As I sit in a modest synagogue in Netzer Hazani, one of the 21 towns of Gush Katif, listening to the staggering life story of a young mother named Mayan Yadai, I realize that I’m crying. Born a non-Jew in Croatia, Mayan grew up in wealth and comfort. Then came the war in Yugoslavia followed by years of trauma. Upon escaping Yugoslavia, she fell in love with an Israeli. Understanding that he would not marry a non-Jew, Mayan was determined to learn about that which meant more to her future husband than their love for each other. In the process, she became a Jew. In Mayan, I recognize a Jew with more faith in G-d and with more of an unwavering bond to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel than I may ever merit to have. And that’s why I’m crying.
I have just spent an entire day in Gush Katif with my family. This was our second trip there this year. If anything, I am more in awe of the people of Gush Katif than I was five months ago.
This is not a political story, although there are, unquestionably, political issues at hand. This is a personal story of what I saw today, with my own eyes.
The Maoz Yam Hotel (formerly the Palm Beach Hotel) was a wasteland in January. It closed at the beginning of the current Intifada when people stopped vacationing in Gaza. Arab vandals came in and decimated the beachfront property, tearing out and carting away literally everything, including toilet bowls and ceiling tiles. Recently, with permission of the private owner, dozens of Jewish families and singles have moved into the hotel, renovating it just enough to make it habitable. Although maligned in the press as extremist settlers, I saw only selfless people working around the clock to renovate the abandoned property so those who are moving into Gush Katif to support the local residents will have a place to sleep at night.
In Gush Katif, I keep meeting people who are indomitable in their love of G-d, in their love for all Jews and in their absolute, unwavering love of the Land. They live each moment with intensely heightened purpose.
I listened to Rachel Saperstein as she showed us the remains of an actual kassam rocket that landed within a few feet of her home in Neve Dekalim. The government wants to give her home to the terrorists who nearly killed her daughter in a suicide bombing. Rachel Saperstein looks like everyone’s Jewish grandmother. But she insists that we see what is happening to her family in the larger context of Jewish history.
Everyone we meet in Gush Katif reminds us that it is not just their homes and greenhouses and synagogues and cemeteries that are threatened. It is no less than the 3300 year-old relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel that is being threatened.
As we travel through the Gush Katif towns of Netzer Hazani, Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom, I see how G-d blesses the sweat and effort of countless Jews over the past 30 years. Where once there was nothing but sand dunes, I see 36 synagogues, 1000 acres of greenhouses that yield 15% of Israel’s total agricultural export and 60% of its organic vegetables, beautiful homes, gardens, schools, playgrounds and yeshivot. And everywhere I look, I see Jews who did more for Israel in the past hour of their lives than I have done in the past 20 years of mine.
I go home to my apartment in Ma’ale Adumim. I look out over the lights of Jerusalem. I think about how the government of Israel wants to hand over a gift of this magnitude to our enemies in exchange for absolutely nothing. I shake my head in disbelief.
And then, I cry some more.