Tag Archives: Judean desert

A Special Blessing: Elon Moreh and Ivei Hanahal

The Tirzah Valley, which extends from Nablus to the Jordan River, as viewed from Elon Moreh. The dark green on the valley floor are Arab farms
The Tirzah Valley, which extends from Nablus to the Jordan River, as viewed from Elon Moreh. The dark green on the valley floor are Arab farms

When Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Elon Moreh, welcomed us, he asked how many of us had previously visited the town. A few hands went up. The rabbi smiled and told us there is a special blessing the rest of us should say. The blessing is recited when visiting a place in the land of Israel that had been settled by Jews, destroyed during the time of the Temple, and then rebuilt. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, zt”l, the Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate, said the blessing whenever he visited a new town. Rabbi Levanon recommended that before we leave, we go to a synagogue and say the blessing.

The Beit Midrash in Elon Moreh, where we said the special blessing for rebuilt places
The Beit Midrash in Elon Moreh, where we said the special blessing for rebuilt places

At the end of our drive through Elon Moreh, we stopped at the Beit Midrash, the yeshiva’s synagogue, to say the blessing. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has removed the limits of the widow.” Widow is the word used in Eicha (Lamentations) to describe the destroyed city of Jerusalem. By extension, it refers to all the towns and cities that have been destroyed, whether by Babylonians, as in Eicha, or by others. In removing the limitations on these places, God has allowed Jews to return and rebuild.

Elon Moreh is built on Mt Kabir, one of the mountains in the Shomron that surround Nablus. This is the town that in the days of our forefathers was called Shechem.

The book of Genesis tell us that Elon Moreh is the first place Abraham Avinu stopped when he came to the land from Haran. According to some traditions, this is where he stood when God told him to look out over the land. Everything he could see, God would give to Avraham’s descendants. Yakov, following in his grandfather’s footsteps may also have stopped in Elon Moreh as he passed by Shechem.

Modern Elon Moreh was founded in 1980. The Hesder Yeshiva was one of the first buildings. As at all hesder yeshivot, its students spend two of their five years there serving in the military. Rabbi Levanon explained to us that his yeshiva places special emphasis on the study of practical halacha—how religious principles are carried out in day-to-day life.

But none of that history mattered when we walked to the observation point because when we stood there, the view captured us. It’s mid May, the fields of the Arab farmers in the wide Tirzah Valley are still glowing bright green. Unirrigated areas are already turning yellow or tan. On the other side of the valley, the mountains of the Shomron are tan and brown, disappearing into the distance. Our guide said that on a clear day, you can see Mt. Hermon. This day the Hermon’s snow covered cap hid itself in the haze. The valley stretches around Mount Kabir where we stood to beyond where we can see—all the way to the Jordan River in the east.

Tirzah Valley was the highway the Tribes of Israel used when they walked from the Jordan River to Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval when on first entering the Land under the leadership of Joshua. I tried to imagine what that must have looked like—the people must have filled the valley. It would have been more than 600,000 men, plus their wives and children who were not counted in the census. And they would have brought uncounted numbers of sheep, cattle, goats, and donkeys. The stragglers would probably just be getting their feet wet in the river’s mud when Joshua reached Shechem. The leaders would have been directing six tribes up onto the slopes of Mount Gerizim and six of them up Mount Eval, while the Cohanim were setting the Holy Ark down near Shechem. The noise of their passing would have been heard for miles.

I thought, I could sit here on the bench in the shade all day. If I lived in Elon Moreh, I wondered how much work I would get done. With that view outside my window, I’d probably stand there transfixed every morning until my alarm rang, reminding me it was time to leave the house.

I had the same feeling this week, standing on the porch of the small house Rabbi Ari Abramowitz built for himself in the Judean Desert. The house stands up the hill from Ivei Hanahal, at the end of a packed dirt road. From one side of the porch you look back at the yishuv of Ivei Hanahal, a town inhabited by forty-two families. Looking east from the porch, you see the desert mountains marching off towards the Dead Sea. The sea is a vague shape of darker blue against the backdrop of the hazy blue Mountains of Moab in Jordan. The house is built almost on the edge of the steep drop into Wadi Arugot, the largest river valley in the Mountains of Judea. The wadi, which at this time of year is dry except for a narrow steam in its bed, winds around the house, giving a spectacular view of the desert. Ari can’t see this view from his bedroom. He has to get out of bed in the morning and go into his living room to look at it. I am sure that was a deliberate decision when building the house.

Wadi Arugot in the Judean Desert
Wadi Arugot in the Judean Desert

Don’t look for the site on a map. Ivei Hanahal is too small for Google maps to find. Forty-two caravans, a stuccoed shelter for the soldier on guard duty, and a beautiful playground for the children doesn’t rate one of Google’s little red teardrops. They place the symbol for Wadi Arugot in the middle of an empty space, about halfway between Hevron and Mitzpe Shalem. You can almost find it more easily in the Bible.

Ezekiel (47: 6-10) prophesied that the water from the Third Temple will flow through the desert in large quantities. According to the prophet, the Dead Sea will become a fresh water lake, with fish swimming in it. The local interpretation is that Ezekiel was talking about Wadi Arugot.

Ari was one of the co-founders of the Land of Israel radio network, along with Jeremy Gimpel. The English language network describes itself as devoted to “broadcasting the truth and beauty of the land of Israel and the Jewish people.” The radio station’s headquarters are nearby. They are building a retreat center there, with eighteen small suites and

When completed, this retreat center at Ivei Hanahal will have 18 guest suites, conference rooms, and an outdoor pool
When completed, this retreat center at Ivei Hanahal will have 18 guest suites and an outdoor pool

conference rooms. They plan a swimming pool, to be surrounded by bushes, trees, and flowers. Here, in the middle of the desert, with the help of volunteers from Germany, they have just finished planting 500 olive trees. They envision planting a pomegranate orchard and a vineyard as well.

While we sat in Ari’s living room, he talked about building the house. He recently had heard about the blessing one says when visiting a once destroyed place that has been resettled by Jews. When he moved in to his house, he said the blessing, “…who removes the limits of the widow.”

I mentioned to Ari we had recently recited the blessing in Elon Moreh. Then I told him what Rav Levanon had said about Rabbi Kook’s custom of saying it when he visited somewhere new in Israel.

“Rav Kook did that?” Ari asked.

I nodded.

He smiled. “I’m going to do that now too.

Ma’ale Adumim, East of Jerusalem

Ma'ale Adumim as seen from the Judean Desert
Ma’ale Adumim as seen from the Judean Desert

The large posters appeared just after Succot. Billboard sized posters were on a barrier next to the sidewalk. Larger ones hung down, covering six stories of a hotel wall. The posters unveiled a campaign to extend Israeli sovereignty over the city of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest cities in Yehuda (Judea). Each poster featured a photo of a former Prime Minister, quoting him as having supported the building of Ma’ale Adumim. In the Knesset opening sessions, several Members brought up annexation of the city. Annexation supporters included Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, and Naftali Bennett, the head of the Bayit Yehudi party.

Ma’ale Adumim is located in the Judean Desert, east of Jerusalem, on the other side of the 1949 armistice line. The armistice line is often called the “green line,” because that’s the color of the wax marker Moshe Dayan used to indicate where Israeli troops stood at the time of the armistice talks. Being to the east of that blurry line puts Ma’ale Adumim in what was the West Bank area of Jordan from 1949 to 1967. Western media still refer to the area as the “West Bank,” or as “Occupied Territories.” Most Israelis prefer to call it by its Biblical name, Yehuda, or occasionally as “Disputed Territories.”

Along much of its length, the green line can be identified from the air. On the Israeli side, farms, parks, and forests make the land green. On the Arab side, the bare land is a light tan color.

Allen with Benny Kashriel, the Mayor of Ma'ale Adumim
Allen with Benny Kashriel, the Mayor of Ma’ale Adumim

During Sukkot, Allen and I spent most of a day in Ma’ale Adumim with One Israel Fund, which helps the city by providing security and emergency equipment. Benny Kashriel, the mayor spent several hours with us showing us his city and explaining its situation.

Benny mentioned that they are always pushing and demonstrating for a law that will make Ma’ale Adumim a legal part of Israel. At the moment, they are under military control, as are all areas in Yehuda and Shomron. One of the disadvantages of not being part of Israel is that they need the permission of the IDF to build anything, even an addition to an existing house. Like many other Israeli cities, Ma’ale Adumim, suffers from a housing shortage. Often children who were born and grew up in the city want to move back when they marry, but cannot because there are no apartments available.

The recent decision by PM Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman to authorize building  560 apartments in the city will help, but not resolve, the housing crisis. Because housing near Jerusalem is more affordable than in the capital, more people want to live in Ma’ale Adumim than can be accommodated even with the additional homes. The housing crisis here will not be resolved soon.

I first heard of the city in 1983, on a family trip to Israel. As our bus wound its way down through the empty desert from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, the guide waved his arm northwards. He told us that a new city was being built there. The planners chose the location as part of Yitzchak Rabin’s plan to build a security ring around the capital city. Ma’ale Adumim guards the eastern approach to Jerusalem. It was projected to house 100,000 residents when completed. However, the city has been unable to reach its planned size.

The Arabs do not own the land. Nonetheless, they object to Israel using it. The area on the top of the ridge of mountains could be used to connect parts of an eventual Palestinian state. They ignore the large area to the east which could also serve the same purpose. Other Arab countries support their position. They have also recruited support from the European Union and the US.

Because of this international pressure, the Israeli government has  instituted a series of building freezes on the city. So today, Ma’ale Adumim has a population of only about 40,000.

Benny said he has tried to work with the Arab mayors of the nearby towns. For example, he has offered to collect their trash. However, allowing Israel to collect their garbage would be interpreted as normalization. Normalization is outlawed by the PA, so the mayors refused the offer. Instead, the Arabs burn their trash. The resulting smoke pollutes the air and decreases the quality of life downwind in Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem.

Ma’ale Adumim is located in the Judean Desert, east of Jerusalem, on the other side of the 1949 armistice line. This line  is often called the “green line,” because that’s the color of the wax marker Moshe Dayan used to indicate where Israeli troops stood at the time of the armistice talks. Being to the east of that blurry line puts Ma’ale Adumim in what was the West Bank area of Jordan from 1949 to 1967. Western media still refer to the area as the “West Bank,” or as “Occupied Territories.” Most Israelis prefer to call it by its Biblical name, Yehuda, or occasionally as “Disputed Territories.”

Along much of its length, the green line can be identified from the air. On the Israeli side, farms, parks, and forests make the land green. On the Arab side, the bare land is a light tan color.

During Sukkot, Allen and I spent most of a day in Ma’ale Adumim with One Israel Fund, which helps the city by providing security and emergency equipment. Benny Kashriel, the mayor spent several hours with us showing us his city and explaining its situation.

Benny mentioned that they are always pushing and demonstrating for a law that will make Ma’ale Adumim a legal part of Israel. At the moment, they are under military control, as are all areas in Yehuda and Shomron. One of the disadvantages of not being part of Israel is that they need the permission of the IDF to build anything, even an addition to an existing house. Like many other Israeli cities, Ma’ale Adumim, suffers from a housing shortage. Often children who were born and grew up in the city want to move back when they marry, but cannot because there are no apartments available.

The recent decision by PM Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman to authorize building  560 apartments in the city will help, but not resolve, the housing crisis. Because housing near Jerusalem is more affordable than in the capital, more people want to live in Ma’ale Adumim than can be accommodated even with the additional homes. The housing crisis here will not be resolved soon.

I first heard of the city in 1983, on a family trip to Israel. As our bus wound its way down through the empty desert from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, the guide waved his arm north of the road and told us that a new city was being built there. The planners chose the location as part of Yitzchak Rabin’s plan to build a security ring around the capital city. Ma’ale Adumim guards the eastern approach to Jerusalem. It was projected to house 100,000 residents when completed. However, the city has been unable to reach its planned size.

The Arabs do not own the land. Nonetheless, they object to Israel using it. The area on the top of the ridge of mountains could be used to connect parts of an eventual Palestinian state. They ignore the large area to the east which could also serve the same purpose. Other Arab countries support their position, and they have recruited additional support from the European Union and the US.

Because of this international pressure, the Israeli government has instituted a series of building freezes on the city. So today, Ma’ale Adumim has a population of only about 40,000.

Benny said he has tried to work with the Arab mayors of the nearby towns. For example, he has offered to collect their trash. However, allowing Israel to collect their garbage would be interpreted as normalization. Normalization is outlawed by the PA, so the mayors refused the offer. Instead, the Arabs burn their trash. The resulting smoke pollutes the air and decreases the quality of life downwind in Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem.

The city has also offered to handle sewage generated by the Arab towns. Currently, the raw sewage runs off, polluting underground water and posing a public health hazard. Ma’ale Adumim would process the sewage and return the recycled water to the Arabs to use for agriculture. Israel currently reclaims 85% of its waste water, using it to irrigate farms and in parks all over Israel. But the Arabs refuse to work with the Jews, even when it would be to their own benefit.

Benny has served as mayor of Ma’ale Adumim since 1992, having won each election with more than 84% of the votes. As mayor, he has overseen much of the growth of the city. It is a beautiful city, full of trees and greenery. The city boasts a cultural center, a shopping mall, and a large community center with indoor and outdoor swimming pools. There are seventeen elementary schools and four high schools, including one for religious girls that attracts students from all over the country. The beautiful library has large holdings of books in multiple languages.

The population of the city is diverse, and includes people with varying levels of religious observance, from totally secular through Orthodox. About 600 babies are born to city residents yearly and there are about 1200 elderly residents, two-thirds of whom are Holocaust survivors. The Golden Age Club, which has almost 700 members, meets daily.

Later in the day on the bus, one of the people from One Israel Fund spoke about what they do for towns in Yehuda and Shomron. They have donated and installed security cameras and systems in many towns. OIF is now raising funds to set up video surveillance in twenty additional sites in Ma’ale Adumim to further improve its security. Security personnel in almost every town in Yehuda and Shomron have bullet proof vests and emergency medical packs thanks to the OIF. The organization has also provided beautiful state-of-the-art playgrounds in numerous smaller towns.

Most of these towns would like to see Israeli sovereignty extended. When Jordan conquered Yehuda and Shomron, it declared sovereignty over the whole area, renaming it the “West Bank.” Between 1950 and 1967, while the West Bank was an integral part of Jordan, its citizens did not develop the area. Under Israeli control, the area has reclaimed its Biblical names. People have settled there, established farms, and built cities.  The land has become productive. Many feel that it is now time to establish Israeli sovereignty.

Benny Kashriel thinks sovereignty should start with Ma’ale Adumim. The first salvo of the campaign was fired at the end of October. Citizens of Ma’ale Adumim drove in a convoy down to the Knesset to demonstrate. That same day the posters of the prime ministers appeared. One poster shows Ehud Barak, who in 2000 declared “All that you build in Ma’ale Adumim is a permanent part of the State of Israel, period.” On another poster Ariel Sharon states “Ma’ale Adumim will be built as a part of the State of Israel forever.”

Poster of Shimon Peres promoting sovereignty for Ma'ale Adumim
Poster of Shimon Peres promoting sovereignty for Ma’ale Adumim

There’s also a poster with a 1978 quote from Shimon Peres: “Ma’ale Adumim will secure the strengthening of Jerusalem.” This poster has sparked a controversy. Mr. Peres’ family objects. I am sure he believed in Ma’ale Adumim’s future when he spoke about it 38 years ago. However, by the time of his death last month, he no long supported annexing it, or most of the other towns in Yehuda or Shomron. The family opposes using his image for a cause he would not have supported were he still alive. 

Less than a month later, all the sovereignty posters were removed.