As I my husband and I drive into Beit El, through the traffic circles which display large models of a pomegranate, fig, and grape of the shiv’at haminim (seven species that Eretz Yisrael is blessed with), we feel like we were entering another world. Beit El has a very different feel from Beit Shemesh.
While I often feel that Beit Shemesh does bear a strong resemblance to Israel, Beit El definitely feels like the real deal. Unbeknownst to us, we were one of four families from Ramat Beit Shemesh that came to Beit El that same Shabbos to watch our young marrieds play the roles of Abba and Ima shel Shabbat. We were also able to form an impression of the yishuv (settlement) that overflows with ideology. I’ve been privileged to speak with some of the residents, pioneers among them, about the development of the yishuv.
The yishuv of Beit El, which is in the heart of the Binyamin region, was founded in 1977 by members of the Gush Emunim movement, orthodox right-wing activists who believed they were fulfilling G-d’s promise by settling the West Bank. Sixteen idealistic families moved into the army base which was then protecting the area. Many of the families gave up comfortable homes and moved into zero-star accommodations in an area without sidewalks and filled with mud, so that they could be part of a mission to set something up for the future of Am Yisrael. One year later, the yishuv split into two separate settlements. The general population lived in Beit El Aleph and those connected to the Yeshiva lived in Beit El Bet. Later on, the settlement was hooked up to water and electrical lines from Yerushalayim and eventually the families upgraded to caravans and then single-family homes. In 1997, the two yishuvim combined into one municipality.
Beit El is a beautiful yishuv. From the highest point in Beit El, one can see the hills of Yerushalayim to the south, the Hermon Mountain to the north, the Judean Desert to the east, and Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean coastal plain to the west. The scenery and views are magnificent. Beit El also overlooks Ramallah. It is so close that one can see the words on the signs of the buildings there, hear the roaring engines of their motorcycles, and smell the flavored smoke of their barbecues.
Helen Bohrer, one of the original residents of Beit El, recalls the early, difficult days of the yishuv. She gave birth to her seventh child on the day that the yishuv was settled, so she and her family didn’t move into Beit El until three months later. When they were living in the army base, whose location had been the seat of the Jordanian government before the Six-Day War, their electricity came from generators. There was an outbreak of hepatitis due to the lack of sewage infrastructure. It was quite frightening for Mrs. Bohrer when she contracted hepatitis during her pregnancy with her eighth child. At one point, nine families lived together in a shed-like building. Each family had one to two rooms and they all shared one bathroom. Despite the tight quarters, they all managed. They had no kitchen so they ate in the officers’ mess hall. Residents traveled through Ramallah on their way to work and school in Yerushalayim. Although living under these conditions was far from easy, Mrs. Bohrer feels privileged to have been part of building the yishuv.
When we davened Mincha at the yeshiva on Shabbos afternoon, we met Yaakov Katz, known as Ketzela, one of the legendary founders of Beit El and a former member of the Knesset. Ketzela lives and breathes Beit El. I introduced myself and mentioned my father z”l, who many years ago had been involved in the Gush Emunim movement. Without missing a beat, and with a nostalgic look on his face that expressed both gratitude and pride, Ketzela launched into a mini overview of the history and growth of the community of Beit El.
Beit El maintains educational institutions from pre-school through high school. Its crown jewel is the Beit El Yeshiva Gevoha and Kollel, which has over 300 students, single and married, and is very highly regarded by Torah scholars for its excellence. It also has many shuls, several mikvaot, a Beit Din for mamonot (civil affairs), a Chevra Kadisha, and a cemetery, including a military plot.
Judy Simon, a teacher turned Beit El tourism coordinator, moved to Beit El over twenty years ago, drawn to the broad-spectrum of religious Jews who are intelligent, caring, and big baalei chesed. Inspired by her participation in a tour of the settlement led by Professor Hagi Ben Artzi, one of the founders of Beit El as well as the brother of Sara Netanyahu, Judy decided that the ancient history of Beit El mentioned prominently in the Torah, along with its modern-day history, is something which much be shared with Jews from all over the world. As the result of an extremely successful first-time tour of Beit El that Judy arranged for tour guides, the mayor of Beit El requested that she open a tourism office for the yishuv. On a shoestring budget, she put together a small visitor’s center and introduced thousands of Israelis, soldiers, and tourists to the spiritual richness of Beit El.
During her time as tourism coordinator, Judy showed visitors the very special sites found in Beit El. They would walk through Chavat Ephraim, a “pinat chai,” a large petting zoo filled with many animals and even a duck pond. The zoo is named after Ephraim Tzur, a resident of Beit El who was tragically murdered along with his mother Itta on the sixth night of Chanukah in 1996. Ephraim and his friends used to look after a small assortment of animals. After the murder, his friends hung up a hand painted sign that read “Ephraim’s Farm in memory of our friend Ephraim Tzur.” Mr. Tuvia Victor, the ambulance driver who went to treat the victims, decided to help Ephraim’s friends and has been maintaining the Pinat Hai ever since then.
Visitors were also taken to the Beit El Tefillin factory and to the Arutz Sheva headquarters, from where news with a right-wing perspective is disseminated. A highlight of the tour is when the guide reads from Parshat Va’Yetzeh about Yaakov’s dream when Hashem promises to give the land on which he is laying to him and to his descendants. It is very meaningful to hear this story in the area where the dream is thought to have taken place. There are many significant artifacts in the vicinity, including ruins from the Bayit Rishon, burial caves, an olive oil press cave from Bayit Sheini, and ancient wine presses. More recent building for the newly-approved neighborhood at the entrance to the yishuv has revealed another archaeological site with remnants of a city thought to be from the time of King Yannai, one of the last of the Chashmonaim.
Batya Kroopnick talks about a time when, due to regional unrest during the second intifada, thousands of soldiers were sent to Beit El on a rainy shabbos around Pesach time. There was no room for them on the army base so they were “deployed” to inside the yishuv. Through word of mouth, the news got out that there were soldiers standing outside in the rain without food or shelter. The community brought the soldiers blankets, sweaters, and the food they had cooked for Shabbos, and later invited them into their homes to shower. Eventually, the mayor opened the yeshiva dormitories to house them. Even when the soldiers were moved to tents on the base, the community continued to cook for them with ingredients provided free of charge by the owner of the makolet.
Beit El has come a long way since its modest beginnings. Today, there are approximately 1,200 families and over 6,500 residents whose needs are met to a large degree on the yishuv itself. After many years of building freezes, construction of new communities is taking place. They are hoping that immigrants from the west will join them and move into the available housing. Those who founded the yishuv can look around with pride as they witness how the residents of the yishuv reap the benefits of their hard work, the country benefits from their strategic location, and Jews around the whole world can be inspired by Beit El to connect to the Torah, the land, and their people.