Photo Credit: Matty Stern, US Embassy in Tel Aviv
Yeshiva patron Max Schwartz, Yeshiva head Rabbi Duv Fendel, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in Sderot at the Max and Ruth Schwartz Yeshiva Sderot Hesder Yeshiva campus

Sderot has become famous for its status as a terror target: due to its proximity to Gaza, it’s a favorite destination for the short-range Qassam rockets launched by Hamas and other terrorists living there. Since Israel withdrew completely from the region in 2005, Sderot has been hit by thousands of rockets.

Hanukkah menorah at Yeshivat Sderot, created with the Qassam rockets fired from Gaza that exploded nearby
Hanukkah menorah at Yeshivat Sderot, created with the Qassam rockets fired from Gaza that exploded nearby

So why, during the intermediate (Chol Hamoed) days of the Sukkot holiday, were visitors to Yeshivat Sderot able to see nearly a dozen construction cranes working on new apartment buildings in the distance, practically a stone’s throw from the Gaza border?

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“It’s part of what we call ‘Greater Sderot,’ explained Rabbi Duv Fendel, founder of the yeshiva and its Hesder Yeshiva program integrating military service with Torah study. “We’re growing — in the city, and in the yeshiva.”

Rabbi Duv Fendel points out to US Ambassador David Friedman, the apartment buildings under construction in the distance in 'Greater Sderot.' The two were former classmates in their youth.
Rabbi Duv Fendel points out to US Ambassador David Friedman, the apartment buildings under construction in the distance in ‘Greater Sderot.’ The two were both students in Fendel’s father’s school in their youth.

Fendel knows how to cultivate growth: he spent his childhood watching his father, Rabbi Meyer Fendel, create and nurture the growth of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County on Long Island in West Hempstead, New York. The senior rabbi was on hand this past Sunday to join his son in welcoming a former student — U.S. Ambassador David Friedman — to the campus his son founded 40 after he did the same with HANC. Friedman was a classmate of Hillel Fendel, Rabbi Duv Fendel’s older brother.

Mayor Alon Davidi was also there to welcome America’s representative to the State of Israel, as well as Bayit Yehudi Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich.

Davidi, elected as mayor in October 2013, was a student at Yeshiva Sderot in his youth. Speaking at the welcome for the Ambassador, Davidi spoke of the importance of the symbiotic relationship between the yeshiva and the community.

“During the war,” he said, “when so many people were frightened, there was always a light in the yeshiva. And at the beis medresh, the bochrim (rabbinic students) were learning.

“Yes, there were rocket attacks, and the war was on. But, they said, ‘This is our yeshiva, and this is our Torah, and we’re going to keep learning. We won’t be frightened away by these terrorists.’ And it was comforting to see that, to see the light from the yeshiva. It helped the city a lot.”

The city has fed the yeshiva, said Davidi, and the yeshiva feeds the city. Many students who come to the yeshiva as lone soldiers end up making aliyah, and eventually other family members join them. Other Israeli families are attracted to the city because of the yeshiva as well. And the city provides for the needs of the yeshiva students.

Slowly, the yeshiva has grown from a small building to a bigger one, from one building to a campus. And it has attracted the support of major donors from abroad, including the attention of Max and Ruth Schwartz, who were there from the start to help build the yeshiva — and who have helped it grow ever since.

On Sunday, the people who helped plant the seed for its initial growth gathered again to lay the cornerstone for a new dormitory.

US Ambassador David Friedman helps lay the cornerstone for a new dormitory at Max and Ruth Schwartz Yeshivat Sderot Hesder Yeshiva
US Ambassador David Friedman helps lay the cornerstone for a new dormitory at Max and Ruth Schwartz Yeshivat Sderot Hesder Yeshiva

In his typically warm manner, Ambassador Friedman reached for the scoop of concrete, placed it in the designated spot, straightened up, and immediately volunteered to provide the first donation — a very generous one — for the building. Friedman is known as a builder of Torah institutions, with a history of support for others in the state prior to accepting his post as U.S. Ambassador.

“The Jews have had a history as a nomadic people,” Friedman told those gathered. “For two thousand years we’ve been wandering in the face of danger, in the face of challenges — some of us went to to North Africa, some of us went to Spain, some of us went to eastern Europe — but in Sderot, there’s a different kind of Jew, one that says, ‘Ad kan. That’s it. We’re done. We’re not moving.’ And that’s a story that doesn’t get told enough.”

It’s not clear how the Ambassador’s act of kindness will be seen by the State Department, but the People of the House of Israel and the People of the Book have no illusions about its intent: David Friedman is no “stam” politician. He’s as authentic and sincere as they come, and his act of generosity came from the heart, a move to encourage others to support Torah in a childhood friend’s yeshiva. Like the American president he represents, Friedman is his own man: his spontaneous donation may present a diplomatic dilemma when dealing with officials from the Palestinian Authority. But technically Friedman is the ambassador to Israel, and thus far Ramallah has refused to allow him entry to the PA capital city in any case, clearly setting a bias from the outset.

As for Gaza’s ruling Hamas terrorist group, now poised to join the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah faction in a newly-created unity government brokered by Cairo? Friedman is under no illusions about the nature of the neighbors with whom Sderot must contend either in war or “peace,” describing the regime as “the most brutal, the most repressive, the most anti-Semitic” in the Middle East.

The Hamas charter still calls for the annihilation of Israel, and Hamas still maintains that its military wing and its weapons are not up for negotiation in talks with Fatah in Cairo over the unity government merger.

His participation in the day’s events in Sderot did not impair Friedman’s analytical skills during a discussion about the current status in the region. Speaking with JewishPress.com, he was clear-eyed about Israel’s chances for peace with its erstwhile neighbor, and equally aware of the necessity to nevertheless make as vigorous an effort as possible. The Ambassador declined to speculate about the talks, and about the role that Jordan might play in helping the parties reach a final status agreement, saying only that it is still too early to discuss such matters. “Jordan has been a strong ally of Israel and a strong ally of the United States,” he said. “I am just an ambassador of the United States to Israel. But Jordan has been a strong ally to both.”

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.