Part 5 of a series by Paul Harris on JNF UK and the diverse Israeli projects it supports, particularly its determination to help the Negev flourish
Most Israelis would prefer to be as far away as possible from Gaza, but one group make no bones about the fact that they would rather be living there.
Nostalgia is such that there’s even a purloined road sign pointing to Gush Katif positioned prominently outside Rabbi Eli Adler’s home at Shlomit.
I’m standing with him looking out over miles and miles of sand as far as the eye can see. The Egyptian border is a short distance away and armed soldiers scan the horizon behind barbed wire fences that protect this ultra-Orthodox outpost.
Talk about the Wandering Jew, this community was displaced from the Sinai following Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt and relocated to Gaza before then prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered it out in August 2005 following disengagement.
Shlomit was first proposed in 1990 by 30 families in Atzmona, an unauthorised settlement in the Gaza Strip. Their vision was to form a community divided between men who spend their days learning and others who work the land.
Today that vision has been supplanted over the border to Israel.
“It was like a partnership,” says American-born Rabbi Adler, 48, whose family emigrated to Israel when he was six.
“I was one of the learners. Everything was shared.”
A former army officer, he was brought up in the Ramat Gan area and is now married to Hagit with eight children aged three to 23.
During his 15 years in Atzmona, Rabbi Raphi Peretz started the eponymous yeshiva and Rabbi Adler joined the staff of what became the most popular pre-army yeshiva in the country, attracting the elite.
Rabbi Adler recalled ruefully: “Then came disengagement and we didn’t want to leave Gush Katif.
“We stayed until the day the soldiers told us to leave, but we understood it was a government decision.”
They had no idea where they would go. Those from Atzmona were housed temporarily at the Yeshiva High School at Shaalvim between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Most of the other residents of Gush Katif were housed in hotels.
“But we were part of a group,” said Rabbi Adler, “and wanted to continue our plan of building the Negev.”
Some 20 families decided to move to Halutza less than half a mile from the Egyptian border.
“The government had plans to build new communities in the Negev. It was the end of the world. We decided to take the plunge.”
For five-and-a-half-years they were located in temporary caravans at Yated.
There was no infrastructure — just sand dunes — but the government offered assistance.
In Gush Katif, they had operated a large and successful agricultural business.
“We decided to continue it in the area of Halutza,” said Rabbi Adler.
“The government put in electricity and water and we started growing thousands of acres of organic potatoes. carrots, wheat and red peppers.”
Then pre-army students decided to join the pioneers and another community, Bnei Netzarim, followed, continuing to be known by that name.
And more like-minded Israeli families swelled the ranks over the years.
“It was a dead area, part of Eshkol,” recalled Rabbi Adler. “This had a big influence on all the region.”
Each of the communities now numbers about 100 families, many of which have 11 or 12 children, although the average is six or seven.
There are boys’ and girls’ schools, a residential yeshiva high school and a residential ulpana for girls.
The Otzem Pre-Military Torah Academy is the jewel in the crown.
From boys playing basketball, their peyot flowing in the desert breeze, to dozens of talmidim enjoying one-to-one sessions in the huge study hall, this is home to 300 students who come from all over the country.
They are currently housed in temporary, very basic caravan dormitories which must be stifling at the height of summer and bitterly cold during the winter.
JNF UK is helping to replace these with modern, well equipped dormitory blocks, which are well on their way to completion, and is also considering helping to finance a post-army yeshiva for 150 students.
“The idea,” said Rabbi Adler, “is Torah and Avoda [literally work].
“We want to bring students in all fields who want to open businesses and factories.”
That is, after they have finished their studies they will continue to live in the Negev.
The communities uprooted from Gaza are unashamedly Charedi, but those they seek to attract to the yeshiva and the new one they plan are of all levels of Orthodoxy. Those who lived in Gush Katif were idealists but life was tough there. Five students were killed in a terror attack 10 years ago.
And as a reminder of the type of elite bochur the yeshiva attracts, there is a room dedicated to a further 17 who died, mostly serving their country.
But equally important are those who have mastered the art of producing organic vegetables of the highest quality.
I sampled the sweetest, juiciest carrots plucked straight from the sand of the Negev desert . . . but nothing should really surprise in Israel. No wonder leading British supermarkets have chosen to stock the produce.