By Matt Solomon
Life for Israel is definitely heating up of late: The northern boundary with Lebanon is suddenly the “hot” border, which is to say we are getting along about as well with Hezbollah as we are with President Obama. Temperatures have risen and are veritably spring-like, and the election season is increasing in intensity with voting less than five weeks away.
Political campaigns bring not only promises but also criticism and condemnations of the competition and of the “other” in society. It is sadly ironic that in Israel, when the real enemy lurks just beyond every border and sits in the Knesset under a unifying Arab bloc, groups within the country still find fault with other Jews. Divisions amongst the population are sharply delineated and discussed during campaigns: Left—Right, Arab—Jew, religious—secular, chareidi—Religious Zionist, settler—non-settler.
Of this demographic breadth, the group in which I had the fewest acquaintances was actually the chareidim. I mentioned this to a good buddy of mine, Elie Pieprz, director of external affairs for the Yesha Council. He lives in the Shomron region of Yesha, an acronym for “Yehudah, Shomron, Aza.” (Despite the Israeli government’s shameful retreat from Aza (a.k.a. Gaza) in 2005, the “A” remains.) Yesha is a ridge of land stretching from the southern Hebron Hills to the northern Shomron that was retaken by Israel in the miraculous Six Day War. Yesha is where most of the events of Tanach occurred and is an integral part of our historic identity as Jews.
Most of the communities of Yesha are Religious Zionist, with several exceptions of mixed or non-religious settlements. Fewer still are the chareidi communities, most notably Beitar in Judea; Modi’in Ilit in the Binyamin region; and Immanuel, located in the Shomron.
Pieprz told me that Immanuel, the only chareidi community in the Shomron, is not far from where he lives. This community almost single-handedly dispels the preconceived negative stereotypes of chareidi Jews held by many Israelis. It has both large and small industries, a top-notch furniture maker with the best prices around, and even some chareidi soldiers. Intrigued, I decided to learn more. So I spoke with Rabbi Moshe Zinger, the CEO of Friends of Immanuel, an organization dedicated to getting the word out about his beloved community.
Immanuel sits on the seam of land separating the territories given to the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, located in a rustic, beautiful area of the rugged Shomron hills less than an hour’s drive from each of Israel’s celebrated chareidi centers, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.
Immanuel is a town of approximately 3,500 chareidi Jews, covering the spectrum of the chareidi world: various sects of chassidim (Slonim being the largest); a minority of Litvish; and a good balance between Sephardi and Ashkenazi. The community was founded and incorporated in the early 1980s and intended as an alternative to the densely populated chareidi enclaves of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem without sacrificing the intensity or quality of Torah existence.
Immanuel offered the one thing neither Jerusalem nor Bnei Brak could: space. The intention was to attract young couples who could not afford housing in established chareidi areas and provide them with attractive, large apartments for their growing families without sacrificing or compromising commitment to Torah and mitzvot. The Slonimer Rebbe, zt’l, was so impressed by the community that he encouraged his followers to move there, which they did.
Soon after the beginning of the second intifada, the community was devastated by two horrific terror attacks on buses occurring just outside Immanuel’s gates. Relative to its size, no community in Israel suffered more at the hands of terror during the intifada than Immanuel. As a result, many residents left. But due to the Slonimer Rebbe’s belief and confidence in Immanuel–its values and quality of life–he encouraged his followers to remain there.
Now, Immanuel not only survives, it thrives. Recently, more than 120 families moved in, continuing the trend of a sharply increasing population and a sharper increase in housing values among a growing number of kollels and shuls, schools for every age, a breadth of shiurim, and any and every facility needed for a vibrant Torah life.
There is another unique component to life in Immanuel beyond its dynamic Torah existence. Through the efforts and initiative of Friends of Immanuel and Rabbi Zinger, several respected professional training centers opened, offering training in electrical engineering, computers, accounting, and architecture, to prepare residents who wish to enter the professional world. Numerous cottage industries (such as sheitlach), the previously mentioned furniture-maker, and a thriving Judaica and silverworks factory provide employment and commerce for much of Immanuel.
Though Immanuel is unique in the region as the only chareidi settlement in the Shomron, its neighboring communities greatly value its presence. Immanuel shares in and contributes to the very fabric of Jewish existence in the area. It is not based on an insular approach to life but rather the desire to interact with neighboring communities and to be a partner in life in Israel. For example, a Slonimer chassid from Immanuel travels daily to give a daf yomi shiur at my friend’s knitted-kippah community, and the men in the shiur are his devoted talmidim. Several young men in Immanuel serve as members of the Israel Defense Forces, and while enlistment is not encouraged in Immanuel, the community is supportive of their decision. The Slonimer Rebbe gave a p’sak that soldiers may wear their uniforms in Immanuel’s beit midrash when on duty. The community is built around an uncompromising dedication to Torah, with the attempt to support that Torah-learning through the training and jobs mentioned above.
So, what have I learned about Immanuel? Most notably, it is a community that defies stereotyping. It is a chareidi/chassidic community that in many ways resembles my Religious Zionist community: 3,500 or so people, parents working to support themselves and their families; nestled in the beautiful countryside of Yesha; learning and living Torah; some men serving in the army. And the bottom line is that although their clothes and kippot may be different than those in my community, the values and love of Torah are the same. Isn’t that what ultimately matters?
Despite the travails of its past, everyone who knows anything about Immanuel is optimistic about its future. The reason is simple, for the name Immanuel says it all: “Gâ€‘d is with us.” v
Matt Solomon is a writer, analyst, and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at Meirmatt@hotmail.com.