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Last Monday, residents of Timrat, a community of 300 families founded in 1981 on a hilltop above the Jezreel Valley, dedicated their first synagogue. They transformed an unused school building into a center of communal prayer, with tall windows framing sturdy oaks outside, woven tapestries covering the Torah ark and table. Wide wooden stairs are ingeniously set into a pristine white wall like bleachers for the women's section. A community member explains that women will be separated only by a moveable partition, not a wall, during services. "We're not religious, you know."
I heard about the new synagogue in America. On a recent trip, exasperating airline snafus left me stranded Thursday night at Kennedy Airport, unable to return home for Shabbat. Cousins living nearby in Long Island kindly provided hospitality. Hence, as it happened, on Shabbat I was at Young Israel of Woodmere when Rabbi Hershel Billet spoke of the forthcoming dedication and the opportunity for members of his congregation to financially contribute.
The synagogue was built in memory of Lt. Gilad Shtokelman, a tank commander from Timrat who was killed in the Second Lebanon War, during reserve duty. He was 26.
Gilad worked as a steward on El Al, mostly on the long Israel-US-Israel routes. He loved his job - the rare young adult who was as comfortable waking passengers with steaming towels as shouting directions, his head out the turret of a tank. Early last August, he turned on his cellphone after landing in New York. A text message flashed on the screen: His unit had been mobilized. Someone would fill in for him. He need not return until the following week, the message read.
Gilad asked El Al to change his schedule so he could return immediately. He had just enough time for coffee at Starbucks, and to pen a four-stanza song. He would fly home as a passenger on the late Thursday-night flight.
"Look how A-OK the people at El Al are," he told his mother on the phone.
"Look how A-OK you are," said Rochale Shtokelman.
WHEN SHE put down the phone a scream rose in her throat. Later, she would find the poem on the piano and wonder if he'd known, too.
"Just a few more hours we will cross the borders. The cannons will fire and we'll destroy the roads... I will talk of one who will be deep in the ground."
She watched him gather his gear and stop to pick mint and verbena. He always made the coffee and tea for his crew. As he did on the plane.
Between missile attacks on the North, Rochale - a petite woman who teaches music to preschoolers - collected food gifts for soldiers to distribute through Gilad or his brother Eliran, also a mobilized tank commander. On Wednesday night, August 9, four days after Gilad had returned, she was standing in front of her house to receive a package from a neighbor when she saw the grim soldiers approaching.
"They're coming to me," she told her neighbor. She wasn't surprised. "It's about Gilad."
Thousands of neighbors and friends visited during the mourning week, some with well-meaning suggestions about how Gilad's memory could be honored. Said Micha Shtokelman, Gilad's father: "They spoke of biking expeditions and hikes. I didn't want to hear it. It was too soon."
TWO CONSPICUOUS strangers were among those who came to comfort the mourners. Shlomo Ra'anan, a black-frocked rabbi from Rehovot, introduced himself as one of Gilad's passengers.
"When do you ever remember the name of a steward?" asked Rabbi Ra'anan. "Gilad had an extra measure of graciousness, as if he was welcoming you into his home. I would ask him, 'Where do they bring up such fine young men like you?' I was devastated when I heard Gilad was killed. I mentioned it to my friend Rabbi Billet, here during the war, and it turned out that he knew Gilad, too, and we went together."
Friday night services took place in a classroom at Timrat, but there was no synagogue. After the shiva, Micha would be traveling daily to Migdal Ha'emek to say kaddish for his son.
Sometime later, Rabbi Ra'anan phoned. He hadn't mentioned it but the organization he heads, Ayelet Hashachar, helps erect synagogues.
"I knew the moment I heard it that this is what we wanted," said Rochale. Gilad's father insisted it be a permanent, beautiful structure, not a prefab. Farmer turned industrialist, Micha Shtokelman undertook the practical work. Rabbi Ra'anan brought volunteer architects and a considerable donation. El Al would supply the furniture. Rabbi Billet would try to raise money for the rest.
So, on Tu Be'av, on the anniversary of the death of Gilad Shtokelman, Gilad's synagogue was dedicated in Timrat. A wall at the entrance tells Gilad's life story in his own poetry.
As it happens, I was in the Galilee and had the opportunity to visit the Shtokelmans before the ceremony. Rochale showed me Gilad's untouched room, where his personal items on his bedstead included a kippa and siddur. "He was deeply religious in his own way."
"Some people are surprised that we were so keen on a synagogue," said Micha. "They think I might have become a returnee to the faith. We're not 'religious,' we're just Jewish."
If you're traveling in the Galilee, take a detour up the lofty heights of Timrat. Look for Gilad's synagogue. It's holy Jewish ground.