Four and a half years ago, after a murderous Arab terrorist rocket slammed into a school bus from Kfar Darom, killing two teachers and blowing off parts of the legs of three Cohen-family siblings, something clicked. Several families from central Israel and environs decided that enough was enough, and that they had to do something - and so, they started a new Jewish community in the Land of Israel. On the seaside, not far from an Arab village, across the road from Gush Katif's "capital" of N'vei Dekalim, they started Shirat HaYam - Song of the Sea.
"We thought we'd be here a week or two, maybe a month or two," said Chana Pekar, wife and mother of one of the original four families. "But after two years of our 'other' house standing empty, we decided to rent it out. Of course, we've been here ever since."
Shirat HaYam now numbers 16 families, and is showing no signs of stopping. Over the past few weeks, they have been renovating five houses that once upon a time - before the Six Day War of 1967 - served as a beachfront club for Egyptian troops. The buildings have fallen into disrepair, to say the least, but the Jewish residents living alongside them have decided that the time has come to make them fit for more Jewish neighbors.
The demand is greater than the supply. Several families - from Beit El, Efrat, Jerusalem, and elsewhere - have already signed up to move in to Shirat HaYam. How are they chosen? Shlomo, of the town's secretariat, said, "Everything here is organized. We have an absorption committee, and families turn to us, and we speak with them, and we now have a list of families who are ready to join our community."
Are the houses ready? "With the help of volunteers, contributions, and our own hard-earned money," Shlomo responds, "they're well on their way. But the truth is that we were expecting to receive our first new family this Tuesday, but the supplies and the money simply ran out. We have had to put them on hold, but hopefully, just for a few days."
"If you could help publicize our cause," Shlomo said, "we would be very appreciative. If people who are interested in helping us will fax us their phone number [(+972) 8-684-2284 from abroad, or 08-684-2284 from within Israel], we'll gratefully call them back."
We encountered one of the volunteers, 26-year-old David R. from the Jerusalem area, cheerfully doing the finishing work on the wall tiles of a new kitchen. He said he found out about the work from a friend, who had come here on the recommendation of another friend, and so on. "It's simply an uplifting experience," David said. "I have found that over the past few days, being with these very special people, I have become much more strengthened and encouraged about the future of this area."
David said that this week, there will likely be a drop in the number of volunteers, because the yeshivot are beginning their summer session. "But the work continues," he said. "Last Thursday, a group of 10 or 11 men from Beit El came for the day - electricians, plumbers, and others - and they really helped make a difference. There was a guy from Maalot here for a week, and in general, it seems to be a national group effort."
The run-down buildings are situated in an orderly row, just behind the residents' caravans on the beachfront. One of the Shirat HaYam residents, Ezra R., is renovating one of the buildings all on his own, with no help from the secretariat.
"Seeing him invest so much time and resources into his new home," David said, "is simply an inspiration."
Asked how long he plans to remain in Shirat HaYam, David said, "Hmm, not sure yet. A few more days or weeks, something like that." He said that the people have been totally giving, opening their homes for meals and even for sleeping accommodations.
The one thing that is particularly hard for some of them, however, is the press. "They come here all day long, and it is simply very difficult to talk with all of them," one woman said. "But for Arutz-7, we can certainly make an extra effort," she added with a tired smile.
Is now the right time to renovate houses? Shlomo responded, "This is our genuine Zionist religious answer to Sharon's disengagement plan. We have to show determination and faith. We have to do what we can, and G-d will do His share."
Asked if the talk about a government plan to move them to Nitzanim has weakened his resolve, Shlomo answered thoughtfully, "Here in Shirat HaYam, we have had nothing to do with contacts or plans of this sort. I'm not saying that the leadership should not be involved in one way or another; I was involved in this issue for a while, but I stopped, because I find that talking about compensation and caravans and new locations and the like simply weakens me. We are here in the land that G-d gave us, and with His help, we shall remain here. I have no interest in 'post-funeral' planning when all around me I see only life."