Blinded by the Light

Death threats, arrest, fines and other forms of punishment do not prevent crowds of young Bratslav yeshiva students seeking spiritual enlightenment from making nightly pilgrimages to the holy sites in the territories. They are more frightened of the army, they say, than of the Arabs.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

Every night at 1 A.M., dozens of young avrechim - students of Torah - gather at the corner of Shivtei Yisrael and Mea She'arim streets in Jerusalem, and wait silently for the transportation organized by the Bratslav yeshiva Shuvu Banim to prayers at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. When the bus arrives, the crowd is tense and they all rush toward it in order to grab a seat. The enthusiasm is particularly high on Thursday nights, when - just as at the hottest clubs in Tel Aviv - the demand is greater than the supply, and anyone who doesn't push toward the doors is left outside.

At least 25 disappointed Hasidim were forced to return home last week. Their pleas were of no avail; not one empty seat remained in the vehicle that set off on its way. Nocturnal mysticism is central to the Bratslav way of life, but "to be awake and to welcome Shabbat early on Friday morning is [to experience] an even higher spiritual light," explain the students.

The bus line has been operating for three years, six times a week. "If, God forbid, I should miss some night, the morning after just isn't the same," says Adi Neier, one of the organizers of the transportation.

Yeshivat Shuvu Banim, which originated in Bnei Brak, was founded by Rabbi Eliezer Berland in 1982 in the heart of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City. The community that was formed around it now numbers 500 families, according to estimates in the press, and 800 according to the rabbi's followers - most of them ba'alei tshuva (newly religious people) like Neier, who joined five years ago.

Neier, 28, is originally from Haifa and is a graduate of the agricultural school at Moshav Nahalal in the Galilee. When he was discharged from the Israel Defense Forces he opened a small advertising agency, and was trying to decide between university and a trip abroad. One day, a friend begged him to give up his usual visit to a night club, even if for only one evening, and to come to spend a Shabbat with him. It may sound like a cliche, but Neier caught a glimpse - and was never the same again.

The climax of his process of hazara b'tshuva (becoming newly religious) was a visit to the Ukraine town of Uman, which has become a pilgrimage site for Bratslavers - "the holy mark of our rabbi," as Neier puts it. He has not yet visited Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, however. "I haven't yet had the privilege," he says. "In order to be worthy you have to study intensively, at least 16 hours of Talmud every day. The rav [rabbi] sends only the very best. With God's help, I'll get there, too."

Joining the festivities

Although outwardly the yeshiva is now trying to shake off the negative label that has stuck to it, Shuvu Banim is the focus of the phenomenon of infiltrating the Joseph's Tomb compound. While Neier patiently awaits his turn, Weiss, as the young man who is barely 15 calls himself, is already very experienced. "I have been there 30 times already. Actually, 28," he hastens to amend. A tremendous achievement, considering that he made his first visit at the age of 13 and a half, toward the end of Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, in April 2002.

The last time he visited was last month, on the sixth night of Hanukkah. That trip, as opposed to the previous ones, which for the most part took place secretly, was with a group that entered under Israel Defense Forces auspices, protected by forces from the Samaria Brigade - 200 worshipers in four buses. The first part of the group included inhabitants of the hilltop settlements, whose leader is Yehuda Liebman of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar. The second, which had nothing to do with the first, was composed of ultra-Orthodox circles from Jerusalem, gathered together by Rabbi Yosef Laufer, a member of the Slonim Hasidim and head of the self-named Committee for Holy Sites.

The media reported, based on IDF sources, that the Central Command had decided to prevent Bratslav Hasidim from joining the festivities. In fact, it turned out that many of them did in fact join the official convoy, sponsored by Laufer. Young Weiss was not absent. And bringing up the rear was a small group that accompanied Shmuel Eliahu, the rabbi of Safed.

The conversation with Weiss takes place at 3:30 A.M., at the end of prayers on the seventh step of the Cave of the Patriarchs. His fluent testimony, from the point of view of a rank-and-file yeshiva student, rather than from official sources, affords a glimpse into the dynamics of the situation. It can explain what motivates the Bratslavers to endanger themselves deliberately, in spite of the authorities, and to make the journey repeatedly, whether on foot or by vehicle, to their holy Zion.

"When you arrive at Joseph's Tomb at night, the feeling of elation is different from that in any other place in Eretz Yisrael," says Weiss. "That's why we have this tremendous attraction to the place. We aren't worried. Since Rabbi Berland ordered us to go to Joseph's Tomb, we have had a large number of miraculous incidents. They threw stones at us, they operated explosive devices against us, they threw grenades, they fired at us. We stood face to face with death and saw salvation with our own eyes. It's not that there's no fear, but when you trust the rabbi, you overcome it. When we were fired on, people shouted: `Thanks to our holy rabbi, Rabbi Nachman,' `thanks to Joseph the tzadik [righteous man].' Or they sang, `We will rejoice in you, our rabbi.' When you are imbued with faith, nobody can overcome you, neither the Arabs nor the IDF."

Of whom are you more afraid?

Weiss: "Of the army, of course. When the soldiers chased us, we hid in the stairwells of Palestinians. The main thing was not to get caught, because then they can give you a six-month suspended sentence, which prevents you to some extent from trying to go to Joseph's Tomb again. Even the rabbi, when he gives us permission, warns us more about the army than about the Arabs."

Have you been arrested?

"Twice. The first time they caught me, they released me immediately. They thought it was no big deal, they had no idea as yet of what was going to happen during the next year and a half. The second time they caught me was in Nissan [April] of last year, and then I was prevented for three months from going to Samaria, otherwise I would pay a fine of NIS 4,000. I had a hard time restraining myself; when the time was over and the rabbi permitted me to return to the area, at first I went to Joseph's Tomb almost every night."

What is the rabbi's policy for giving permission?

"There were periods when he pushed to have as many people as possible enter, but he doesn't allow everyone to do so. There were cases when during prayer, a group approached the rabbi asking him for permission - one person was told you can go, another was told you can't. There are young men who enter Nablus and stay all night, and the next day they don't put on tefillin [phylacteries] or are negligent about prayer and studies. Those are the ones he restricts. On the other hand, there are tzadikim whom he permits to enter several nights in a row; there are some who don't go to the tomb in groups, but entirely on their own."

Do you see any difference between an official entry and an entry that is contrary to the orders of the army?

"Of course. When we're with the army we can pray calmly, we have all the time in the world. Without it - although one has to rush - the feeling of mesirut nefesh [devotion to God] is much stronger."

Nightly stream

Operation Defensive Shield aroused the Bratslav community to action, and large numbers began to sneak into the Joseph's Tomb compound, from which the IDF had withdrawn at the start of the current intifada, after the battle in which Madhat Yusuf, a Druze member of the Border Police, was killed. The first attempt was on April 7, 2002, with over 100 Hasidim taking part, many of them minors. They were led by Benny Ze'evi, (the son of right-wing politician Rehavam Ze'evi, who was assassinated by Palestinians in October 2001); many were stopped at the IDF checkpoints, but Ze'evi and a small band managed to reach the site and to conduct a quick prayer service there.

From that moment, the nightly stream of visitors has not stopped. The head of the Samaria Brigade at the time, Colonel Yossi Adiri, went to the home of Rabbi Berland to explain the mortal danger involved, which necessitated sending troops to protect the Hasidim at the expense of operational missions. The infiltration continued. There were nights when there were so many people coming and going that it seemed like they were walking on a busy promenade rather than secretly sneaking into a holy place.

The infiltration did not end even when the heads of the Shin Bet security services made a pilgrimage to Berland. The arrests at the Ariel police station didn't stop the flow, nor did the shooting in the air by IDF forces or the tires that were punctured personally, claim the Hasidim, by the brigade commander. They ignored the order signed by the head of Central Command, Yitzhak Eitan, forbidding entry into Area A (controlled exclusively by Palestinians), and even when a warning was received about a young Palestinian from the village of Kalil who was planning a suicide attack at Joseph's Tomb, the attempts didn't stop. Adiri pursued the Bratslav trespassers, and tried to make them obey the law. There was also violence, they cursed him as a "Nazi," and toward the end of his term, when they felt that they had overdone it and called to apologize, he didn't really forgive them.

Colonel Harel Knafo, Adiri's replacement, chose to deal with the Hasidim peaceably, and they melted. "You want to commit suicide, commit suicide, I'll do my job," he explained to them, and won their hearts. That doesn't necessarily mean that the infiltration will stop.

In September 2002, the new GOC Central Command, Major General Moshe Kaplinski, and the new brigade commander in the Samaria district, Colonel Knafo, drastically changed the policy relating to Joseph's Tomb. Only a month into their term, they approved, for the first time since October 2000, a one-time Yom Kippur prayer service. Just two weeks later, another group that had received permission entered Joseph's Tomb, also under heavy guard. At this stage the Bratslavers remained outside the picture. Since they did not receive permits, they returned to their old ways: In January 2003, eight Bratslavers were arrested, in March, five were detained, and in April, three were rescued by the skin of their teeth after being beaten by young Palestinians; the dozens of successful entries were not reported in the media. Again and again the dam was burst, and the Bratslavers - along with the very different zealots on the "Gideonite" hills east of the settlement of Itamar - turned into one of the greatest problems of the Samaria Brigade.

Eight group entries under IDF guard, an average of one every two months, have been registered since Kaplinski and Knafo arrived on the scene. In the context of their more open policy, they have reduced the pressure. Starting with the third entry, the Bratslavers were included not as a group, but as individuals. The result: The extent of infiltration lessened in comparison to the past. During the Sukkot holiday in October, they were given a vehicle of their own for the first time. A lack of organization led to a situation in which those who found no room on the bus began, in specific violation of the orders of the brigade commander, to sneak in on foot; because of this behavior, they were not invited to join the last trip to the compound, during Hanukkah. The sanction did not prevent the Bratslavers, however, from joining the convoy.

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