A spotlight on those living off the land

Elad Nehorai’s new web series showcases eclectic residents of controversial settlement Bat Ayin.

July 25, 2016 21:23
ELAD NEHORAI (right) speaks to a Bat Ayin resident in March.

ELAD NEHORAI (right) speaks to a Bat Ayin resident in March.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

They grow their own olives, ferment their own wine, blend their own green juice and maintain a creative and spiritual existence, with deep ties to the land.

But this particular brand of hippies isn’t found deep in Brooklyn or northern California.

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Instead this unique population makes its home in the small Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin, with a population of less than 1,000.

Bat Ayin, located in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, is made up of an eclectic mix of hassidim and other religious Jews, the majority of whom are baalei teshuva, those who adopted a religious lifestyle later in life. A large number are also American immigrants, and many are artists, musicians, writers, farmers and scholars. This exceptional community is the focus of a new online webseries on the site Hevria.com, titled simply Bat Ayin.

The video series
is the brainchild of Elad Nehorai, who also runs a popular blog, Pop Chassid, and is the founder of Hevria, a magazine-style site which bills itself as “a group devoted to spreading the idea of positive creation in a spiritual context.”

Nehorai and his filmographer arrived in Israel in March and made a beeline for Bat Ayin, eager to explore and showcase the small community.

“The primary goal,” Nehorai told The Jerusalem Post, “is we wanted to show that the Jewish world is much richer and more diverse than we give it enough credit for.

We want the Jewish world – we think in general it can be very easy to feel like the people you’re around or the world you’re around can kind of become your world... and we really wanted to bring out the diversity and richness of the Jewish world.”

In addition, Nehorai noted, he wanted to spotlight the people and families of Bat Ayin without focusing on its fairly infamous politics.

“When I first came to Israel to study I had always seen settlers only through a political lens,” he said. “I didn’t really know anything about them and I remember when I visited them I was just kind of blown away.”

At the time, he said, “I was kind of a hippie, I had dreadlocks and that sort of thing, and I was just really surprised that I also got a hippie vibe from these people.”

Later, he said, when he visited Bat Ayin for the first time, “I got the strongest hippie vibe from them.” Since Hevria is “a site specifically about creativity I thought it would be a really great place to showcase, and also to bring a human element to this world.”

“No matter what end of the politics you stand on, it’s more about... to help people think outside of their agendas and to kind of bring people together, to be able to look past it and see the people beyond it as well.”

To that end Nehorai and filmmaker Matthew Bowman are producing five episodes total in the series, each one spotlighting a different personality in the small town. He expects a new episode to be posted each month, and the first – focusing on Shlomo and Rina Shoshana Vile – went up in mid-July.

The five-minute mini-documentary drops the viewer right into Bat Ayin, and into the lives of the couple. With little background or introduction, Shlomo discusses the journey the couple took from Chicago to Bat Ayin and his spiritual connection to the town. The interview clips are interspersed with breathtaking shots of vistas and footage of men learning in the settlement’s central synagogue, and others going about their daily lives.

The pared-down feel, with little to no background on the town, was “very purposeful, in a sense,” said Nehorai. But with a settlement like Bat Ayin, avoiding the politics of the town feels like enough of a statement on its own.

Despite its small size, Bat Ayin has made plenty of news over the years, most infamously for its Jewish underground terrorist group. In 2003, three residents of the settlement were sentenced to more than a dozen years in prison each for their plot to bomb an Arab girls’ school in Jerusalem. Last year, three minors from Bat Ayin were arrested and charged with a litany of offenses, including assaulting Arabs and an IDF officer, obstruction of justice, and damaging Palestinian property. And earlier this year, IDF soldier Cpl. Elad Yaakov Sela of Bat Ayin was sentenced to close to four years in prison for passing along classified military information to right-wing extremists.

But, at least in the first episode, viewers see an idyllic landscape, happy residents and singular devotion to God.

Indeed, Nehorai noted, a friend of his in San Franscisco who saw the clip reached out to say that “he wanted to show it to his friends – his secular friends are very anti-settlements – he wanted to show it to them, to give them a different perspective, but he said, you know, it’s kind of difficult, because he felt like I wasn’t addressing the elephant in the room – at least not explicitly.”

Throughout the series, Nehorai said, some episodes will be more directly political, though most choose to focus on individual stories and lives.

And that kind of criticism, he said, “is based off of one of our biggest goals, which is to humanize – not to ignore politics – but also not to make them the only part of the story, which is a very hard thing to do when you’re covering the settlements.”

To that end, Nehorai said, “I didn’t call it the West Bank and I didn’t call it Judea and Samaria. I knew if I used either word – it’s such a polarizing discussion – that using either word just totally immediately cuts out people that won’t listen to you based on that.

“It’s a very hard line to balance,” he said.

“We didn’t try to ignore the politics,” but each interviewee guided the tone of the video.

Though the politics are controversial enough, in fact the most criticism Nehorai received over the first episode was that it focused too much on Shlomo, with very little about Rina Shoshana. Nehorai publicly addressed the feedback, and noted that – in particular because they were two male filmmakers in a religious neighborhood – many of the women in town, including Rina Shoshana, were more hesitant to appear on film.

The first episode, he noted, “was actually just supposed to be Shlomo. We really tried to get her involved but she’s just a shy person in general and the irony was that I titled it ‘Shlomo and Rina Shoshana’ because i wanted it to be more equalized.”

Overall, Nehorai said, they “definitely made a concerted effort to try and include more women as much as we could – but we had two weeks and it wasn’t super simple.”

He said in the future “I would love to have a woman filmmaker, I would love to have more women involved – I got great input... on how to get more women involved.”

“If you look at Hevria,” he added, “the majority of our articles, the majority of our readership and commenters are women.

So we have a great strong Jewish women’s voice on our website, so I definitely think our videos should reflect that.”

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