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West Bank town residents visit partner shul
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West Bank town residents visit partner shul

The town of Eli in the West Bank is surrounded by vineyards and Jewish holy sites mentioned in the Bible.

Its residents have built a community center, a synagogue, and homes on its hillsides with what they say is the permission of the Israeli government. Since 2010, 12 of those homes face demolition, having been declared illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court.

The case was brought by the organization Peace Now, which claimed the land in the Hayovel neighborhood had been owned by Palestinians and should be returned.

However, residents contend the land was largely abandoned and barren when the Jewish settlers moved in and built a thriving community of homes, schools, agriculture, and business.

On Feb. 21, three representatives of Eli came to Highland Park to address members of Congregation Ahavas Achim, which has established a “sister” relationship with the community and its shul, Neve Shoham, one of six such partnerships Eli has formed with American congregations.

The three were Mayor Kobi Eliraz and Eliana Passentin, whose homes are among the 12 slated for razing, and development director Yehudah Lanzkron, who lost his 13-year-old younger brother in a terrorist bombing in 2001.

Ahavas Achim’s Rabbi Steven Miodownik said the relationship between Eli and the Orthodox synagogue is only several months old and it was still unclear what it will entail.

During a Jan. 18-30 Ahavas Achim mission to Israel, 16 of the 40 group members visited the community, which was founded in 1984 and is home to some 800 families ranging from haredi to secular, who live in nine diverse neighborhoods

Mission members had lunch in Passentin’s home overlooking Shiloh, the biblical site where the holy ark of the tabernacle is said to have stood for 369 years before being moved to Jerusalem.

When she looks out her living room window, Passentin told the gathering, she can glimpse land where the Maccabees were said to have fought.

But “my house has a big demolition sign on it,” said Passentin, a native of Palo Alto, Calif., who serves as deputy director of Eli’s Talmud Torah Hadar Yosef school.

She told NJ Jewish News that the legal problems of the town center around the failure of Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak to formally sign off on the zoning plans for the area, although the construction was legally authorized by the Israeli government.

“We are trying to get Ehud Barak to finalize the zoning,” she said. “Technically that’s supposed to happen.”

‘Connections to our past’

Eliraz said residents of Eli had a “moral right” to live there and criticized “this dedication of Bibi Netanyahu to the two-state solution” as well as many Jews’ belief in compromise as a move “to appease the Arabs that is detrimental to our existence.”

“Anyone who thinks returning to the Green Line will make peace is making a big mistake,” warned Eliraz, referring to the pre-1967 borders separating Israel from the territories. “We have always wanted to make peace, but the other side is not interested. If we don’t resist the leftist organizations and pressure from all over the world, it will lead us to the blue line — to the waters of the Mediterranean.”

In her backyard, Passentin said, hundreds of pottery shards that have been identified as being many centuries old have been dug up. “Our joke is that our backyard is where they broke and disposed of their dishes 3,500 years ago,” Passentin said. “But the idea that Jews were eating in our backyard 3,500 years ago really connects us to our past.”

Despite losing four residents of her neighborhood to terror, Passentin said, people like her still long for normalcy.

“We have chosen to build and live normal lives,” she said. “We are building a shopping center. What could be more normal than shopping? We built a community center where we have Zumba classes for women. We have a cultural center, a community pool.”

Penny Kaplan of Edison, who visited Eli on the mission, was one of those who dined at Passentin’s home.

“The people there are doing our work for us,” she said. “They are raising families and children. We saw hundreds of children running all over. When we were at Eliana’s we saw all those historical sites. They’re remarkable people who deserve our support.”

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