Not Running Away From Ra'anana

The widow of the first Hebrew Israelite killed in a terror attack explains why she is leaving Israel.

Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé
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Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé

Perhaps because Leslye Knox is leaving Ra'anana on Tuesday, she can't stop talking about how beautiful it is. After 23 years in Israel, including 16 years as part of the Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona, the 42-year-old mother of six will return to the United States, leaving behind the place she calls her "sanctuary," the swan-filled lake inside Ra'anana Park. Even more significantly for Knox, she will be leaving all the people who have helped her get through the last two traumatic years.

In mid-January of 2002, she recalls in a calm voice over a cup of tea in the park cafe this week, she was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix, and told she needed a hysterectomy as soon as possible. Knox's voice does not change tone when she reports that three days later, her common-law husband and the father of her sixth child, Aharon Ben Israel Ellis - known as Rony - traveled to Hadera to perform with a Russian band at a bat mitzvah celebration. Ellis, a singer and the first Israeli-born child of the Hebrew Israelite community, was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman, along with five others.

"My stomach dropped," when she was woken at 2 A.M. by her eldest sons to answer a phone call, in which she was informed that Ellis was among those who had been shot. Knox remembers the details of the following hours: going to her neighbors barefoot in her pajamas to listen to the news, the telephone constantly ringing and, finally, the visit close to daybreak from the police, confirming her worst fears.

Knox also recalls that Ra'anana Mayor Zeev Bielski spent some three hours at her home the next morning - "with no entourage, no press and no aides" - where he listened to her talk about Ellis and arranged for the children's teachers and other help to come to the family home.

The next day, Ellis was buried in Dimona; by the following morning, Knox was at the hospital having a biopsy, which is when the Ra'anana community really began to shine. Rabbi Daniel Beller from the local Shivtei Yisrael synagogue arranged rides to the hospital, many helped with other practicalities, including volunteers from a terror victims' organization called DIVOTE, which was founded in Durban and works closely with the Ra'anana municipality.

"The whole Ra'anana community came to my aid," says Knox, who has since been given the all-clear by doctors. "I'll never forget it. It's so important for me to share this experience in the U.S. of how the Jewish community took care of me. I really want to go to the Jewish communities and to the African American communities and share my story. The support, the love, the strength and the shoulders I was given to lean on, the financial support, the food, the help from organizations, the rides to the hospital. It was overwhelming."

So why leave a place that has given her and her family so much help? "I've had all the love and support, but it's been hard personally - inside," she says, also referencing bouts of depression and grave financial problems, "It's so lonely."

Knox says the difficulties peak at holiday times, when she misses Ellis terribly and will not leave the apartment because seeing happy families all around her is too painful. "I need fresh air, a change of atmosphere, so I can help myself," she says. "I'm not running away, just taking a break. When I come back, I want to be stronger - emotionally and professionally." She plans to study day care management for the elderly in the U.S., and maybe one day fulfill her dream of building a home in Ra'anana or Savyon.

Knox's new home - along with five of her six children - will be in Atlanta, Georgia; one daughter will live with her father in Dimona. Knox says she chose Atlanta because she feels a need to return to the place she left at the age of 18 and because there she has a few friends who used to be part of Dimona's Hebrew Israelite community.

Born in Santa Rosa, California, Knox was first introduced to the teachings of the Hebrew Israelites as a "young, naive" college student in February 1980. By September of that year, she recalls, she was already stepping off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport.

During her 16 years with the Hebrew Israelites, when she was known as Ronia, Knox says she lived according to the doctrine of the community, which included a strictly vegan diet. Her husband - and the father of her first five children - took a second wife and she recalls this experience as a broadly positive one, even though she says she could "never do it now."

By the age of 36, Knox had become dissatisfied: "I wouldn't say I outgrew the community, but I started to assess things differently and my views on life had changed."

Knox moved to Ra'anana to live with Ellis, who was 10 years her junior and at that point just a friend, and had himself left the community several years earlier. Her children - who she was keen would experience life outside the Dimona community - joined her later. She describes the adaption period to life outside the community as a "total culture shock." Fortunately, Ellis helped her with bureaucracy, buying clothes - they had always made their own clothes in Dimona - and also helped Knox find her first job in Ra'anana, at an ironing service, and enroll at the local ulpan to learn Hebrew. "Rony was a real life saver," she says.

In 1997, she took a job as a cook for the family of Shari Arison, for whom she worked for a number of years, saving enough money to bring her children up from Dimona. Ellis, who worked as a singer, mostly in the evenings, would care for the children during the day. In 2001 the couple had a child of their own, Jordan. During that period, Knox suggested moving to the U.S., but Ellis refused: "He loved Ra'anana and he loved Israel. If ever there was a sabra, it was Rony; he could rattle that Hebrew so well. He could argue like [native Israelis] argue, even though it wasn't in his nature."

Knox says that she, too, loves Ra'anana and will miss it terribly. The municipality is using its links with its twin city Atlanta to set her up with an adoptive family there to ease the move. But part of her, she insists, will always remain in Israel.

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