Gush Katif Brides and Orit Arfa: An Unlikely Alliance

Varda Epstein,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Varda Epstein
Varda Meyers Epstein is an expatriate, third-generation born Pittsburgher (on her mother"s mother"s side), having made Aliyah in 1979. A blogger with twin interests in Middle East politics and parenting education, Varda serves as a Communications Writer at Kars4Kids, a nonprofit organization that underwrites educational initiatives for children, and blogs at the Kars4Kids blog, an educational blog for parents. A mother of 12 children, Varda began her writing career after the birth of her youngest child in 2000. Her work can be seen on many websites including Arutz Sheva, Huffington Post, the Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Press, Kveller, Aish.com, YNet, and Israellycool. She enjoys bragging to Pittsburghers (no one else understands) about her distinguished Pittsburgh lineage and writing legacy, as maternal niece of the late, great, one-of-a-kind Myron Cope, sports writer and color commentator for the Steelers....

In 2005, the unthinkable happened: Jews expelled Jews from their homes in Gush Katif. Eight thousand of them. More if you count the communities in Samaria that were emptied out by governmental fiat. The government called it "Disengagement." But for me and many other Israelis it will always be "the Expulsion."

In the run-up to the tragedy that turned Gaza into a missile and mortar launch pad, there was this feeling that it wouldn't, couldn't happen. The expellees themselves believed that God would answer their prayers affirmatively, and the evil decree would be annulled. As such, the people of Gush Katif mostly did not pack or find places to live. They did not accept the financial pittance the government offered as carrot and stick to get them to voluntarily leave their beautiful homes and farms by the sand and the silken sea.

It happened anyway. It was going to happen and it did. God answered the people of Gush Katif. He answered no.   

A Tisha B'Av

And when it happened, the country was divided. For some of us, it was a terrible tragedy, a Tisha B'Av. For others, those to the left of the political spectrum, there was great satisfaction. Those awful settlers were finally getting theirs for standing in the way of peace.

Actually, those settlers had been standing in the way of the (until now) 18,275 mortars and missiles that have been shot from what was Gush Katif into civilian Israel from 2005 to the present. Oh, how they celebrated, the liberal Israeli glitterati. They celebrated, having partially slaked their lust for settler pain and ruin.

The rest of us, meanwhile, were shell shocked. We were in mourning, reeling from the blow, with mouths left gaping over the shocking stupidity and evil of the leaders we voted for. They had, with (malice?) and forethought, created a new terror state in Gaza. They had left thousands of their own people homeless, with shattered lives. They'd locked Southern Israel into an unending nightmare of sirens, pounding hearts, and loss.

The expellees were jolted awake from their idyllic seaside lives to live out of suitcases in hotel rooms. It was a nightmare from which they could not awaken. We wanted to help them however we could, so we gathered toys and toiletries for them, created organizations to offer these thousands of homeless, jobless Jews new employment.

While all this was going on, life was going on, despite the tragedy, despite losing everything. In short, the families from Gush Katif still had to marry off their children. A few goodhearted, canny women in Beit Shemesh and almost simultaneously, their counterparts in Efrat, were struck by the difficulty of marrying off a child, of helping kids set up a home, when the parents themselves had no homes and no prospects. They thought: How do you marry off your kid from a hotel?

This was the nucleus of thought that inspired the birth of the Gush Katif Bride Project.

Other women threw their hats into the ring to help—women from the Har Nof and Ramot neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Now they were 15 women whose hearts were aching for their people and whose hands were itching to help. And help they did, offering a generous package to 2,300 couples and still going strong.

(courtesy Gush Katif Bride Project)

I spoke to Lisa Goldenhersh of Har Nof, one of the 15 women who make up the Gush Katif Bride Project. Why brides, I asked.

"Such destruction pained us so much, we thought what better way to build than to marry couples off. Gemara Berachot tells us that someone who gladdens the bride and groom on the day of their wedding, it's 'k'ilu bana echat m'chorvot Yerushalayim,' it's as if he built up one of the ruins of Jerusalem.

"We realized we have an ability to help. We can step in and start off the young couple, and take some of the financial pressure off the parents. We give each couple a package consisting of appliances: microwave oven, Shabbat hotplate, Shabbat thermos,  food processor, blankets, pillows, sheets, silverware, dishes, kitchen towels, two sets of beautiful bath towels, and a cash gift," said Goldenhersh.

But it's not just about the giving, it's about the way they give. "We try to do this with a lot of love and with a hug, because we feel the young people of Gush Katif were evicted from their homes at a very pivotal time in their lives. They lost the beauty of the ocean and sand, and here they were: the pioneers, at the forefront of the danger. They were a target for terror.

"These kids were at such an impressionable stage of their lives, and even if it doesn't show, they were traumatized. By helping these young couples and their families we are saying to them, 'We want to acknowledge you and show you a lot of love and with a hug.'"

(courtesy)

I met Lisa and heard all about the Gush Katif Bride Project because my blogging colleague, Orit Arfa, invited me to come hear her speak to the 15 women who head up this lovely organization along with some of their supporters. It was to be a nice evening out for the women, who like to get together from time to time to strengthen the bond they have and to remind them of why they do what they do.

Why Orit Arfa? Arfa, a journalist, was in Gush Katif in the days leading up to the Expulsion. She documented the disaffection of Gush Katif religious youth in the aftermath, in a 2007 Jerusalem Post article she called, Losing Their Homes and Their Religion. To mark this year's tenth anniversary of the Expulsion, Arfa had revisited the topic and the people, with a Jerusalem Post Magazine cover story, Losing Their Home and Almost Their Religion.

Riki Freudenstein, one of the 15 Gush Katif Bride Project women, had read that cover story in her Friday paper, over Shabbat. As soon as Shabbat was out, she called Goldenhersh, excited to have read such a poignant piece about the people she cares so much about, the youth of Gush Katif. Lisa read the piece and saw that Orit had written a novel, The Settler, loosely based on her intimate knowledge of the young expellees, mixed in somewhat with Arfa's own experience of becoming secular and falling in love with the nightlife of Tel Aviv.

Lisa thought, "I have to read that book," and so she ordered a copy from Amazon. She read the work of fiction and knew she just had to meet Arfa.

Because the thing is, this is what she does. It's what Lisa, and all the women of the Gush Katif Bride Project are doing on a regular basis. They are working with the people who lived that work of fiction in living color. Maybe if she could get Orit Arfa to speak to the women, thought Lisa, it would help inform their work, and their approach to the couples and families they help.

Lisa had not only read The Settler, but listened to the songs Arfa had written for an album she created to accompany the novel she'd written. Lisa was consumed with the idea that the Bride Project had to bring Arfa in to give a talk about her work.

With the help of the internet, Lisa found contact info for Arfa and the two had a long chat. Would she be willing to give the women a talk about the phenomenon of Gush Katif youth leaving religion? Actually, Orit thrilled to the idea, and it was decided she'd also donate a book or two for a raffle, the proceeds of which would go toward the Bride Project.

Lisa Goldenhersh with a young Gush Katif couple (courtesy)

When Lisa broached the idea to the other women, it was a bit of a hard sell. The Settler is, frankly, steamy, and the Gush Katif Bride Project women are religious. Some worried that a lecture from Arfa wasn't really for them.

But Lisa was determined that there was something important to learn here. She phoned Arfa and the young writer reassured her. She said, "Don't worry. I'll dress tzanua. I'll be respectful."

Lisa was able to reassure the other women that Orit grokked the situation and was happy to tailor her presentation to her audience.    

I was there to give moral support. And um, maybe to write the evening up, as well. 

So let me tell you, it was a GREAT presentation. Orit rocked the room. She looked gorgeous in her modest fuchsia dress and fashionable leather boots. She looked both hip and serious with her overflowing curls and scholarly spectacles. She presented case study after case study, representing her voluminous research on the topic of Gush Katif youth who lost their religious moorings.

Orit Arfa (courtesy)

There was Rinat*, who was 19 at the time of the Expulsion: “I felt very disappointed. I really believed God wouldn’t do this, then He did. I felt very angry—at the state, at everything, at God. If God is all good and all powerful, but could do something like this and hurt us in such a way, then I don’t have a conscience anymore.”

She started smoking on Shabbat a month after the evacuation.

“Every time I get on a bus on Shabbat and get these bouts of conscience and ask myself, 'Why are you doing this?' I answer: God hurt me more.”

There was Shlomo*, who took off his kipa after the Expulsion but his questions weren’t so much about religion, but about man's inhumanity to man. He contemplated suicide, wrote suicidal poems. He was filled with anger.

Shlomo took a whirlwind tour of Europe while creating a pamphlet of poems that served to release the heat and anger. He wrote, for instance, about being in Germany, enjoying a beer and laughing with Germans, the arch symbol of Jew-hatred, while the Lebanon war was going on in Israel, reveling in the fact that he didn’t care.

(courtesy)

Orit told us about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which takes the form of a pyramid, with a person's physiological needs at the broad base upon which all else is built. A person needs food and shelter foremost. Only when such needs are fulfilled, can one begin to think about other needs, such as, for instance, belief.

In losing their homes, the youth of Gush Katif had lost a most basic need, the need for shelter. They were set adrift, living in hotels or in caravillas. Is it any wonder then, that having lost the broad base of basic human need, some Gush Katif youth, or even many, lost the tip of that pyramid of need, the luxury of believing in a higher power. Orit drove this point home by singing some of her songs which speak to the yearning of Gush Katif youth for their lost homes and lives.

Perhaps then, this is why Orit's work speaks to the women of the Gush Katif Bride Project. Arfa and these women share something—a deep empathy and understanding of the pain suffered by the expellees of Gush Katif. Orit contributes to the rebuilding of this community by building understanding and awareness through her writing which depicts the travesty and tragedy of Gush Katif on a deeply personal level. The Gush Katif Bride Project women have helped and continue to help numerous couples establish homes as a way to rebuild, brick by brick (or appliance by appliance, if you will), all that was lost in that terrible time when Jews dared to expel Jews from their homes in the Holy Land to cede that land to terrorists in the name of something they called "peace."

For information about donating to the Gush Katif Bride Project, contact:

Lisa Goldenhersh

(050) 575 5436 or (773) 409 4091

Riki Freudenstein

(054) 432 0938 or (718) 874 2035

Tax Deductible checks can be made payable to:

In USA: Central Fund of Israel

Mail to: Schilit

504-A Grand St. Apt 21,

New York,    N.Y. 10002

In Israel: Yad Eliezer

Mail to: Goldenhersh

P.O. Box 34494, Jerusalem

Israel 9134401

*Names changed