Elazar: An American Experiment in Gush Etzion

It wasn't easy managing the bureaucratic snafus, but forty years later, it is all about nostalgia and fond memories.

Arutz Sheva Staff,

Sarah Netanyahu comforts Klingel Family in Elazar
Sarah Netanyahu comforts Klingel Family in Elazar
PM Office

Imagine a group of religious Jewish American professionals and academics, suffused with Zionism and eager to move to Israel with the idea of founding a community together. Could it work?  Well, it did, but it wasn't easy.

The fortieth anniversary celebration of the founding of Elazar, a scenic, thriving and constantly expanding Gush Etzion town located 10 minutes south of Jerusalem on route 60, took place on the Intermediate Days of Sukkot. Founders, newcomers, current and former residents and their children flocked to the community to relive the early days and listen to the "old-timers" tell about the first three families, followed by a larger group of American families, who left their homes and the security of well-paid employment, braved Israeli bureaucracy and founded a community that now numbers over 600 households.

It all began in 1971 with Arye Gross and Yaakov Weiner, whose enthusiasm brought out over 100 couples to meeting after meeting in New York to plan making aliyah together, with a specific goal in mind.

The Jewish Agency at first categorically panned the idea of joint aliyah from the USA,  then changed its mind one day and agreed, stipulating that the group use existing models, either forming a kibbutz (no way, the Anglos retorted) or a moshav shitufi, roughly a community which pools incomes from small, local industries based on their fields of expertise. Not really knowing what they were getting into, the group agreed – and that idea, whose failure was a no-brainer, was scrapped ten years later after much suffering and conflict, paving the way for the town's expansion.

That same Jewish Agency allowed the group to meet at its offices, then ejected them, but the Mizrachi (Religious Zionist Organization) emissary to New York, Eliezer Shefer, who came to the celebration and basked in the praise he received, offered them his premises and saved the day.

That same Jewish Agency waxed enthusiastic over the group's idea of settling in Gush Etzion, then informed them that there was no more construction in Gush Etzion and sent them to what is now Har Adar, on the other side of Jerusalem. When nothing seemed to be progressing from the Israeli end of the telephone line, the group leaders met with Minister Yosef Burg while he was in the USA, who said that Har Adar was a terrible idea because it would take at least five years to get the necessary permits and suggested – you guessed it – Gush Etzion!

The group was told by the Jewish Agency not to announce the exact location chosen at a meeting with the powers-that-be, because the land authority thought the community was going to be built down the road, although both locations had building permits and were on government land. They stayed silent, possibly in shock. 

Arabs who saw the construction equipment coming in, planted a vineyard overnight on the plots intended for housing. A fence was then hastily erected around the building area, temporarily leaving the new grape vines outside its perimeter, and foiling that plan as when the Arabs destroyed the fence the next night, they were illegally encroaching on demarcated land.

The town was to be named Etzion Gimel, but the Naming Committee chose the name Elazar, for the brother of Judah Maccabee who was killed under a Greek elephant close to the spot. The Jewish Agency later wanted another name and threatened to withhold funding. The group held its ground and won.   

There were arguments with the Jewish Agency about installing central heating (Gush Etzion is snowed in when the rest of the country is still praying for a few flurries) in the tiny "sochnut" houses built for the first families, but that, too, was resolved to the Anglos' satisfaction. 

And then there was the all-important question of which political party the community was to be attached to. The Americans couldn't believe their ears at the query, but in the end agreed to be part of the National Religious Party's (NRP) settlements, receiving blue health fund booklets rather than the red socialist party ones and NRP support in fighting for budgetary allowances from the government.  Idealistic Americans had a hard time understanding the way Israel was run in the days when even health funds were politically aligned, but soon learned to cope.

Israelis, such as the family doctor who manned the clinic in the early days and spoke at the celebration, couldn't believe their ears either – they couldn't get over the fact that the entire moshav spoke only English! 

They found it amazing that these English-speakers actually filled work details for every specific job or project, ran a restaurant and had a clean-up squad.

In an Israel whose citizens were either descendants of the early pioneers who dealt with Arab marauders, malaria and the British, Holocaust survivors, or Jews who fled from Arab lands, these "professors", with cars and comparatively nice clothes, were an enigma. 

Not anymore. Elazar today is a mixture of Israelis and Anglos, with several synagogues catering to Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition, nurseries and kindergartens, lovely homes and playgrounds filled with children, a library and community center, Torah lectures, clubs, activities and programs held mostly in Hebrew and a strong sense of community.  And by now, its sons and daughters, none distinguishable as children of Anglo olim, have served and sacrificed - among them IDF soldier Yochai Klingel who fell in active service in northern Israel last January - for the State of Israel that its founders so wanted to be part of.

That sense of community was evident as the crowd listened attentively to the town's history as recounted by Ted Sylvetsky, member of the first small group of three families who came on aliyah and who still lives in his original home. Ted, a Yeshiva University graduate in systems analysis who made aliya in 1972 when there were less than a handful of computer experts in Israel – and just look where Israel's computer world is today! -  computerized Bank Leumi and Israel's elections and three of his married daughters as well as a niece are raising their families in Elazar.

Ted S.,  Systems Analyst INN: sear

The feeling of community was also evident in the enthusiasm radiating from the audience of all ages who enjoyed the musical evening with popular Israeli singer Rami Kleinshtein that completed the celebration in the unique town founded by American professionals who wouldn't give up.

Those Were the Days (INNElad Goldberg <ego316@gmail.com)

Elazar's Scientists: Lab Group ( Elad Goldberg <ego316@gmail.com)

Electronics Staff (Elad Goldberg)

Embroidery Mfg Group Elad Goldberg

Elazar's new generation (Elad Goldberg‎ <ego316@gmail.com)

Elazar's First Children (Elad Goldberg <ego316@gmail.com)




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