Naftali Bennett

By Larry Gordon

The winds blew briskly up on the roof of the Yeshiva of S’derot as the crowd gathered to mark the first night of Chanukah. Who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard about what this quaint little town with a stiff upper lip about a mile from the border of the terror-laden Gaza Strip has endured?

We are on the roof of the yeshiva with Yossi Baumol, an old friend who has dedicated himself since leaving Brooklyn for Eretz Yisrael three and a half decades ago to projects like these that fortify the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

We are looking off at the lights that dot the horizon that is Gaza and the source of so much destruction and terror aimed at this working class, mostly Sephardic, community. “You see those towers off to the left?” Yossi says pointing them out to us. “Those are the electrical power stations that provide most of the electricity for Gaza. Not once over the eight days of rocket fire that bombarded our communities was one rocket aimed at those towers.” There’s nothing greater, I suppose, than self-interest.

Tonight, a host of local personalities are taking turns lighting a fascinating, quickly assembled, unique Chanukah menorah. The larger-than-life-size menorah was fashioned out of nine different Kassam rockets that were fired at the city during Operation Pillar of Clouds a few weeks ago.

The artist is a local resident, Yoram Bob, and we’ve featured his work in these pages previously. The artist/silversmith creates all sorts of Judaica and other artistic pieces from the remnants of the rockets that explode, wreaking havoc and doing all kinds of damage to people and property alike.

I sent a photo that I took of the lighting ceremony and a friend wrote back upon seeing this ragtag menorah, “Wow! A virtual beating of swords into plowshares,” as forecast and prophesied by the navi Isaiah.

S’derot from the distance is one thing; riding through the city and standing on the roof of this indomitable yeshiva, watching its people, looking into their faces and feeling and experiencing the spirit here, is indeed something else.

The rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Fendel, is the force that has built this yeshiva that has become the focal point of the city. Over 400 young men currently study in the yeshiva and over 100 kollel families live in housing nearby. Just three weeks ago, missiles and shrapnel were flying around this working class town. The odd or unusual thing was that throughout the Pillar of Clouds operation, things were not as bad as they used to be in S’derot.

Sure, the incoming missile sirens were heard day and night. However, being only a mile from Gaza and with the terror merchants in Gaza having technologically advanced their weaponry aimed at Israeli civilians, most missiles these days fly over S’derot into areas closer to nearby Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beer Sheva. I suppose that, in a sordid kind of way, that’s the good news, though plenty of the makeshift weaponry smuggled into Gaza and manufactured by the local Jew-haters still lands with regularity in S’derot.

But not tonight. For the last two weeks, the terrorists have been on their best behavior with only the hateful rhetoric being ramped up–but that is really nothing new. On this night in S’derot, there was an extraordinary display of togetherness, singing, and dancing. On display as well in the yeshiva building was a memorial to soldiers from S’derot who have fallen in battle–most recently in Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

Tonight the singing and dancing following the lighting of the menorah were fiercely joyous. They were celebrating being together on Chanukah and no doubt also celebrating that, for now anyway, the rockets have ceased falling, though the threat and for many the fear is always present.

It’s hard to say where S’derot would be without this yeshiva. It is a hesder yeshiva that produces exceptional Torah scholars as well as great warriors of Israel. The rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Fendel, has lived in S’derot for over 20 years. Anyone you speak to about the rabbi mentions the same thing–unparalleled dedication to his talmidim and the overall community. Rabbi Fendel hails from West Hempstead where his father was once the principal of HANC.

We also met the rebbetzin, Mrs. Fendel. She told us that she was born and raised on Staten Island and that her father was the first rabbi of the Agudas Yisrael shul in that borough.

The lighting itself was something very special to see. The first person to light was an air force commander who lived in the city. The second missile, so to speak, was lit by one of the rebbeim at the yeshiva, and the third was lit by a young man whose sister was killed when she threw herself over him to shield him from harm during a missile attack from Gaza a few years ago.

The guest speaker following the lighting was Naftali Bennett, the man who holds the top spot on the Habayit Hayehudi party slate. The party is the new, improved, and reconstituted version of the old national Religious Party. The polls here in Israel say that Bennett’s party may receive anywhere from 11 to 15 seats in the next Knesset. The party’s success will represent the resurgence of religious Zionism here in Israel.

Naftali Bennett is a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Netanyahu, though the word here is that they had a falling out of sorts a few years ago. Bennett speaks English without an accent. He is 40 years old and his parents are olim from San Francisco. Bennett sold a software company for $145 million. He had developed a program a few years ago that prevents bank fraud on most automated transactions.

He was in S’derot on this third night of Chanukah because the people of S’derot are heroes to many here in Israel and they voted en masse for Bennett in the recently held primary elections. The news and the polls here say that Bibi Netanyahu is at the height of his popularity and is assured reelection on January 22. However, a glance along the political landscape that scans for future leaders beyond Netanyahu leaves one contemplating the term “slim pickings.”

But things change quite a bit when you take a look at Bennett. He’s worked with Netanyahu and he knows the style. He is educated, articulate, and Americanized. And he is something that Bibi is not–an observant, halachic Jew and the head of the third largest party in the coming government (after Likud and Labor) which happens to be a party that lives by the dictates of Jewish law. He doesn’t mince words about the illusion of two states in the land of Israel. He says clearly that it is unworkable and impossible.

More than anything, Naftali Bennett is a realist, a future leader of the state of Israel, and a man committed to the difficult realities that were brought home to all of us here in the streets and through the experiences of S’derot. v

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