Election season’s warming up here in Israel, no doubt due to the heated words of electioneering which invariably and unfortunately accompany the privilege of voting. So, here in the confines of my column, between now and the election, I commit to running a “clean” campaign, focusing on positives in Israel. The news of late for Jews the world over has been painful. Please consider this column as intended: a welcome safe haven from harsh words and painful images.
Pursuing the positive, I chose to venture outside my comfort zone, to a place new and foreign to me — and landed in Immanuel, in northern “Yesha.”
“YESHA” is an acronym, representing three regions: “YE-huda,” “SH-omron” and “A-za” (Gaza). Despite the Israeli government’s shameful retreat from Aza in 2005, the “A” remains. Yesha is a ridge of land, retaken by Israel in the miraculous Six-Day War, stretching from the southern Hebron Hills to the northern Shomron. The world may refer to Yesha as the West Bank, thinking of it as stolen and foreign to Israel, but this region is where most of the Tanach occurred and is an integral part of our historic identity as Jews.
Most of the communities of Yesha are religious, with several exceptions of mixed or non-religious settlements. Fewer still are the chareidi communities, most notably Beitar and Immanuel, a community on the seam of land separating the territories given to the tribes of Efraim and Menashe, located in a natural and rustically beautiful area of the rugged Shomron hills. My attention was drawn to Immanuel after a friend of mine, a Yesha Council director, told me about a chareidi community neighboring his religious community, which has become an integral part of the Shomron region. Intrigued, I decided that Immanuel would be my destination outside my religious life in Israel.
Immanuel is a town of approximately 3,500 Jews covering the spectrum of the chareidi world: various sects of Chassidim (Slonim being the largest); a minority of litvishe; and a good balance between Sephardi and Ashkenazi.
The community was founded and incorporated in the early 1980s and was intended to be an alternative, like Beitar, to the densely populated chareidi enclaves throughout Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak, without sacrificing the intensity or quality of Torah existence. Immanuel, set in the beautiful Shomron countryside, offered the one thing neither Yerushalayim 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 Immanuel he encouraged his followers to move there, which they did. While many residents left, it was due to his belief and confidence in Immanuel and its objective that the Slonimer Rebbe encouraged his followers to remain there after the community was devastated by two horrific terror attacks on buses occurring just outside its gates. Relative to its size, no community in Israel suffered more at the hands of terror during the Oslo Intifada than Immanuel.
Immanuel not only survives, it thrives — with a sharp increase in population and a sharper increase in housing values over the last few years; with a growing number of kollelim 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 its director, Rabbi Moshe Zinger, several respected professional training centers opened, offering training in electrical engineering, computers, accounting, and architecture, preparing residents who wish to enter the professional world to have the skills to do so. Several cottage industries (e.g., sheitlach) and a thriving Judaica and silverworks factory provide employment and commerce for Immanuel.
What do I find so inspiring about Immanuel that I chose to share it with you as a singularly positive alternative to the negativity invading our lives? It is this: Immanuel shares and contributes to the very fabric of the existence of the Jews of the area. Examples: a Slonimer Chassid travels daily to give a Daf Yomi shiur in my friend’s knitted-kippah community and the men in the shiur are devoted talmidim to him; a young man in Immanuel is a member of the Israeli army and, while enlistment is not encouraged in Immanuel, the community is supportive of his decision. I was told by a member of the Slonim community that the Slonimer Rebbe gave a psak that soldiers may wear their uniforms in Immanuel’s beis medrash when on duty.
To look at Immanuel is to look at a chareidi/chassidic version of my community: communities approximately the same size, rebounding from devastating terrorist attacks, built around Torah. Though the kippot are different, the love of Torah is 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 — the name Immanuel says it all: “G-d is with us.”
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst, and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.