Despite the destruction of 4 Jewish towns in northern Samaria during last year’s Disengagement Plan, Jewish life in Samaria continues to flourish.

Ezra HaLevi, | updated: 12:47

Despite the destruction of four Jewish towns in northern Samaria during last year’s Disengagement Plan, Jewish life in Samaria continues to flourish, even in the most isolated communities.

This past Sabbath, hundreds of people converged on the community of Elon Moreh, located on the eastern side of Shechem (Nablus), the largest, most populous Arab city in Samaria. The occasion was the weekly portion of the Bible, read in synagogues throughout the world, in which Abraham arrives in Shechem - his first stop in the Land of Israel.

It was there that Abraham was told by G-d, “To your descendants will I give this land” (Genesis 6:12). Jacob purchased land in the city, and his sons, Shimon and Levi, laid waste to the city after their sister Dina was raped by a local ruler. It was also just outside Shechem where Joseph was sold into slavery, marking the beginning of the Egyptian exile.

The name Shechem, however, is rarely heard in the Western media, which refer to the city as Nablus. The latter name stems from the time of the Roman conquest in 70 CE, when they renamed it Neapolis. Following the Arab conquest in the 7th century, it became Nablus, due to the new invaders’ language and accent.

Shechem’s centrality in the Bible, as well as its pivotal role in any plan to divide the Land of Israel, has led to the establishment of Jewish towns like Elon Moreh on the mountains overlooking it.

Elon Moreh today, with neighborhoods spanning several hills.


In honor of Parshat Lech Lecha, the aforementioned Torah portion, families in Elon Moreh fill their homes with complete strangers, as well as old friends. Like Abraham, Jews converge upon Elon Moreh, trying to catch a glimpse of what life in the heart of Samaria is like.

Self-Sufficiency
Elon Moreh’s isolation makes it a difficult place from which to commute to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. So, residents sought ways to become self-sufficient. The town has become a regional center of Torah study, alternative medicine, Biblical tourism and safrut - Hebrew calligraphy used to write Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious items.

The community’s scribes are so numerous that they have formed a guild called Klei Kodesh, Holy Vessels. Avner Malichi, who heads the scribes, began studying safrut after moving to Elon Moreh 27 years ago. Soon afterwards, he began teaching others and encouraging all aspects of the ancient art in the community.

“We are a boutique safrut,” he says, sitting in his studio overlooking Shechem. “Here, we combine the Torah, Land and Nation of Israel in a holistic manner and bring those intentions with us to our work. Thank G-d, such things blossom and flourish naturally here in Elon Moreh.”


Malichi stands at the door to his office, located below his home, overlooking Shechem.


As Malichi talks, he takes out a Torah scroll he is in the middle of writing. He is up to the very passage documenting Abraham’s entry into Shechem at Elon Moreh.


 
"I really did not plan this," Malichi says, after setting down the Torah scroll he is writing and noticing the section is about Abraham's arrival in Elon Moreh.
 
 
The first verses of the Torah portion of Lech Lecha that Malichi has just finished writing. The name Elon Moreh is on the bottom right of the photograph.


The hareidi-religious centers of Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim used to be the only place to go for religious articles, Malichi says. “Now, not only the religious Zionist community buys from us, but we deliver to both Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim, as well.”

Safrut in Elon Moreh expanded into a vertical integration within the community. A newer resident opened Israel’s largest factory for producing parchment in the town’s industrial zone twelve years ago. Recently, a Peruvian family that specializes in the animal sinews used in the construction of tefilin (phylacteries) moved in. A high-tech center for examining everything produced by the scribes using scanners and computer software also operates out of Malichi’s office.


A Torah scroll is made up of 62 sheets of parchment sewn together.


Each of the scribes knows how to write any of the religious articles requiring handwritten calligraphy on parchment. “It is necessary, so that we can fill large orders,” Malichi says. “We are in the middle of writing 800 mezuzahs ordered for a dormitory in Jerusalem.”

Elon Moreh’s close relationship with Torah and religious life does not end with safrut. The town has become a center of advanced Torah study in the region, with the town’s main yeshiva training rabbis and teachers who go on to serve all over Israel.

Headed by Elon Moreh’s Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a hesder yeshiva called Birkat Yosef (Joseph’s Blessing) combines full-time learning and service in the IDF. Rabbi Levanon was one of only two hesder yeshiva heads to openly advocate refusal of orders having to do with the Gaza Disengagement Plan in 2005.

A yeshiva was also established at Joseph’s Tomb, just off Shechem’s main road. Jews were supposed to be guaranteed the right to worship there under the 1993 Oslo Accords, but in the early days of the Palestinian Authority’s September 2000 massive terrorist offensive, the IDF retreated from the area under fire. Joseph’s Tomb was burned and ransacked, and it wasn’t until 2003 that Jews were once again allowed to visit the site. The visits now take place just a few times a year, in the middle of the night.

A field school integrating Torah study with Land of Israel subjects has also been set up by the community. Most recently, a boarding high school for Russian immigrants was also established.

Eight women from the community have established a Center for Health and Nature called The Health Vineyard. The center offers alternative medicine such as reflexology, cosmetics and beauty treatments, art, music and dance therapies, natural food diet training and holistic massage. And one Elon Moreh family grows and markets organic tea.


A group of women from Elon Moreh that established an alternative medicine treatment center.
The Brodys have a family tea business.


Shechem: The Return
Following Israel's exodus from Egypt, Joshua brought the newly liberated nation to Shechem, burying Joseph in the city and placing half the people on each of the two mountains that hug the city - Mt. Eival and Mt. Gerizim. There, he fulfilled the Biblical mandate of outlining the blessings and curses the Jewish nation eternally faces, depending on whether they implement G-d’s will or not. “And he raised up a great stone” at the site (Joshua 24,26).


Joshua's pillar

Since then, Jews lived in Shechem continuously until they were chased out by Arab rioters in 1926 - and a year later, a massive earthquake destroyed the town’s Jewish Quarter. Samaria was occupied entirely by Jordan from 1949 until the 1967 Six Day War.

In 1981, shortly after the modern Jewish return to the region and the establishment of Elon Moreh, Israeli archaeologist Adam Zartal discovered Joshua’s altar on Mt. Eival, overlooking the city.

The Renewal
After the Six Day War, Israelis and tourists flocked to Samaria, taking in the sites and relishing the immersion in the land of the Bible. Although tourism was encouraged, Jews were not permitted to stay in the region for longer than 24 hours. “There was no Jewish presence from Jerusalem to Afula,” recalls Elon Moreh resident Rabbi Menachem Felix, who was among those who founded the renewed Jewish community in Hevron. Felix and others were concerned that tourism alone was not enough to ensure that Israel maintain sovereignty over the Biblical heartland. They formed a core group of activists called Garin Elon Moreh, using the Biblical landmark described as Abraham’s first stop in Israel to personify the mission of reestablishing Jewish residence in Shechem.

The group initially tried to lobby the government to settle the region. They were ignored. They began independently poring over maps of state-owned lands in the region, advised by off- and on-duty defense officials such as Ariel Sharon. They decided to attempt to resettle the region on their own initiative, hoping the government would follow suit.

One of the early attempts
to resettle Shechem.
Between late 1973 and 1975, eight different attempts were made to settle the area around Shechem. Each campaign brought young pioneers equipped with food and building equipment to the hilltops of Samaria. The IDF removed them repeatedly, on orders from the government.

On the Chanukah holiday in 1975, the eighth attempt took place. Tens of thousands of supporters turned out in a show of support for the pioneers who had taken up residence at the abandoned Ottoman train station in Sebastia. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin decided to authorize the establishment of a Jewish community near the Kadum army camp, west of the city of Shechem.
Another attempt to establish
Elon Moreh.


Thirty families lived there under harsh conditions, in one-room barracks and tents, with scarce water and electricity. The government assumed the drive to settle Shechem had been placated.

The opposite occurred. Not only was the camp not the end of the bid to resettle Shechem, but the site the government hoped would wear down the pioneers is today the thriving town of Kedumim. The core group went on to establish Itamar, Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Elon Moreh - all along the mountain range surrounding Shechem.


 
The tenth and final attempt to settle today's Elon Moreh. The trailers in the photo still remain at the heart of the community, housing guests and students.
 
An aerial view of Elon Moreh, taken by Peace Now's EU-funded Settlement Watch team.
The view of Shechem from an IDF position on Mt. Kabir.


Still Building
Today, the cards seem stacked against places like Elon Moreh. They are surrounded by land defined as Area A under the Oslo Accords, meaning it has already been handed over to full Palestinian Authority control. Dozens of peace plans take it for granted that Elon Moreh will be destroyed as part of the establishment of a Palestinian state. And the U.S. Road Map plan, which was adopted by the Israeli government, albeit with 14 reservations, has resulted in a state-induced freeze on new construction.

Despite the freeze, which has been applied by the government to all Jewish towns located outside the boundaries of the hastily-built Partition Wall, Elon Moreh continues to expand in other ways. The community’s population continues to grow due to the foresight of its leadership, which launched a massive building spree before the freeze went into effect.

The community never had a fence. One of the reasons is for security – so hostile neighbors will steer clear of the town – but the other is to signal their intent to expand, eventually connecting to the Jordan Valley, which the town now overlooks to the east. The anti-settlement radical left-wing Peace Now organization fears that the bloc of Jewish towns around Shechem will successfully link themselves to the strategically important Jordan Valley.


The Jordan Valley stretched out below Elon Moreh to the east.
A one-structure outpost to the west of Elon Moreh set up by local youths.


Three miles down a dirt road from the town is a small hilltop community that seems to have already linked the town with the valley far below. Scali’s Farm, as it is called, appeared in the headlines prior to the summer’s Lebanon War, and is being talked about once again as the price the Judea, Samaria and Gaza (Yesha) Council may have promised Defense Minister Amir Peretz in return for the authorization of other outposts.

The community consists of a dozen structures - some completed permanent homes, others serving as barns and garages, and one painstakingly built stone synagogue.


A home at Skali's Farm.
A couple living at Skali's Farm cuts through the playground on their way to Elon Moreh for the Sabbath.
The hand-built synagogue at Skali's Farm.
One of the synagogue's walls.
The wooded interior of the community's synagogue.


Like its sister communities outside Itamar, Shilo and in the Judean and Hevron Hills, everything at Scali’s Farm was constructed by Jews, embracing the classical Zionist ethic of Avoda Ivrit, Jewish labor. The residents insist that permanent resettlement of the land requires getting one’s hands dirty and refusing to exploit local Arab laborers.


Ducks wander in front of a semi-built stone home at Skali's Farm.
Sheep in one of the barns at Skali's Farm. Residents milk the sheep and sell the wool as well.


The farm is located in an area defined as a nature preserve by the authorities. “Arabs were using it as grazing land, destroying any and all of the protected flora,” a resident explains. “We came here and are reestablishing the indigenous Biblical agriculture and way of living.”


The farm has several fields of produce as well as a variety of animals.
One of the farm's vineyards can be seen in the distance.

The residents of Elon Moreh support the farm, seeing in the endeavor the continuation of the spirit that established their own community.

“It brings back memories,” says Rabbi Felix, one of five members of the original core group that founded Kiryat Arba, Kedumim and Elon Moreh. The rabbi says he is confident the young generation will continue what he and his friends started – the full reunification of the Jewish nation with its land. “I am not certain that we should not have settled in the heart of Shechem, as we did in Hevron,” he confides. “Who knows, had we done that, Joseph’s Tomb might still have been in our hands today.”

For more information or to invite an Elon Moreh representative to speak contact Pinchas Fuchs: elon-moreh [at] shechem.org

(Photos: Ezra HaLevi and Shechem.org)



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