Israel | Religion & Jewish Life

Twin peaks: Itamar’s mayor knows the blessing and the curse

NEW YORK (N.Y. Jewish Week) — From the highest elevation in Itamar you can see everything but the future. On a clear day, says Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith, Itamar’s mayor, “We can see the three seas”: the Dead Sea, the Mediterranean and the Kinneret (Galilee). To the west, “We can see Gerezim and Ebal,” the twin mountains linked in the Bible to “the Blessing and the Curse,” but untrained eyes can’t tell one from the other.

To be the mayor of Itamar is to be the mayor of a yishuv, a settlement of about 160 homes deep in the rocky Samarian highlands, where more Jews have died from Palestinian bullets, knives and bombs than have died of old age; 22 murdered Jews in the last 10 years, including five members of the Fogel family on March 11.

Three weeks ago, Goldsmith was in shul on a Thursday night, studying Gemara, when he looked to his right and saw his friend, Rav Udi, a teacher in the local hesder yeshiva. Rav Udi had some 24 hours left to live.

“I turned to look at him, twice, three times,” says Goldsmith. “He had a white light radiating from him; I couldn’t figure out what it was. I couldn’t know it then, but his soul was already so connected to the Upper World.”

Now, in the United States, the mayor can’t see Israel’s seas and hills, but he sees the Fogels before him always. He sees the Fogels as he drives the long miles from Long Island, where the mayor explained Itamar to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, driving along to New Jersey’s Route 4, where he explains Itamar and that nightmarish Friday night to the Ma’aynot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck and the eighth-graders of the Moriah School in Englewood. The mayor, his long tzitzit visible below his black suit jacket, has been going from morning to night, from one school and shul and living room to another.

“The young people in America,” says Goldsmith, “they need to see that we’re not giving up, that we’ll still be building the land.” He’s hoping that others, in the shuls he’s visiting, will help Itamar with more and better security cameras.

He’s in America to talk about the Fogels, but he’d rather not tell all that he saw in those bloody rooms. He was one of the first responders, but soon left it to others.

“I didn’t want to look at children slaughtered in their beds,” says Goldsmith. Gun in hand, “I started checking each house [in the town], each room, in case the terrorists were still in Itamar.”

When dawn broke that Shabbat morning, Goldsmith went to shul and while davening, “I broke down crying. I couldn’t control my tears and pain. I said to God, ‘I really would like an answer.’ At that moment a verse came to mind. Moshe Rabbeinu asked to see the presence of God, and God tells him, ‘No one can see me and live.’

“I realized,” said the mayor, “His ways are hidden to us. Yet there’s the chai in that sentence, ‘and live.’ Right now we’re going to live and build and strengthen. One day we’ll have answers.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this in 1985 when Moshe and Leah Goldsmith, sweethearts since seventh grade in Brooklyn’s Rambam yeshiva, made aliyah. They spent a Shabbat with friends in the then-new settlement of Itamar and “it felt like a blessing,” like home.

A settlement? The mayor prefers to call it “a town.” He knows its more than 1,000 residents and visiting students; its programs for the learning and physically disabled; its farms with their chickens and sheep; its yogurt and cheese factory; the small perfume factory; the stained glass workshop; the hothouses for the vegetables. This was his town.

He explains to anyone who will listen that the demonized settlers are not demons; they’re not even settlers. To Goldsmith they are Jews, as indigenous to the West Bank as Aborigines are to Australia or the Sioux to the Great Plains.

His wife, Leah, tells the girls in Ma’ayanot, “You know what we see from our living room window? The parshah,” the weekly Torah reading. There in the hills and valleys is where Abraham and Sarah walked. Down the road, Joseph is buried. Over there, in the village of Awarta, are the tombs of the 70 Elders from the time of Joshua and the tombs of Aaron’s sons, Elazar and Itamar, for whom the settlement is named.

There, in Awarta, visible from Itamar, is where the Israel Defense Forces has been focusing the hunt for the Fogels’ killers. The hunt has expanded to another nearby village, Hawara, where as many as 40 Palestinians were fingerprinted and given DNA tests by the IDF. Some are still in custody, including Hawara’s deputy mayor and two of his brothers, according to the Palestinian news service Ma’an.

For months, according to Goldsmith, Palestinians had been casing Itamar, testing the security fence, looking for blind spots, teasing with Molotov cocktails thrown over the barbed wires, daring to steal sheep, staring with telescopes and binoculars.

It gnaws at Goldsmith that the Palestinians in these villages, perhaps even the killers themselves, have been able to build homes while Itamar was subject to a freeze on building and “all natural growth” as the result of American pressure.

“I’m not a prophet,” says Goldsmith, “but I see a lot of trouble for Israel and for the world. Itamar represents the State of Israel. The fact that we’re being targeted, that so many people have been murdered in Itamar, reflects Itamar’s holiness. That evil feels the need to attack Itamar shows that there is something good in Itamar. All we want is to live a life of peace and tranquility in the Land of Israel.”

Instead, people are saying, “Promise me you’ll lock your doors. Promise me you’ll carry a gun.”

Everyone is brave after an attack. Years later, fears are confessed. Goldsmith’s son, Joseph, told his father after the Fogels were killed, “Abba, I was worried about you” back in 2002.

That was some stretch, in 2002, when Goldsmith went to the funerals of nine Jews from Itamar in three weeks, including burying a mother, Rachel Shabo, and her four children — like the Fogels, killed by a terrorist in their home.

Over the years, the mayor says he’s gotten a lot of help and sympathy from American Christian Zionists.

“They come to visit Itamar,” he says. “We appreciate it greatly. We’re fighting a war.”

Many in Itamar don’t believe Itamar will be given to the Palestinians in the end. And they don’t say “give back” but “give away” because they believe the land isn’t Palestinian but was Jewish in the first place. As one Itamar resident said in a video shown by Goldsmith to the high school girls, “You don’t give away your mother. You don’t give away the land of your forefathers.”

Goldsmith showed the students a slide show: “Here,” he says, showing a basket of laundry on the Fogel’s porch, “the last laundry the mother did before she was murdered.”

If laundry could ever break your heart, that was it.

“We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us,” Goldsmith tells the students. “Itamar is a strong place. Nothing is going to break our spirit.”

He adds later, “No one knows what tomorrow will bring for [any] of us.”

Just one thing, Goldsmith asks the students: “Speak up for Israel. Speak up for Itamar.”