The Gush: Center of Modern Religious Zionism
By David Morrison
Gefen Publishing House, 2004, 164 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 18, 2010
Some historical scenes seem unimportant, but are quite significant because they affect scores of people, and sometimes an entire country. The history of Gush Etzion in Israel and the stories of the people who were involved in its creation is an example. David Morrison gives us a well-written and very emotionally moving history and description of Gush Etzion and the affect that it has had upon the culture of the State of Israel. He tells about the philosophy of the area, introduces readers to interesting personalities, and tells fascinating stories about each of them.
Gush Etzion is an area not far from Jerusalem, atop a stony mountain, 250 meters higher than Jerusalem. Prior to 1948, it was colonized by Jews in four settlements. In 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence, the Arabs butchered some 250 of these settlers, far exceeding the murders in other settlements, destroyed the area except for a single tree, and seized the land. During the 1967 Six Day War, the area was recaptured and some of the original settlers returned, along with others.
Moshe Moscovic was among the returnees. Morrison's stories about this man are inspirational. Moscovic realized that cities could be built on the hilly area with houses of learning that would inspire generations. He negotiated with the Israeli government and established a Hesder Yeshiva there. A Hesder Yeshiva is a house of learning where the students study ancient texts and are encouraged to protect Israel's future by joining its army. Today, young Hesder men commit themselves for five years, one and a half in military service, and the rest in the Yeshiva studying.
Moscovic secured Rabbi Yehuda Amital as the first head of the Yeshiva. Rabbi Amital's philosophy reflects the Moscovic goal, as summed up in the story Amital tells his students. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe was living in a three room apartment, each room leading into the next. The Rebbe was studying in the first room, his grandson was studying in the second, and his great grandson, a baby, was in the third. The great grandson began to cry, but his father, engrossed in his text, was deaf to the cries. The Rebbe rushed through the second room to the third and took care of his great grandson. He then returned to his grandson, who was still engrossed in the Talmud, oblivious to all around him. The Rebbe rebuked him, "If one studies and does not hear the cry of a Jewish child, that is a sign that his studies are flawed, something is amiss." This philosophy of concern for others and for the State of Israel permeates the Yeshiva and, as a result, the percentage of solders from Hesder Yeshivot today exceeds their representation in the Israeli population.
When Rabbi Amital heard that Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was a learned person, he asked him to join him as a second head of the Yeshiva. Rabbi Lichtenstein agreed. Lichtenstein studied under Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Soloveitchik encouraged him to enroll in Harvard University and acquire a Ph.D., which he did. Rabbi Lichtenstein, who married Rabbi Soloveitchik's daughter, stresses this dual need to his students, the need for Torah and secular studies, along with the intense love of Israel.
Moscovic also had a vision that nearby Efrat could be developed and become a city with a Yeshiva. He chose Rabbi Shlomo Riskin for this job. Rabbi Riskin and his wife are descendants of secular, non-religious Jews. Like Rabbi Lichtenstein, he was inspired by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Morrison describes him as "the model of the congregational rabbi and Jewish leader." Before coming to Israel, Rabbi Riskin built up the Lincoln Square Synagogue from a handful of families associated with the Conservative Movement to one of the most successful Orthodox synagogues in America. Today, because of his efforts Efrat is a thriving community and Rabbi Riskin runs many educational institutions.
Morrison introduces his readers to a host of other interesting people. There are the tales about Rabbi Shmuel Vigoda who worked with Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Heredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. There are the stories about the creation of Herzog College where people are taught how to teach. There is the account of the creation of a women's college headed by Esti Rosenberg, the daughter of Rabbi Lichtenstein. Among other tales is the one Rosenberg tells that as a young girl she refused her teachers' demands that she wear long dresses because of modesty. She said that her father, Rabbi Lichtenstein allowed shorter dresses and she considers him her spiritual leader. There are also stories of men and women, who work behind the scene, as well as a chapter devoted to the world view that inspired the leaders of Gush Etzion and helped mold the thinking and aspirations of many people in the State of Israel.