A Normal Life in Israel
Shalom from the Holy Land, land of our ancestors, the Promised Land, the State of Israel!
As I begin my sabbatical -- abridged due to, God willing, the impending births of two grandchildren -- I am living in Efrat, about a 20-minute walk to Micah and Alyssa's apartment.
Efrat lies about 15-20 minutes south of Yerushalayim (by car); it is mentioned in the Torah in Genesis 35:16-19. “They (Jacob’s family) set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Efrat, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor… Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat now Bethlehem …”
The geographic (and cultural) center of modern Israel is Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim. Tel Aviv is situated on Israel’s west coast, on the Mediterranean Sea; and about 45 minutes (by car) southeast, on high hills, is Yerushalayim. The approach to Yerushalayim from Ben Gurion Airport starts flat, but as you approach Yerushalayim, the terrain ascends and descends several times into the high hills. If you continue another 15 minutes south, through two modern tunnels, you reach Efrat, whose seven neighborhoods are named for Israel’s indigenous species as recorded in Deuteronomy 8:8. (Israeli Jews find many creative ways of connecting with Torah.) Efrat has two exits, and if you continue farther south/southwest, the next major city is Be’er Sheva, home to Abraham & Sarah and Isaac. This is already southern Israel.
Efrat is across the “Green Line” -- the 1949 armistice lines that were established after Israel repelled the May 1948 onslaught by six Arab armies. Those boundaries lasted until June 1967, the Six Day War. Efrat was established in 1983, built up primarily by the American Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (who officiated at Micah & Alyssa’s wedding.) I have long held Rabbi Riskin in high esteem for his faithful, open, and intelligent orthodoxy, and for bringing many American Jewish families to Israel, particularly to Efrat.
Efrat’s population, according to Wikipedia, is about 9,000 Jews (it may be significantly more by now) who live amidst Arab neighbors (Arab olive groves are on Efrat’s boundaries), and just a few miles from Bethlehem, the home of King David, but today of many Christian Arabs in Palestinian territory. Efrat is the capital of what is called Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements over the Green Line south of Yerushalayim. Jewish settlements there go back for several generations. (You can read more about Gush Etzion by clicking https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gush_Etzion)
Efrat is dominated by Anglo-Jews, but other religious Jews from other cultures have moved in. Jews settled Efrat primarily for Zionistic reasons, i.e., to build settlements to serve as a defense for Israel, and because land was less expensive. The Americans who came more than 30 years ago built something resembling Orthodox Jewish American suburbia -- all, or nearly all, with houses rather than apartments; with yeshivas; and according to Micah, 38 registered synagogues. There are three within a few-minute walk from my apartment. Efrat is relatively upscale, and driving into Efrat I could see, as is true of all of Israel, new large-scale residential construction.
My 2-bedroom apartment is modest, but it cost 3250 NIS (New Israeli Shekels), at about a 3.4 NIS-to-dollar rate. (I’ll let you do the math.) And the apartment rent does not include electricity costs, which can run several hundreds of shekels per month. (See below for a picture of the outside of Tiferet Avot [Glory of our Ancestors], the shul where I have been davening.)
To give you a better sense, listings to rent include: 7 rooms 170 meters -- about 1,700 sq feet for 4900 NIS; an 8-room house for 7500 NIS; a 240 meter (about 2,400 sq feet) house was listed for sale at 3,250,000 NIS. (See view of street area outside my apartment, below.)
While Efrat has some small shopping areas, for more extensive shopping, i.e., a supermarket, we drive outside the settlement for a few minutes, and for even more extensive shopping, to Yerushalayim.
On my first morning (Thursday) in Efrat I attended a 7:00 AM minyan of about 15 people (see photos below of morning minyan and daily chapel). In certain respects it is like Traditional: the size is modest, it has a weekday chapel and a Shabbat/Holyday larger sanctuary. (See sanctuary photo below, as well as pictures of the topography of the area and a playground between my apartment and the shul.) But the 7:00 weekday minyan was the second of that morning, preceded by a 6:15 minyan. The shul is within a community, about a 4-minute walk from my apartment. But because all of Efrat is ostensibly Shomer Shabbat, the Shabbat numbers will swell and fill the larger sanctuary. They have three Shabbat Shacharit minyanim at 6:30, 8:15 and 8:30.
Friday in Israel is more similar to Sunday, and Sunday in Israel is the first work day of the week. So Friday morning minyan begins at 8:15. There were about 25 attendees. (See picture.) Thursday night was very windy with fairly intense cold rain. As I left for Friday minyan I saw a decent amount of ice and possibly hail on the ground.
I conclude with my first morning here. As I left the shul on Thursday, I saw children innocently walking to their neighborhood schools and I could hear their voices which were periodically drowned out by noisy buses delivering other children from the other Gush towns to school. I could also hear sounds of families moving about in their morning routine and observed cars transporting adults to work. It was all so satisfyingly routine, satisfying because for Jews such normality has been so elusive. But amidst the world’s turmoil and threats to our people here, life here is normal, wonderfully normal.
Millions of Jews sing: “Ba-shanah ha-ba’ah … people will sit on their porches, watch the birds flying around in the sky, read newspapers, and children will play tag (or catch) in the fields …” -- all so satisfyingly normal.
May the Holy One, blessed be He, bless us, the Jewish people and our mishpachah in Israel, and indeed all people, with such normal life.