Life for Israel is definitely heating up of late: The northern boundary with Lebanon is suddenly the “hot” border which is to say that we are getting along about as well with Hezbollah as we are with President Obama, and the election season is increasing in intensity with voting fewer than 4 weeks away.
Political campaigns bring not only promises but criticism and condemnations of the competition and of the “other” in society as well. It is sadly ironic that in Israel when the real enemy lurks just beyond every border and sits in the Knesset under a unifying Arab bloc, groups within the country still find fault with other Jews. Divides amongst the population are sharply delineated and discussed during campaigns: Left-Right; Arab-Jew; Religious-Secular; Hareidi-Religious Zionist; Settler-Non-Settler. Seemingly, each party represents merely a microcosm of the country generally in direct competition with another group.
Of this demographic breadth, amazingly the group in which I had the fewest acquaintances was the Hareidim. I mentioned this to a good buddy of mine, Elie Pieprz, Director of External Affairs for the Yesha Council, and he told me not far from where he lives in the Shomron is the only Hareidi community in the Shomron, a community that almost single-handedly dispels the preconceived negative stereotypes of Hareidi Jews held by many Israelis. This community has both large and small industry, a top-notch furniture maker with prices the best prices around, and even some Hareidi soldiers. Intrigued, I asked the name-Immanuel-and decided to learn more about the community. So I spoke with Rabbi Moshe Zinger, the Chief Executive Officer of Friends of Immanuel, an organization dedicated to getting the word out about his beloved community.
Immanuel is located in the Shomron region of “YESHA,” an acronym representing 3 areas: ‘YE-huda,’ ‘SH-omron’ and ‘A-za’ (Gaza). Despite the Israeli government’s shameful retreat from Aza in 2005, the ‘A’ remains. YESHA is a ridge of land retaken by Israel in the miraculous 6-Day War, stretching from the southern Hebron Hills to the northern Shomron. YESHA is where most of the Tanakh occurred and is an integral part of our historic identity as Jews.
Most of the communities of YESHA, are “Religious-Zionist,” with several exceptions of mixed or non-religious settlements. Fewer still are the “Hareidi” communities, most notably Beitar, in Judea, Modiin Ilit in the Binyamin region, and Immanuel, located in the Shomron. Immanuel sits on the seam of land separating the territories given to the tribes of Efraim and Menashe, located in a natural and rustically beautiful area of the rugged Shomron hills under an hour’s drive from each of Israel’s celebrated Hareidi centers, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.
Immanuel is a town of approximately 3500 Hareidi Jews, covering the spectrum of the Hareidi world: various sects of Hassidim (Slonim being the largest); a minority of Litvish; and a good balance between Sephardi and Ashkenazi. The community was founded and incorporated in the early 1980s and intended to be an alternative to the densely populated Hareidi enclaves throughout Jerusalem and of Bnei Brak, without sacrificing the intensity or quality of Torah existence. Immanuel, set in the beautiful Shomron countryside, offered the one thing neither Jerusalem nor Bnei Brak could: space. The intention was to attract young couples who could not afford housing in established Hareidi areas and provide them with attractive, large apartments for their growing families without sacrificing or compromising commitment to Torah and mitzvot. The Slonimer Rebbe (z”l) was so impressed by the community he encouraged his followers to move there, which they did.
Soon after the beginning of the Second Intifada, Immanuel was devastated by 2 horrific terror attacks on buses occurring just outside Immanuel’s gates. Relative to its size, no community in Israel suffered more at the hands of terror during the Intifada than Immanuel. As a result, many residents left Immanuel. But due to the Slonimer Rebbe’s belief and confidence in Immanuel its values, and quality of life, he encouraged his followers to remain there. Immanuel not only survives, it thrives. Recently, more than 120 families moved into Immanuel continuing the trend of a sharply increasing population and a sharper increase in housing values resulting in a growing number of kollels and shuls; schools for every age; a breadth of shiurim; and any and every facility needed for a vibrant Torah life.
There is another, unique, component to life in Immanuel beyond its dynamic Torah existence. Through the efforts and initiative of Friends of Immanuel and its engaging CEO, Rabbi Moshe Zinger, several respected professional training centers opened, offering training in electrical engineering, computers, accounting, and architecture preparing residents who wish to enter the professional world to have the skills to do so. Numerous cottage industries (i.e. sheitlach), the previously mentioned furniture maker, and a thriving Judaica and Silverworks factory provide employment and commerce for much of Immanuel.
Though Immanuel is unique in the region as the only Hareidi settlement in the Shomron, its neighboring communities greatly value its presence assisting and benefiting from its proximity. Immanuel shares and contributes to the very fabric of the existence of the Jews of the area. Its singularity is not based on an insular approach to life but rather the desire to interact with neighboring communities and to be a partner in life in Israel. Examples: A Slonimer Hassid from Immanuel travels daily to give a Daf Yomi shiur at my friend’s knitted-kippah community and the men in the shiur are devoted talmidim to him; several young men in Immanuel serve as members of the Israel Defense Force and while enlistment is not encouraged in Immanuel, the community is supportive of their decision. Even the Slonimer Rebbe gave psak that soldiers may wear their uniforms in Immanuel’s Beis Medrash when on duty; the community is built around an uncompromising dedication to Torah but attempt to “fund” their Torah learning through the training and jobs mentioned above.
So what have I learned about Immanuel? Most notably, it is a community which defies stereotyping. It is a Hareidi/Hassidic community which in many ways resembles my Religious Zionist community: 3500 or so people, parents working, trying to support themselves and their families; nestled in the beautiful countryside of YESHA; learning and living Torah; some men serving in the army. Bottom line: Though their clothes and kipot may be different than in my community the values and love of Torah are the same. Isn’t that what ultimately matters?
Despite the travails of its past, everyone who knows anything about Immanuel is optimistic about its future. The reason is simple; the name Immanuel says it all: “G-d is with us.”