If You Could Save One Building

If, from your whole community, you could only save one building, which would it be? Without doubt, for most Jews, it would be our synagogue.

Paula R. Stern

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If you have a moment to decide what one precious thing you would save from your home, what would it be? Pictures that your children drew, family photos, your marriage certificate? What else? And if, from your whole community, you could only save one building, which would it be? Without doubt, for most Jews, it would be our synagogue.

With heavy hearts, we left early one morning last week on a mission to see if somehow we could save a small portion of a Gaza community. Our congregation, Nahalat Yehuda of Maaleh Adumim, is an amazing blend of Israelis and English-speaking immigrants who gather each week and on holidays to pray in the tradition of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. It is a great community that has shared joys and sorrows for many years. Long after others have gone home to eat and rest each Sabbath morning, you can hear songs emanating from the small nursery school where we meet each week.

Our biggest problem is overcrowding. Stuffed into one schoolroom, we often overflow outside, and when someone celebrates a bar mitzvah or wedding, it's impossible to move within the small confines of the room. We need a permanent home and Maaleh Adumim has kindly offered us a parcel of land.

As I heard that the Sharon government planned to destroy the synagogues of Gaza, I wondered if it were possible to bring one here. We are a community in need of a synagogue and maybe, there was a synagogue in need of a new piece of land, a new home. Truthfully, having done our research before we left, we had little hope of actually succeeding, but we were determined to try.

Our first visit was to Kfar Darom, where we met Ronen, one of the original people involved with the building of the synagogue. No, Ronen told us sadly, it was not possible to move the building. We entered the synagogue anyway and noticed that already it had been striped bare. The Holy Ark, the chairs, even the wood paneling were removed. We took pictures of the synagogue's interior and an idea began to form. With permission, we took a stone, a tile. Somehow, when we build our synagogue, we told Ronen, we would try to build a Wall of Remembrance. We left Kfar Darom doubtful we would ever return.

Our next stop was Netzer Hazani, where we had our first encounter with the army's great bulldozers. I watched the house of someone I know being demolished. Irony of ironies was the Israeli flag flying from the bulldozer as it destroyed a Jewish home. We met one young man taking pictures. His parents had lived here and had asked him to bring them pictures of the rubble that had once been their home. I begged him not to show them, but the young man said they had specifically asked.

As in Kfar Darom, the Holy Ark, the wooden benches and the beautiful chandelier in the synagogue in Netzer Hazani has been removed. The building looked so forlorn. Again, we left doubting we would ever return. Another stone was added to the collection.

Getting more depressed by the minute, we passed the place where a memorial to Tali Hatuel and her girls had been built. Tali and her young daughters were murdered by Arab terrorists, and in their memory, a log cabin offering soldiers refreshments and a cool place to stop on a hot day was built. The cabin was gone, leaving just some blocks and a shady area. But by the end of the day, soldiers had hung some tarp from the branches. It was as if they too wanted to preserve the memory of what was, just a little longer.

We entered Katif and were grateful to see that the houses still stood. Now, less than a week later, we know they are gone. But last week, we went to the synagogue first, and there too, we took a stone. Now we had three.

On the other side of the community, we found the beit midrash, the study hall, of a yeshiva in Katif. The Holy Ark was still there, where the boys had gathered each morning to pray, where they had spent hours learning every facet of Jewish law. The wood benches were pushed to the sides. A door had been smashed in, probably from when the army had come to evacuate. Someone had left the water running. I went out and shut it. We don't waste water in Israel and this was still, if only for a little longer, part of Israel.

We realized that the building was not marked. Other buildings were marked to be destroyed, a number painted on the walls. Could the army be planning to destroy this building, this place of learning? As we were talking to some men who were busy packing up whatever they could find, someone from the Ministry of Religion came. It was his task to go house to house, building by building to make sure the mezuzot were removed from the doorposts, that holy books were not left behind. Even paper on the floor was examined and removed if it contained holy text.

It was quickly agreed that the holiness of a place of study at least equaled the holiness of a place of prayer and that this building should not be destroyed. Amazingly enough, somehow, this building had escaped the notice of too many and had failed to be designated as one that should be saved until the courts could decide whether these synagogues should be relocated. Frantic phone calls began, even as we watched them carrying the benches out of the room.

In the hours and days that followed, we contacted the yeshiva, government bureaucracies and more. It was a race against time, to save a holy place, a piece of a community.

We asked the yeshiva if we could have the honor of giving the building a home until the yeshiva is built again in Katif and students once again come there to learn. They told us we could have the building and we began to hope. We contacted government agencies, which insisted on letters from the yeshiva. Another hurdle, one step closer. We spoke to the company that would move the building, lift it and place it on a truck. At first they couldn't find it and told us it was gone. But in the end, it was as we had left it. Hope strengthened, and maybe even a dream beginning.

Our community is now raising money to prepare the land, build the retaining walls and a platform to raise the synagogue to street level. If we receive the honor, we will have to cover the outside with Jerusalem stone, as is required in Maaleh Adumim, but even this is something we will do with the hope that it will never again face destruction or be overlooked by a Jewish government willing to destroy a Jewish house of worship.

If you could save one building in your community, which would it be? For the community of Nahalat Yehuda in Maaleh Adumim, it seems that the one building might just be a very special place of learning, a last gift from the community of Katif, whose values and beliefs we hold dear.

If you'd like to make a donation to help us offset the cost of moving this building from Katif and setting it up in Maaleh Adumim, please contact donations@nachalatyehudah.com. Every dollar or shekel will help make this dream come true and save this building.

We can receive donations in US dollars. Checks $100 and more should be made out to Central Fund of Israel, and less that $100 can be made out to Nachalat Yehuda. Mail all checks to:

Nachalat Yehuda
C/O Stein Garen Associates
4025 Church Street
Skokie, Il 60076

In Israel:
Nachalat Yehuda
Mitzpe Nevo 74/3
Maale Adumim 98410