It was a night to remember. A bit less than a year ago, after a long day traveling around the country, we met up with our good friend Yossi Baumol for the not-so-short ride to the city of S’derot in southern Israel.
It was a warm but windy December night, I think the fourth night of Chanukah. Yossi said that if we had intended to visit S’derot and if we wanted to experience something spectacular, then it was imperative that we join him for the trip from Jerusalem to the Israeli city famous for taking a beating courtesy of Arab terror. And he was right.
We had been in S’derot several times before, during dangerous and perhaps less dangerous times. As you know, the city of S’derot bore the brunt of Israel’s misguided 2005 withdrawal–in the interest of “peace”–from Gaza, specifically Gush Katif. There are so many interesting and exciting things going on in S’derot these days it is difficult to figure out where to begin.
So let’s start with the Hesder Yeshiva of S’derot, which was founded by West Hempstead native Rabbi Dovid Fendel and which today is the largest hesder yeshiva in Israel, with over 700 students. Dovid Fendel’s father, Rabbi Meyer Fendel, who resides in Jerusalem, was the founder of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC) and the founding rabbi of the Young Israel of West Hempstead before going on aliyah in the 1970s.
Let me also add that on Monday night, November 18, the annual dinner benefiting the yeshiva in S’derot is scheduled to take place at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square. The dinner gives us all a very special opportunity to support this unique institution and indeed the people of S’derot.
Here are a few of the reasons why that Chanukah evening in S’derot last year was so memorable. First of all, there was a very large crowd gathered. And we were all instructed to slowly ascend five flights of stairs to the roof of the main yeshiva building for the lighting of the Chanukah menorah.
But this was not just any menorah. It is a giant artwork-like sculpture. Each of the eight torches was fashioned out of the remnants of Kassam rockets that at some point over these last eight years landed in the city. It is a moving and classic example of Israeli ingenuity–taking instruments of war and violence and turning them into articles of peace, of hope, and in this case light.
Those lighting the menorah included a native of the city who was a high-ranking officer in the Israeli Air Force. Others included family members of soldiers who fell during Operation Cast Lead in late 2009. In all, ten soldiers died during that three-week military operation in Gaza. Five of the ten were unfortunately killed by friendly fire and the others in bomb-rigged booby-trapped buildings.
It was a fantastic and moving tribute to the heroes of Israel and those who make this southern city in Israel their home despite the danger that is always present from an irascible and violent enemy.
On the rooftop after the ceremony, we were directed around by Yossi, who pointed out the light of Hamas-controlled Gaza, less than a mile from where we stood. (The electrical power is provided to Gaza by Israel.) He pointed out areas on the perimeter of the city where bombs or rockets have fallen at different times and injured or killed people.
The yeshiva campus is so close to the border that during those years when the firing of rockets was a daily event and the terrorists perfected the mechanics of their usually untargeted weaponry, it was common for the missiles to fly over the yeshiva to a further destination before landing. Toward the end of the era when missiles were fired on a regular basis–and everyone here understands that the craziness can restart at a moment’s notice–the terror leaders were more interested in hitting larger cities, like Ashkelon or Ashdod, rather than S’derot.
The beit midrash that houses the main center of the yeshiva is today reinforced to protect the occupants from missiles. The construction consists of steel surrounded by several feet of thick concrete as specified by homeland-security experts in Israel. Yossi Baumol, who is already in New York and will be speaking at several shuls over the next few weeks, explains that in the aftermath of the daily barrage of rockets, the government decided that steel-and-concrete-reinforced rooms should be constructed in most homes and apartments as a “safe room” for families. Since this addition computed on average to a 25% increase in the size of apartments, the government also decided to pick up 25% of the cost of reinforcing the yeshiva buildings.
Baumol adds that the total was about $400,000, but that as long as the Shas party was in control of the Housing Ministry in Israel, the funding was held up and not transferred to the yeshiva. That freeze on funding, so to speak, was reversed in the aftermath of elections earlier this year and the assumption of control of that ministry by MK Uri Ariel of Bayit HaYehudi. Baumol does not believe that the Shas ministers had or have any ill will toward the yeshiva; it is just that money is tight and it gets moved around for various purposes, hence the long holdup on the transfer.
The yeshiva in S’derot is a hub of activity and an exciting place. On the Chanukah night that we were there, the place was alive with music and dancing and people milling around. The beit midrash is large and bright, with students sitting wall-to-wall immersed in their Torah studies. On that particular evening a year ago, Naftali Bennett arrived to address the students. He was a candidate then out on the campaign trail looking for votes, and you could easily tell that the people of S’derot are a natural constituency for him and the policies his party now represents in the Knesset.
And an important part of those policies is the determination to not show weakness to the terrorists and to not be running scared, no matter how challenging or dangerous living becomes. And there are so many lessons to be gleaned from breathing the air in this town as well as from walking the streets and talking to and observing its people.
Yossi Baumol cannot say enough about the selfless devotion and boundless energy of Rabbi Fendel and what his sheer determination has created here. There is a mosaic of people from varied backgrounds studying at the yeshiva in S’derot. Many are religious and nationalistic, and they form the core of the beit midrash program. But there are also programs on campus for those taking their first steps in the direction of Torah study. There is a program for those returning to a more observant way of life as well as for those who want to simply dabble in the idea of moving closer to Torah. The idea, Baumol says, is that the core of everything that gets done in the yeshiva is about Torah study and serving the country.
The yeshiva offers one of the most popular hesder programs in the state. It consists of a year and a half of full-time studies in yeshiva, followed by an equal duration of army service, and then two more years of full-time yeshiva studies.
Today, Yossi says, a rocket (usually fired by independent terrorists) falls every two months or so. Thankfully, so far have usually land in open and unpopulated areas. Interestingly, since 2007—2008, more than 200 new yeshiva families have moved into the city, about 100 of them during that year, at the peak of the missile attacks. “They largely came to demonstrate their solidarity with our plight in a very determined and extensive fashion,” he says. Today S’derot is composed of a large Sephardi population, and there are significant Russian and Ethiopian Jewish communities that are growing continually.
S’derot elected a new mayor in last week’s municipal elections and he is a former director of the yeshiva. Alon Davidi takes office in a few weeks. He had made a name for himself when a rocket landed near his home a few years ago. He became a de facto spokesman for the residents of S’derot, gaining more widespread recognition of their plight, especially the defenselessness of the children, in the face of ongoing violence in the city following the Gush Katif withdrawal. That Mr. Davidi, an observant Jew, was elected in a city whose population is only 25% observant speaks volumes about the continued influence of the Hesder Yeshiva of S’derot on the population there.
On November 18, both Mayor Davidi and Cabinet Minister and Bayit HaYehudi head Naftali Bennett are scheduled to appear at the S’derot dinner in New York, with Mr. Bennett as the keynote speaker. It promises to be a great night for Israel, a great day for S’derot, and a unique opportunity for all of us to express our support and solidarity for the very special and unique people who live in a city that has given so much to us all. v
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