The term caravan often evokes images of weary travelers on camelback, nomads crossing through endless desert with no particular aim, and drifters and loners with regard for no one but themselves and the open road.
However, that image is not representative of communities in Israel that dwell in “caravanim” or caravans, located primarily in the Jordan Valley. These settlements, such as Chemdat or Nitzan, became newsworthy when they took in evacuees of Gush Katif during the disengagement in 2005. Most evacuees came and went, moving on to more permanent living situations, but people often don’t realize that thriving communities remain in these areas, communities that intend to endure in these locations for good.
While a textbook definition of such an Israeli community may detail the shoddy aluminum structures, the metal roofs, and the absence of insulation and heating and cooling units, such a description strips the life and color from such a lifestyle. It does not tell of the sacrifices and camaraderie of the inhabitants, a camaraderie that was the main selling point for David Alon, an oleh, who now resides in Chemdat. Alon, currently a physician in the IDF, was living in Karnei Shomron with his wife and children, looking to relocate, and ultimately decided to move to Chemdat, where he experienced the warmth and hospitality of its residents. He was impressed with the beauty of the Jordan Valley and its history, but attests that it was the kindness of those who live in Chemdat, a population of roughly 35 religious families, that “sealed the deal.”
Alon has been living in Chemdat for over a year and gets enthused when he talks about the Biblical significance of the place. For example, Yaakov had his infamous struggle with Esav’s angel in the Jordan city of Nachal Yabok, which is directly opposite of Chemdat. Alon also appreciates the more recent history of Chemdat, as it was originally founded as an army outpost in 1979 and then became Kibbutz Ha’shomer Ha’atzir, which was soon abandoned. It was not until 1997 that it was resettled as an army academy that taught Talmud to religious soldiers half the day, and trained them for the army for the remainder of the day. Some 10 years ago, Chemdat began to be settled with families and has been growing ever since. Though today mostly home to civilians, Chemdat still houses a pre-IDF preparatory academy with 80 students, 95 percent of whom go on to be part of the elite factions of the army because of their diligence and idealism.
When questioned about the “mobile home-like” atmosphere, Alon contends that their home feels permanent and is definitely made of lasting materials. He and his family live in a section of cement houses with running water and electricity, but there are other alternatives in Chemdat, as well. Alon tells of other, roomier options, available in Chemdat, such as four-bedroom homes that he and his wife may consider for the future. Not entirely supported by agriculture, Chemdat is unlike a kibbutz, but there is plenty of nature around, with grass lawns and beautiful flower blossoms in the spring. Alon admits he is happy living in a place where he “makes a difference” and is glad to be part of a pioneering movement to settle the expansive but relatively uninhabited west. Residents of Chemdat are difficult to label, Alon says, since they are “heterogeneous,” but are all bonded with a love of Israel and a passion to settle their homeland.
Although the new regional council director of this area, Dubi Tal, told The Jewish Press in a January special feature that his optimistic dream is to bring tourism to the Jordan valley, as of now, tour guides may keep quiet about neighborhoods such as Chemdat, due to their simple, low-maintenance lifestyle and their far distance from major Israeli cities. And while travel books may laud the bustle of Jerusalem, the glamour of Eilat and the mysticism of Safed, residents of caravanim are worth visiting, if for no other reason than for the traveler to fully appreciate those who sacrifice for their country. While Tal foresees Mount Sarbata in the north of the valley as a potential tourist attraction due to its beautiful views, it would be reason enough to visit this area just to shake the hand of David Alon and his fellow settlers and tell them they make us proud. What a good lesson for one’s children to be able to witness first-hand those Jews who stand up for what they believe in, who eschew the conveniences that others may take for granted, and who are uniquely united as a community by a common ideal. Perhaps a visit to Chemdat, or a similar town, should be included in your next itinerary.
To find out more about Chemdat or to support its soldiers, contact Yaeli Kurtz, resident and director of tourism and public relations of Chemdat, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com, or visit www.chemdat.co.il.