Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, took part this morning in a tour of communities in southern Israel established by Jews expelled from Gush Katif, during Israel's 2005 "Disengagement Plan" from Gaza and northern Samaria.
The rabbi met with residents and expressed his admiration at their determination to rebuild their communities in the strategically-important Negev region.
"You are meriting to establish and renew the Holy Land, and I draw strength from you," Rabbi Lau told community members.
"This proves that nothing can stop those who believe in the Torah," he added.
The rabbi was invited by the communal leaders to meet with the rabbis of the Gush Katif expellee community in Nitzan north of the city of Ashkelon, and heard from them about the various halachic (Jewish legal) dilemmas and other challenges which they faced in the last months before the destruction of their communities.
Rabbi Lau also paid a visit to the "Katif Center", a memorial museum to the 17 uprooted communities of Gush Katif.
"We invited him in order to show the Chief Rabbi the state of the Gush Katif communities, and how they are fairing eight years on from the expulsion," explained Eliezer Auerbach, Chairman of the Gush Katif Residents' Committee.
"And, no less importantly, (we invited him) to show from where they draw their strength to build and establish new communities after the expulsion."
Rabbi Lau also met with Rabbi Yigal Kaminetski, former Chief Rabbi of Gush Katif, and gave a Gemara (Talmud) class to students at the Kisufim Yeshiva (Torah academy).
The highlight of the day came at Kibbutz Shomrya, east of Lachish, built and inhabited by former residents of the Gush Katif community of Atzmona.
Residents held a special celebration in honor of the Chief Rabbi, who was greeted by hundreds of children from local schools, nurseries and yeshivas. Clearly moved, the rabbi delivered a special blessing to the children.
"I stand here before Jews who have lost so much yet, in spite of this, they have established a vibrant community, in the path of the Torah, and hold fast to the land of their forefathers," he said, continuing to laud the "strength of spirit" and "mental strength" of the pioneering community.