Succot 1996. Not What You Think.

I looked again at the price. A real bargain. In fact a damn good bargain. Perhaps not a luxury vacation, but family bungalows would do just fine. A swimming pool would be a compensating touch. The big pull, of course, would be a beach with separate swimming areas for men and women side by side. Now the question was whether my father and his wife would be willing to spend four days at Midrashat Darom in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip?

My father (of blessed memory) and his wife had planned a cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean for some time and recently decided to extend their trip and come to Israel for a few days. My brother, his wife and their seven children (oldest 12 and the youngest 2 months) had just made aliyah and were living in an apartment in Petach Tikva. As for myself and my family, we were planning on moving to Shiloh in September before the start of the school year. My father, who had missed my wedding the previous summer, now had the opportunity to see two of his sons and their families in one fell swoop. The only problem was where could we be all together?

Shiloh didn’t seem like a solution. We would be new there and the house we were renting was just big enough for the five of us. My brother’s flat in Petach Tikva wasn’t an alternative either. The best solution would be to find a hotel for ten children, two married couples and two grandparents. My father, never one to splurge when his basic instincts said otherwise, would balk at anything too expensive. After some thought and a greater amount of anxiety, a co-worker mentioned Midreshet Darom. I called them up and they faxed me their price list. Four days full board in four family bungalows would be less than $1200. At a price like that I had to ask my father if he would agree to go to Gush Katif. Of course like any good salesman I sold the positives, the beach, the price and the price. He liked what he heard and agreed readily. I sent a deposit check.

We moved to Shiloh, the children (ages 7, 6 and 5) started school and we started to settle in. Rosh HaShana was later that year (1996) and Yom Kippur was September 23, a Monday. The day after Yom Kippur ended, the Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu announced the opening of a new entrance to the Kotel Tunnel. And then all hell let loose.

The day after the opening of the tunnel was not a quiet day. Riots at Kfar Darom, Rachel’s Tomb and Ramallah and shooting incidents on the roads. Thursday was much worse than Wednesday. Eleven Israeli soldiers were killed and 69 Palestinians, including six Israeli soldiers from the Haruv Battalion at Yosef’s Tomb (in all the days of fighting 17 IDF soldiers were killed). I do not remember if I went to work those two days (Wednesday and Thursday), most likely we were as if under siege and forced to stay at home. Fighting continued until Friday afternoon. Netanyahu called Arafat and some say Netanyahu threatened Arafat that if the fighting continued that Israel would send soldiers and tanks into Ramallah and “conquer” the PA . Regardless of the content of that telephone call, the shooting stopped late Friday afternoon.

Succot is a holiday where Israel rejoices in the protection that G-d provides for us, or the Ananay Kavod. We leave our houses and security to move to flimsy shacks. Trusting G-d doesn’t mean that we do nothing for our own security though. In Shiloh we all pitched in to do extra guard duty and to help secure the perimeter of our yishuv. We prayed for the safety of the soldiers and mourned for those who were killed. It is difficult to be too happy in such situations, yet we were optimistic and sure in our faith. M, the security coordinator did much to encourage us and to keep us informed of what was going on.

Sunday came and with it the decision to go to Gush Katif or not. I called Midreshet Darom and they said that it was safe to come and that there was a bus leaving Jerusalem for Gush Katif at 11 AM. I called my brother and we agreed that we would not give up unless the army told us it was unsafe to go. My father and S (his wife) surprisingly also agreed to go. We gathered the suitcases and the kids and boarded the bus from Shiloh to Jerusalem.

Arriving in Jerusalem we looked for the bus that would take us to Gush Katif. Finding the bus, we discovered that it was basically empty and that no one was waiting. We asked around and there was only one other family going to Midreshet Darom and perhaps another six people traveling to the Hof Dekalim (Palm Beach) Hotel which was located close to Midreshet Darom. The bus sat in Jerusalem for about an hour, while the owner of the hotel checked whether we would be allowed through the Kisufim checkpoint. Finally we left: a half empty bus off to paradise.

Israel is a small place and a trip to paradise is a short journey. That is if you could call Gush Katif paradise. Only 90 minutes after leaving Jerusalem we were already at Kisufim crossing. A huge line of cars and army trucks stood in line. The crossing was blocked to traffic. As we approached the crossing my eye caught the sight of two batteries of 155 millimeter howitzers one on each side of the road positioned for fire. The amount of soldiers on the road was overwhelming. I wondered if I wasn’t bringing my family into a war zone and tried to reassure myself that if it was dangerous that we would be sent back. After an hour, the road opened and we entered Gaza. The signs of fighting were apparent, Kfar Darom junction was in ruins and the flour mill was pockmarked with bullets. There had been especially heavy exchanges of gunfire at the Kfar Darom junction.

We arrived at Midreshet Darom, and it was completely empty. The two families on the bus were all who came and we waited nervously for my brother, his family and my parents to arrive (S , is technically a step parent, although my father remarried after I left for Israel). After not long a dirty van approached, bulging suitcases vicariously perched on its roof. My brother had made arrangements with a friendly yet gruff van driver to take them all to Gush Katif. My brother’s Hebrew was not yet up to par, but evidently the driver kept repeating “welcome to Israel, say shalom to war” all the way from Kisufim to the midrasha. My father sat in front with the driver and my brother seemingly oblivious to the journey, while S was firmly “embedded” in the back with the grandchildren. We took stock of the situation and then it was off to lunch.

Midreshet Darom’s succah was spacious, full of tables and totally empty of diners spare ourselves. Service, unsurprisingly, was better than usual as there was no competition. The waiter, a kid from the Gush, fawned on the children and supplied them with everything in double portions (except vegetables). We were tired from the journey but anxious to do something fun for the afternoon. We moved our things to the bungalows.Instead of the four bungalows we ordered, we received six: I and my wife would have our own private bungalow! We gathered what we needed and headed for the beach.

Not so fast. The beach was still a “security zone”, but not before long the order was “clarified” and we were at the beach. And what a beach it was! The sand, the sun, the waves, the fun. Forget about separate beaches. When you are the only ones on the beach, you may not rule the waves, but you still can wave away the rules. The water was rather calm and we all took turns taking the children in to the ocean and jumping the waves, building sand castles and just enjoying the view.

So we passed the next four days. In the mornings we would grab our lulavs and head over to the Hof Dekalim Hotel where there was a small minyan for the festival prayers, then breakfast and beach until lunch and again more beach till the evening and dinner. We would close the day with another visit to the beit knesset at the hotel and shmooze a bit. Then it was off to bed early and a good nights sleep. The second day we were there Arik Sharon came to visit and “encourage” those “brave” enough to come despite the fighting. We chose to skip the photo-op despite that undoubtedly a visiting tourist, his wife, two sons and ten grandchildren would have been quite a picture: the beach was too alluring and my wife is a bit publicity shy.

On Monday our ranks were increased when my wife’s parents decided to join us at the Midrasha. Our children were delighted to have another set of grandparents to pamper them, as if getting double deserts every meal from the waiter wasn’t enough. My father and S, were also pleased as S is from Scotland and my mother in law from North Ireland. We all camped out at the beach and enjoyed the quiet. Our only scare happened when my parents wandered off along the beach in the area of al Mawasi. They came back with a small story after having “tea with a native”.

The day we left, I went to the caravan that was used as an office to pay the bill and to thank the staff for such a wonderful visit. After writing the check I catiously asked if there was any shooting where we were. The sherut leumi girl replied by pointing out some bullet holes in the caravan and going outside and pointing to a hill only 100 meters away. “From there they were shooting at us” she said casually.

Since then much has changed. Midrashet Darom in Gush Katif is only a memory and Hof Dekelim is a heap of rubble. Since then I have never had a similar vacation experience (two years later we went back to Midrashet Darom for Succot, but it just wasn’t the same). What remains unchanged is the sea ,the magic of Succot, and the Ananay Kavod.

About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.