To Save a Synagogue or a Bathroom

Only a month ago, I asked a simple question: if you could save one building in your community, which would it be? For the community of Nachalat Yehuda in Ma'aleh Adumim, that one building was a small study hall and synagogue that belonged to a Yeshiva in Moshav Katif. The Sharon government answered: a bathroom.

Paula R. Stern

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It?s hard to believe that only a few weeks ago, I had an idea to try to save a synagogue in Gush Katif and bring it to Ma'aleh Adumim. So much has happened since then, so much has been destroyed and lost and so many lives have changed. The physical communities of Gush Katif have been erased, Palestinian mobs destroyed the synagogues, and worst of all are the continued efforts to break the spirit and unity of the people who were expelled from Gush Katif and Northern Samaria.

The people, the extraordinary and precious people, continue to suffer horrendous treatment while the nation is given lies by the Sharon government and his puppet Bassi. Barely any of the refugees have received compensation payments and most are denied access to their possessions unless they agree to pay thousands of shekels to the shipping company that the government hired to move their equipment. Most have been moved several times. The greenhouses that might have been used to better the lives of Palestinians lie in ruins, looted and destroyed by the same Arab mobs who felt no shame in torching our holy places.

On September 8th, as I was returning from a meeting in Tel Aviv, I drove on the main highway, knowing time was running out. In the evening, Gush Katif would be sealed off and within days it would be abandoned. Most of it had already been destroyed. We?d received assurances and promises for days that the little synagogue was safe and would be moved. It would be ours to honor, to use and to safeguard until Moshav Katif wanted it back.

Yet the hour was late and we still did not have any concrete idea when the building would be removed. We started receiving conflicting information and we were worried that in all the confusion, the army would leave the building behind to share the same fate as the larger synagogues. The Sharon government was willing to see them burned and desecrated rather than delay the mad capitulation a little longer in order to properly remove them or gain international guarantees of safety to protect their sanctity.

The Religious Affairs Department of the Prime Minister?s Office was promising us that the synagogue was fine and would be moved within hours. But a moving company that had been in and out of Gush Katif for days was telling us that the building was gone, most likely lost like hundreds of others.

My mind filled with possibilities as I drove on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Halfway home at the Latrun junction, instead of continuing straight toward Jerusalem, I exited to the right, south to Gaza?for the last time. I decided to try to enter Gush Katif. The mystery of the synagogue?s status would end now. Either it had been moved or it was there waiting. Time had run out.

It seemed ridiculous that no one knew, and yet at the same time, with Sharon?s frantic dash for the border, it seemed entirely logical that amid the chaos we might lose the synagogue. I contacted the Religious Affairs Department again as I drove south.

"It?s there," he told me yet again.
"We want to move it," I told him.
"We?re doing the best we can," he told me.

"Give me permission to move it," I responded. "Let me tell the moving company to pick it up and take it now. We?ll pay." Anything. Please, let us just save this one synagogue. Don?t let bureaucracy destroy our one chance to save a synagogue. He debated for a moment and then agreed. "Take it."

"Can you get me permission to enter Gaza?" I asked. But this was too much for him. "I can?t even go in anymore," he answered. Less than 30 minutes away and still with no clear plan, I called a friend who had secured passes into Gaza in the past. "Get me in there," I pleaded with him.

I continued to drive south passing Sderot, knowing that soon more rockets would fall. Tomorrow would worry about Sderot; today, our worry was for a small synagogue crying out to me. I called the moving company. "It isn?t there," he told me yet again.

"I?m going in if I can get a pass. I have permission for you to move it."

"It isn?t there."

Perhaps it was the tears he could hear in my voice or perhaps it was the fear that time was running out. He relented. "Go in. Call me when you get there. I?ll come and get it out if it is there."

The rest of the trip was short and silent. I didn?t let my mind think too far ahead. There were very few people left in Gaza, and most of the communities had been destroyed. I already knew what the rubble and desolation looked like. I thought I was as prepared as I could be.

When I arrived at the Kisufim Crossing, the last checkpoint, the soldiers told me I didn?t have permission to enter. A series of calls back and forth produced nothing. While I waited as my friend tried all channels, a soldier walked over and gave me a pass. "I?m in," I told my friend. "I?m in."

I drove straight to Moshav Katif. The last time I had been here, only a week before, the houses still stood. The main synagogue had been emptied and the small synagogue we had found still had benches, a kitchen, the Holy Ark and books inside.

Now, the houses were gone, years and years of building reduced to rubble. It was hard to find the right location, but in the end I found the row of buildings. The first had been the dining room, now in ruins. The third building had contained bathrooms and offices that had been removed to a safe location leaving only flattened earth behind. Amidst the remnants of peoples' homes, I mourned neither of these buildings.

But sadly, the second building, the only synagogue that we might have been able to save, had been destroyed as well. It is entirely likely that the bulldozer driver never realized that he was destroying a synagogue, another victim of Sharon?s cowardly exit from Gaza.

I had imagined it so many times resting on the hills of Ma'aleh Adumim, facing Jerusalem and filled with the voices of our congregation. We would have covered it in Jerusalem stone but we would still have known where it had come from. I had never imagined it lying at my feet in ruins, the walls smashed and the roof mangled and collapsed.

I was alone in Katif. Only the soldiers stood guard at the gate, but they too would soon be evacuated. I stood looking at the ruins of the small synagogue. It?s impossible to describe the anguish I felt and the feeling that we had failed it.

This small building had only been used by a high school. It had been overlooked completely when the issue of the synagogues' future was raised with the Israeli courts, and it was initially left behind.

All of Israel would cry, and throughout the world supporters of Israel and those who believe in respecting the religion and holy sites of others would mourn the barbaric torching and destruction of the large synagogues of Gush Katif.

But there was no one left to mourn for this building, and so I mourned for its loss standing there alone in Katif. It was nothing compared to the larger, magnificent and majestic permanent structures that would soon be desecrated by the Palestinians, I told myself. It was nothing compared to the homes of 9000 people and was miniscule in the scale of destruction, and yet I mourned for it as a symbol of something so much larger.

The people of Gush Katif, like the small synagogue, are too often thought of as insignificant in the larger picture of Israel?s future. But what was done to them cannot be forgotten. We cannot forget or forgive the Sharon government?s robbing people of their communities and livelihoods in exchange for more rocket attacks, more infiltrations, and continued threats and incitement.

Take off your orange ribbons, I am told almost daily. No, I reply, not until the last Gush Katif refugee is settled in his home and not until I understand why our government surrendered to terrorism and allowed Jewish synagogues to be desecrated.

And deep inside myself, I will always remember that a small synagogue was destroyed while the bathroom next to it was saved. If you could save one building in your community, which would it be?

Ariel Sharon answered: a bathroom.