circular building with windows all around. Wood, stone, colorful materials and dried flowers give the spacious room a modest, rustic feeling. Near the entrance is a rack for rifles. The kitchen counters line about one third of the wall, there are tables in the center and a few more off to the side.
I noticed an eight by ten picture of a Rabbi who looked familiar but I cannot say who he was. I looked around to see if there was a picture of the Rebbe and sure enough there was also an eight by ten of the Rebbe, but you had to look for it to notice it. It was black and white and the Rebbe’s expression was very intense. A strong feeling came over me that this place merited a larger picture of the Rebbe. That was on Wednesday.
Wednesday night I attended the Siyum Sefer Torah in Hevron. Chabad Shliach Danny Cohen is some organizer, there were more than 700 people from all over Eretz Yisroel together dancing and singing in the streets of Hevron. (And almost as many speakers at the following banquet.) Ostensibly this event was the reason for my trip. The real reason we do things is sometimes hidden from us. After all that happened on the trip, including my present story, I feel my visit to Eretz Yisroel had more to it than the wonderful celebration that night in Hevron.
Thursday I spent in Yerushalaim. I have a very close friend, Shaena, who lives in Yerushalaim and her birthday was that coming Sunday. So I went to the bookstore on the lower level of Heichel Menachem, near downtown Yerushalaim, to buy Shaina Malka Touger’s latest publication “Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?” (which deserves to be on bestseller lists the world over.) Shaina is not Chabad, but I knew she would love a copy.
Lo and behold, right near the check out desk, a tastefully framed picture of the Rebbe caught my eye. I realized it would be perfect for the communal dining room at Givot Olam. Even though I had no plans to return to the Shomron, I decided to buy it.
But there was a problem. The picture was beautiful but the Rebbe was looking a bit to the side. With such a picture, I feel the Rebbe is present and we can be comforted knowing he is with us, but when you really need to look into the Rebbe’s holy face, his eyes are averted.
There was a second picture with the same frame. It showed the Rebbe clapping by his Shtender in front of the white wall of 770 and he was looking straight at you. I chose this second picture and had it gift wrapped for protection.
I returned to Hevron for Thursday night and Shabbos, knowing my trip was coming to an end on Sunday night, with no plans to return to Givot Olam. The picture was in the trunk of my rented car.
So when we set out for Givot Olam from the Gush Etzion Winery on Erev Shabbos, my mission was to bring the Rebbe’s picture to them in time for Shabbos.
My traveling companions, by now I know their names, Yehudit and Tzvike, were right about the traffic being light on Erev Shabbos. We reached Itamar in an hour, even with stopping to pick up Jewish youth at hitchhiking stations along the way. As we passed Yechezkiel’s caravan with the giant poster of the Rebbe, I decided to stop in and tell him what I was doing. I felt he was the Chabad Rabbi of Givot Olam and should be informed of my activities.
To my surprise, Yechezkiel’s front porch was the scene of a luncheon for a group of tourists from Long Island who had come with Chabad Rabbis Laible and Levi Baumgarten. I had met up with this group on Wednesday night when they also participated in the celebration in Hevron. It was nice to see them again. Everyone was in good spirits, happy to be in Eretz Yisroel, and enthralled by the quality of life they were witnessing in the Shomron. The material quality of life would be superior in Long Island, but obviously these visitors were not jaded, they were sensitive to the spiritual quality of life they were experiencing.
The group had just come down from visiting Givot Olam. I don’t think regular tours go there, Kol HaKavod to the Long Islanders.
Yehudis and Tzvike and I had forgotten all about having lunch. A man can’t live on wine alone, neither can a woman, so we were happy to take care-packages of delicious boreks and quiche and we continued our ascent to the top of the hilltops.
Tzvike and Yehudit were thrilled with the trip. As we rounded the last corner and Givot Olam came into view they wanted to stop and take pictures. But I had to keep moving because the curves were sharp and if another vehicle did happen to come along, it would not be expecting a parked car in the middle of a turn. There were no shoulders on the road, just an incline on one side and a sharp cliff on the other. But there was flat stretch just before the entrance and we decided to take advantage of it for picture taking on the way back.
At some point in our travels together my young companions confided in me that they were dating and considering getting engaged. While driving to the Shomron and back, we had plenty of time to discuss a lot about life. It reminded me of the days when I was young, and they got to look into how it is being older. True, I have children their age, and they have parents my age, but discussing things on the open road with no strings attached, does open things up. Especially when you start at a winery! They were also curious about Chabad. They could see I was very serious about this picture of the Rebbe I was delivering.
We pulled into Givot Olam and asked where to find Avri. It was my third visit to his farm but the first time I was to meet him. Luckily for me, he stays home the last few hours before Shabbos.
He and his wife appreciated the picture and his wife came with me to place it in the dining room. Avri said he would hang it properly, but in time for Shabbos we just leaned it against the wall on top of a piece of furniture.
We had made such good time getting to Givot Olam that I allowed Tzvike and Yehudit some time to take a quick tour. Avri asked his ten year old son Ohr David to show us around. I recognized Ohr David, he was the one who addressed thousands of people at a post-Disengagement Rally in Yerushalaim under the banner We Will Not Forgive and We Will Not Forget. Amongst the prominent rabbis, the dignitaries and famous singers, Ohr David had made a presentation about his father’s cruel and unfounded incarceration.
In person Ohr David is like his father. He shows a strong personality encased in modesty.
We visited the sheep barn just as a teenage girl was going into the pen and feeding the sheep. Yehudit went along and got a chance to hold and cuddle a young lamb. It was hard for me to ask her to put the lamb back, but it was Erev Shabbos and we had to move along.
On the way back to Hevron there were fewer hitchhikers. Boruch Hashem the youth were at their places for Shabbos. Tzvike got off in Yerushalaim and Yehudis in Efrat. I still had two hitchhikers in the back seat who got out before I turned off the main road at Kiryat Arba. The two boys still had a few more miles to travel, with an hour left until sundown.
Within minutes from the turn into Kiryat Arba I was back in Hevron. Mission accomplished – or was it?
When I had presented the Rebbe picture to Avri, I saw that he looked straight into the Rebbe’s eyes for a sustained few moments. Then he looked up and asked if the picture was for his home or the communal dining room. I said either place. But then he asked my intention. I had the feeling he would have liked the picture in his home but I answered him straight. He wanted to know my intention, so I told him.
I had scheduled a number of things for Sunday before going to the airport. Then one of the appointments cancelled. I rushed to Heichel Menachem, purchased the picture I had originally thought was perfect for a large dining room, rushed back up to Givot Olam, replaced the one in the dining room with the new picture and took the original picture to Avri’s home. Another one of their sons was there and he assured me he would tell his father that I had made the switch.
Finally, I felt my mission was accomplished.
As I traveled to the different locations that day I was held up in traffic twice, made wrong turns and had to circle around numerous times and suffered two delays due to traffic accidents. As frustrating as it was, it made me realize what a blessing it was to be able to take the Rebbe’s picture to Givot Olam on Erev Shabbos without incident and to made it back on time to have a fabulous Shabbos in Hevron… but that’s a whole other story!