The Americans For a Safe Israel/AFSI Chizuk Mission, Oct. 27 - Nov. 4, 2002
by Helen Freedman, Executive Director of AFSI
As always, when planning a trip to Israel, there are nay-sayers who warn of the dangers of traveling to that country to which they give lip service, and perhaps even make generous donations, but would be afraid to visit.  And they certainly wouldn't follow the itinerary planned for the AFSI Chizuk Mission to Israel,  Oct 27-Nov 4, 2002.  But the conviction of Rabbi Bruce Rudolph, tour organizer, Herbert Zweibon, Chairman of Americans For a Safe Israel, and the entire AFSI staff, was simply that they are there - our brothers and sisters - in Netanya, the Shomron, Judea, Hebron, Gaza, the Golan, Safed and Jerusalem - so
we must be there also, even if only for a few hours of support and appreciation.

The trip began with the excited gathering together at the airport of our group of 35 travelers who had come from all over the country to embark on this adventure under the AFSI banner.

Our first stop, the Park Hotel in Netanya, provided an unforgettable picture.  Situated right on the beach, with the gleaming Mediterranean behind it, it seemed the idyllic spot for a vacation.  It was incredible to realize that a terrorist had walked into a scene of family gatherings at the Passover seder and blown himself up, destroying so many lives.  The hotel, which now has 5% occupancy, is undergoing repair work,  and Eric Cohen, the son of the owner, told us that although the costs are enormous, they will not give up.  They've been there and will remain there.  By being there with them we hoped to demonstrate that we appreciate their enormous effort. 

One of the soldiers killed in the suicide bombing at the gas station in Ariel on the morning of our departure for Israel was Lt. Matan Zagron.  He was being buried Monday afternoon in Itamar.  The group, led by our tour guide Era Rappaport, decided
that we wound attend the funeral, and we proceeded to Itamar.  What we saw when we arrived was thousands of people moving somberly and slowly behind an army hearse carrying the body of Lt. Zagron.  They were climbing the hill top to the burial ground, and we followed along.  It was difficult to keep the tears from flowing.  It is incomprehensible that Israelis must attend funerals almost every day for victims of terrorist attacks.  How can Israelis continue this activity day after day - burying young, beautiful, brave people whose only crime is that they are Jews living in their promised land?

We went on to visit Gilad Farm, which had been in the news because of the fierce evacuation of the "settlers" by the IDF.  The farm, a modest piece of land owned by Moshe Zar, had been "settled" by members of the Zar family in memory of Gilad Zar who had been murdered by terrorists.  Hannah Goffer from Kedumim, described to us how the army had thrown off the "settlers" but because of the huge resistance, had allowed some tents to remain.  Batsy Zar described the destruction of her caravan by the army, and the determination she and her husband had to remain on the hillside with their two babies.  Looking around at the shabby tents, which we learned had been taken down again, and were put up one more time, it was hard to believe that the Israeli government could do this to its people.  Brave, beautiful people, who insisted on their biblical and legal right to
be there, had become the enemy of the state.  Surely we were witnessing an indescribable abomination. 

At Emmanuel, where two buses had been blown up in earlier terrorist attacks, killing 20 and injuring many, some families were leaving.  From an original 700 families there were now 400.  We didn't wonder about those who left.  We marvelled at the
strength and the bravery of those who remained.  They believed that their being there was the only answer to terrorism.  We
were so pleased to deliver to them a large duffel bag which had traveled with us from America.  It was filled with toys purchased for them by AFSI members in Michigan, led by Raye Scharfman, who had "adopted" the community.

At Elon Moreh, which proudly claims its biblical ties to Genesis 12:6, "And Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem to Elon Moreh.."  We saw a sprawling, healthy, growing community.  Rabbi Menachem Felix, Pinchas Fuchs, and Zev Saffer all gave us a glimpse of a people living under the daily threat of terror attacks and yet insisting on their right and determination to exist.

Ariel, a thriving city with thousands of residents, was our last stop of the day.  We went to the College of Judea and Samaria by Professor Hanukoglu and Professor Sinuany-Stern.  The College serves 6500 students, and is the largest public four year college in all of Israel.  Its growth is miraculous, considering that ten years ago there were only 300 students.

Ready for rest, we arrived at the Aishel HaShomron hotel in Ariel, where we had booked our group for two nights.  We made the decision to stay there despite the fact that the hotel had been the scene of a terrorist bombing in April, 2002, and the gas station in front of the hotel was the staging ground for murder just the day before of our arrival. 

Tuvia Gelbard, the hotel manager, told us the terrifying story of the April bombing which had occurred in the hotel lobby.  In
that attack, Tovah Gilboa, the wife of the owner Menachem Gilboa, had been badly injured.  Menachem was now hospitalized, having been severely wounded in the Oct. 27 bombing.  We missed his presence since we were accustomed to being greeted by Menachem whenever we visited the hotel.  But Tovah and Tuvia carried on, determined that our stay would be as comfortable
as always.

That evening, Mayor of Ariel Ron Nachman was our guest speaker.  He reminded us of his opposition to Oslo from the very beginning, and repeated his present stance against a "Palestinian" state, recognizing that it would be the end of Israel. 

The next morning we continued our tour of Shomron.  In Paduel we were reminded of the horrible murder of Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, the head of Yeshiva, who had been attacked a few months earlier, at 3:30 in the morning while he was driving to his
early morning study class.  Rav Lilintal Elitzur, who was with him at the time, was brought to us in his wheel chair.  He
described the harrowing experience in vivid detail.  Although he himself was seriously wounded in the attack, he drove the car with his hand on the steering wheel and the dead Rabbi lying on the gas pedal until they found some soldiers and recieved help.  Rav Elitzur was in the hospital for 3 weeks.  He told us, as so many others had done, that before Oslo there had been good relations with the neighboring Arabs.  Since Oslo and the building of the "safe" by-pass roads, the residents of Paduel had
become the regular targets of snippers.  The by-pass roads had become shooting galleries.

Driving from Ofra to Shilo on one of the region's most dangerous roads, we passed Bir Zeit University, a hotbed of PLO
activity.  Era, our guide, told us that Israel had given over $100 million to develop the University from a small girl's seminary in 1967, serving 27 girls, to its present status.  This was part of the hoped for enlightenment that would teach Arabs to accept, not destroy their Jewish neighbors.  This effort failed tragically, along with so many other attempts to change the nature of the scorpion.

We couldn't resist a visit to Rechalim, founded in memory of Rachel Druck, murdered by terrorists a few years ago.  We had visited there when it was an "outpost" comprised of one tent and one family.  It now houses 25 families and 14 houses and caravans.  We were thrilled to see the children playing happily in the sunshine under the watchful eyes of their mothers and the soldiers stationed there.  We were delighted to give them toys which we had purchased at the Barkan industrial park,  and to see the expressions of joy on the faces of the children. 

Tapuach, up the hill from Tapuach junction, was our next stop.  Lenny Goldberg, spokesman for the community, showed us
the three dogs that are being trained at Tapuach to attack terrorists.  We saw a demonstration of the training procedures and
were glad that we were not their targets.  Tapuach was also preparing for a festive celebration to mark the opening of their new mikvah.  People had come from neighboring communities to join in the festivities.  The opportunity to participate in a happy occasion was a welcomed change from so many of the tragic meetings caused by the terrorist rampage. 

Moshe Feiglin, leader of Manhigut Yehudit, who had just shaken up the Likud by grabbing a solid block of 130 votes within the Likud party itself, was our guest speaker for the evening.  His overriding message had to do with answering the question as to Israel's direction.  Would it continue to be a state of all its citizens, or would it be a Jewish state?  Feiglin believes that the
Jewish identity is necessary to the preservation of the state and the present efforts at "peace" are really an effort ot erase the identity of the Jewish state. 

On Wednesday we began our trip north along the Jordan Valley Road.  At Moshav Mekhora,  an oasis in the desert which was started 27 years ago, there are 32 families living with daily threats of terrorism.  The spokesman told us that they know the
Arab village where the terrorists come from, but unless they can actually identify the specific terrorist, he can't be punished.  With tears streaming down her eyes, Iris, a resident of the community whose daughter and grandchildren were murdered by terrorists, told us the horrible story.  At the conclusion, she emphasized that the Arabs in the neighborhood know Iris and her family very well, having recieved very kind treatment from them over the years, but it didn't stop them from carrying out their murderous deed.  Despite all this, one-half of the community is made up of meretz followers and they persist in voicing their determination to give up their homes if necessary for the "peace" - in which they have no faith.  Moshe Feiglin was right when
he said, "We are a self-destructive people."

At Chemdat, we stood at a beautiful sight overlooking Jordan and the "refugee" camps spread out in the valley.  The Yeshiva belongs to the Mechina system begun 8 years ago for boys to study Torah for a year and one-half and then go to officer training in the army. The young Lt. whose funeral we had attended,  Lt. Matan Zagron, had been a student at Chemdat.  Their social hall and library was named after another victim of terrorism, MK Rehavam Gandhi. 

Continuing north, we came to beautiful Lake Kinneret, sadly showing its receding water level, and then arrived at Safad.  This city, known for its mystical Kabbalistic history, the famous rabbis who had lived, studied, and taught there, the main old synagogues, and the graves of hundreds of sages and revered rabbis, is built on many levels.  After a lovely lunch at restaurants overlooking the city and the mountains of Meron, and shopping in the artists' quarter,  we relunctantly took our leave.  A more leisurely stay at Safed is an absolute must.

We were racing the sun to get to the Golan before dark.  And we were successful.  We reached the lower Golan, boasting 28 communities and 18,000 inhabitants, and had time for prayers on the mountain top, our figures silhouetted against the glorious glow of the setting sun.  Our return trip took us down the Jordan Valley road, with a stop at a favorite restaurant, Tzipora,
where we enjoyed a delicious dinner.  And then we completed our day's journey, arriving in Jerusalem, the holy city, the city of gold.  It always brings tears to my eyes when I approach Jerusalem, the city for which our ancestors yearned during so many centuries.  And now, we are able to get there so easily.  We are a blessed generation.

Livnot, a volunteer organization that reaches out to the community in countless ways, was on our morning schedule.  We arrived at Yad Eliezer and learned about the fifty thousand infants being provided with their monthly ration of Similac each month, and the thirty volunteers in the cancer wards, and the 400 couples each year who are helped with their marriage plans, and the over 2,000 families each year who are helped to become independent, and so much more.  Our task that morning was to fill boxes
with groceries, seal them up, and prepare them for delivery.  As we worked in assembly line formation, there was a lot of
laughter and effort as the two teams into which we had divided ourselves strove to outdo each other.

The afternoon activity was one we had planned very carefully.  We were determined to attempt an ascent of the Temple Mount.  Knowing that Jews and Christians were barred from the holiest place in the world for Jews, we felt it our duty to openly declare our refusal to quietly accept the shame and humiliation of such a situation.  We walked as a group up the ramp to the Temple Mount and were stopped by Israeli soldiers about one quarter of the way up the ramp.  They told us the Mount was 'sagoor' -
closed.  I asked when it would be 'patuach' - open.  They replied that it was 'asoor' - forbidden.  I explained that we were
American Jews who had come to the holy land of Israel, to the holiest city of Jerusalem, and wished to visit the holiest site. 
The soldiers called for reinforcements and began pushing us down the ramp.  We held our places and Rabbi Bruce Rudolph
began leading us in prayer.  We were permitted to complete our prayers and then proceeded to leave the ramp and went to the Kotel where Jews are still permitted to pray.  I know that the soldiers were just following orders.  One even took an AFSI
button from me when we left the area, as if to say he regretted having to treat us the way he did.  The blame clearly lies with a cowardly government that has allowed the Temple Mount to remain in the hands of the enemy that has done everything in its power to erase the Jewish claim to the Mount.  To permit such a situation is an abomination.  I pray that a new government, a stronger Knesset, with more right-minded leaders, will reverse the status quo.

Having made our statement, we drove on into Jewish East Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives and Yeshiva Beit Orot.  Chaim Silberstein, Director of the Yeshiva, met us there in the beautiful garden.  Basking in the delightful spring-like weather of Jerusalem, we listened to a fascinating talk Chaim pointed out that there are 300,000 dead Jews buried on the Mount of Olives, and only a very small number of Jews are now living in the area.  It is Beit Orot's plan to create a belt of neighborhoods
inhabited by Jews in Jewish East Jerusalem, on land originally owned by Jews, but lost to them in 1948 when Arabs took over the area.  Only by creating "facts on the ground" will Jews be able to hold onto their claim to all of beloved Jerusalem.  Such a
fact is very clear in the Ma'aleh Ha'Zaytim homes in the area previously called Ras Al-Amud.  Aryeh King, a resident of the
area, gave us an inspiring tour of the apartment complex owned by Dr. Irving Moskowitz.  As we stood on the rooftop, looking out at the walls of the Old City, and the vast expanse of the Judean desert, we were overwhelmed by the importance of having a presence in that place.  And the Arabs are well aware of the Jewish plan because wherever we looked, we saw illegal buildings that had sprung up since our last visit.  Once again, the government refuses to destroy these buildings for fear of antagonizing Arabs.  So the lives of Jews are put at risk.  This is another clear example of the shame and humiliation created by a cowardly government.

Member of Knesset Michael Kleiner graciously traveled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to be our evening's guest speaker.  He reaffirmed his opposition to a "Palestinian" state, clearly enunciating that, "If there will be a 'Palestinian' state, there will be no Israel."  He declared the absolute necessity for winning the war against terror, denouncing the decisions to build a useless fence with billions of shekels that could be used for social needs.  He is also opposed to the billions of shekels given to the PA by the Israelis, when it is clearly known that the money will not go to the people, but will be used to buy more weapons and to line Arafat's pockets.  Kleiner told us of Labor's activities in pouring billions of shekels into PA cities, building their infrastructures, all in an attempt to woo the "peace" partner whose aim it is to destroy Israel.  Kleiner endorses transfer of Arabs ready to leave Israel and offers them a 'basket of immigration' to make their resettlement easier.  AFSI strongly supports these positions.

Friday morning, continuing along the lines of what we had learned from Chaim Silberstein, Dan Luria of Ateret Cohanim took us on a tour of the Kotel, or Moslem Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.  He said it was a misnomer to call it a Quarter since in actuality the Jews have only one-eighth of the city.  Protected by armed guards, we walked through the crowded streets filled with Arabs and an occasional Jewish family, realizing the overwhelming task undertaken by those who are trying to keep Jerusalem Jewish.  The purchase of every building is a major accomplishment.  The renovation and protection of these buildings requires constant attention.  Although many Jewish families are ready to move in, there is not sufficient housing for them.  The sight of the Yeshiva boys, rushing around in preparation for Shabbat, was a heartwarming one, as always.  Their willingness to study in the holiness of the Old City, amidst all its dangers, where Yeshiva students have been murdered on the streets, is a wonderful testimony to the courage, bravery and spirituality of so many Israelis.  It is unfortunate that the government doesn't display the same spirit.

Member of Knesset Benny Elon made a special effort to meet us at the hotel that Friday afternoon to give us words of encouragement as we prepared to leave for our trip to Hebron.  Rabbi Elon reiterated MK Kleiner's statement that a 'Palestinian' state would be the end of Israel.  He said, "Everyone knows this."  He identified the "Palestinian refugee" situation as the real problem, describing the refugee camps as ticking bombs which are the source of terror.  MK Elon went on to state that "The
only way to have two states is on both sides of the Jordan."  He explained that 80% of the Jordanians are "Palestinians" and Jordan is already a "Palestinian" state with Amman as its capital.  Our AFSI group cheered Rabbi Elon's position, and wishing him a Shabbat Shalom, we boarded our bus for the trip to Hebron, driving past the beautiful development of Har Homa, and stopping at the Tomb of Rachel.

It is excruciatingly painful to describe the conditions at Rachel's Tomb.  Although it is just a short distance south of Jerusalem, it was necessary for us, in our bulletproof bus, to be escorted by army soldiers to the fortress that now encloses the tomb of Mother Rachel.  More soldiers met us at the Tomb and whisked us inside, guarding us from Arab snipers.  It is another disgrace and humiliation heaped on the Jews by Israel's government that this holy place must be guarded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers.  Fortunately, these soldiers look like proud representatives of their government.  I will never forget the outrageous situation at the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem, now lost to us, where Israeli soldiers were not allowed to be in uniform because it would anger the Arabs.  The Israeli government required its soldiers to be on duty while wearing fatigues.  The result of such cowardice was that the Tomb of Joseph is now a mosque.  We pray that the Tomb of Mother Rachel will not fall into the same fate.

Proceeding south, we arrived at Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Araba/Hebron.  This was to be our home for the Sabbath, and as we ourselves comfortable in the dormitory accommodations, preparing for the Shabbat, we felt extrememly fortunate.  There we were in the city of King David's first capital, the second holiest city for Jews, on the very special Sabbath called Chaye Sarah.  It's the Sabbath when the portion is read describing Abraham's purchase of the grave for Sarah in Hebron.  It has become
tradition that thousands of Jews stream into Hebron for the celebration of this event, and this year, we were part of the 25,000 Jews who descended on Hebron for this holy occasion.  Walking down the hill from Kiryat Arba were thousands of white
shirted men and boys of all ages, as well as thousands of beautiful young girls, mothers, and grandmothers.  Everyone felt the
joy of the occasion.  There were  "minyanim" - large groups of men, with women in the background, praying the evening
prayers that Friday night.  The Carlebach melodies were heard everywhere and the dancing was delirious.  Getting into the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Machpelah, required ingenuity, but we did it, and found ourselves in the Yitzchak, or Isaac Hall, which is ordinarily closed to the Jews.  After the division of the Machepelah seven years ago, when the Jews were given the open
hallway and two small rooms, and the Arabs got the spacious rooms, there are only a few occasions during the year when the Jews may pray in the entire Machpelah.  Shabbat Chaye Sarah is one of those times, and this weekend, Nov. 1 & 2, the Jews were reveling in their opportunity to pay homage to their matriarchs and patriarchs without limitations.  Fortunately, there were soldiers everywhere, providing maximum security, under difficult conditions, to all the visitors.  We are grateful for their efforts which enabled us to visit and return from that beleaguered city.

At the Saturday lunch, we were treated to special words of inspiration from Rabbi Eliezer Waldman.  Then the group went on a tour of Hebron with David Wilder, spokesman for the city.  It was a  glorious day, with an impeccable blue sky, warm temperatures, and a mood of exhilaration permeating the atmosphere. David showed us the growth in the city, the danger points, and took us up to Tel Rumeida, the caravan community, where progress is being made with some construction of permanent homes.  Walking past high steel walls, and guarded by the army stationed on site in the neighborhood, we made our way to the tombs of Jesse and Ruth, the ancestors of King David.  We enjoyed the incredible hospitality of the residents of Tel Rumeida.  Our good friend, Yfat Akobi, opened her home to us, and Baruch Marzel, known for his amazing catering talents, performed miracles with fantastic cholent, noodle puddings and turkey.  It was inspiring to see how these people, who must tolerate daily efforts to terroize  them, are able to warmly and joyously and fearlessly become extraordinary hosts to thousands of visitors to the holy city.  As evening fell, we said our final prayers in the holy place, and made our farewell climb up the hill to Kiryat
Arba.  We said goodbye to our wonderful hosts at Yeshivat Nir and returned to Jerusalem, filled with memories, emotions and
a bit of ecstasy that will always be with us.

Sunday, our last day in Israel, was spent visiting Gaza.  The people in Netzarim and Kfar Darom, communities outside of the block of communities called Gush Katif, rarely get groups of visitors coming to see them.  So the AFSI Chizuk missions make it
a point to include them in our itinerary.  We drove in our bulletproof bus to the Karni passage point where our Gaza guide,
Drur, and a military escort met us.  Following the escort along the sandy road leading to Netzarim, I was again angered, as I have been in the past, when I saw the vacant Arab buildings alongside the road which were used as staging grounds for attacks against the Jews. When I asked the soldiers why the buildings were allowed to stand, I recieved the same answer that had been given to me in the past.  "The government will not allow them to be destroyed."  To my thinking, this is unconscionable.  Jews must
drive the roads in fear of terrorist attacks because the government is unwilling to deal with Arab anger over the destruction of their terrorist infrastructure.  I believe this is not only illogical, it is also criminal.

Once inside Netzarim we were treated to the usual lovely hospitality.  We visited the building that would be the new synagogue.  It was started eight years ago, and the work is slow because Jews make up the construction crew, and very often give their time after finishing their paying jobs.  From what we saw, the synagogue will be very beautiful when completed.

Every effort is made to create a "normal" environment for the children of Netzarim.  The concrete slabs that protect their playground are decorated to make them look attractive rather than foreboding.  The heavy cement caravan classrooms were
filled with beautiful, animated children who greeted us warmly and happily posed for pictures with us.  However, we saw that the windows have steel shutters, and the doors are also made of heavy steel.  Each classroom can become a fortified shelter.  There are also underground shelters where the children go when the mortar shellings begin..  We asked a soldier who boarded our bus how he felt about his assignment of duty at Netzarim.  He declared, "Netzarim is part of Israel.  The citizens have the same rights as Jews everywhere."  Our group heartily endorsed this statement.  It is regrettable that too many Israelis and Jews everywhere have been poisoned by the Peres question, "Who needs Gaza?"

We then drove on to Kissufim passage which would take us into Gush Katif and our destination, Neve Dekalim.  A good friend, Rachel Saperstein, and a teacher at the Ulpana there, greeted us warmly and spoke of the desperate need for reinforced concrete dormitories for the girls.  The original dormitory trailers were attacked by over 50 motars.  The dorms were closed and students are now compelled to travel the dangerous roads where one of their teachers, Miriam Amitai, had been killed in an attack on a school bus two years ago.  Again, we saw the concrete slabs which look like tombstones, lining the area where the girls boarded the buses. One can ask how they have the courage to continue being there.  Their answer is that they will not give up their lives and their homes to the terrorists.  It's time Israeli government officials understood this message.

After a lovely lunch with Iran Steinberg, spokesman for Gush Katif, who cited the biblical references of Samson and King Solomon in Gaza, we drove to a new community, Slav, near the Egyptian Israeli border.  The community now houses eleven families, with men who are officers in the Israeli army.  Undoubtedly it will continue to grow, and we will try to be witnesses to that growth on future visits.

Continuing on to Kfar Darom, a community outside of the Gush, or block, we were met by Rabbi Ophir Cohen and his wife Noga. Three of thier children had lost limbs in the attack on the school bus which killed Miriam Amitai.  Noga Cohen spoke to
us about the four legs her children had blown off them on that horrible morning two years ago.  One child lost both legs, and the other two lost one each.  Despite this, she said it was the children who urged them not to leave Kfar Darom.  And then, incredibly, she said that her children consider themselves lucky because they are not orphans.  I remembered, on my first visit to Kfar Darom at least six years ago, we were told about the inordinate number of children in the community who had lost both parents to terror attacks and how the community had adopted them.  The Cohens spoke about the need to have belief in order to survive in that place as a Jew.  We choked back tears as we looked at the Cohen family, Noga cradling a new baby, and another beautiful child at their side, and marveled at their faith and endurance.  My feelings were that it is intolerable for a government to allow its people to suffer so - when a remedy is available - if only there were courage to take it.

Driving back to Jerusalem for our farewell dinner, members of the group had a chance to express their feelings about the
powerful impressions received throughout our extraordinary week in Israel.  The overriding thought was that we have to return
to America ready to do everything in our power to educate Americans, and Jews especially, about the true situation in Israel today.  We pray that others will take the opportunity to experience what we have experienced, to learn what we have learned, and to feel the great love and empathy with our brethren in Israel that we feel.  With the help of HaShem, we pray that the new government scheduled to come into power in Februrary 2003, will follow the direction of a Jewish State, dedicated to the preservation of its people and its holy places, and the elimination of the enemy.  In the meantime, we are grateful that there are extraordinary Israelis living in the contested areas of Israel whose very presence makes it possible for us to visit them and revel
in the richness of being with our brethren in the holy land.  We are eternally indebted to them.

P.S.  Watch for details for the next AFSI Chizuk mission to Israel, tentatively scheduled for the end of May, 2003, to coincide with Yom Yerushalayim - Jerusalem day.  Contact the AFSI office for information - 212-828-2424;

P.P.S. - Anyone wishing to contact any of the people and communities mentioned above may get contact information from AFSI at the phone number and e-mail address listed above.
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