In the lush rolling hills of the Judean Valley lies a small city of white, red-roofed houses. Surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, children play in manicured yards, owners walk their dogs and English is heard more often than Hebrew.
But in this mostly modern Orthodox community, men come to synagogue on Shabbat with guns strapped to their backs, and both entrances to the town are secured with mechanical gates manned by guards with M16s.
Welcome to Efrat - the beautiful, quiet suburb only 15 minutes from Jerusalem with stunning views of Bethlehem.
It didn't always look like this, of course.
"We signed up for Efrat when it was just a rocky hill," recalls Glenda Sulski, a South African native who moved to Efrat 23 years ago. Active in their chapter of Bnei Akiva in South Africa - which encouraged aliya, especially to Gush Etzion - Sulski and her husband, Avi, decided to settle in Efrat along with 30 other South African families.
"We only saw what our house looked like on paper," remembers Sulski, who moved with her husband to the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem to wait for their house to be built.
When they finally did move in three years later with two small sons, there were no telephones, no roads, no supermarkets and they used generators for their electricity.
"We were really like pioneers," says Sulski, who lives in the same house she moved into more than two decades ago, though they have since added on and had two more children. "It was the kind of thing you can only do once in your life, when you're young and when you don't think too much of what you're doing, but it gave us a great sense of community, and everything that has developed since then is very exciting."
Most of the development is due to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat who established the community with Moshe Moshkowitz in 1983.
Riskin was the founding rabbi of the flourishing Lincoln Square synagogue in New York, and while serving as scholar in residence in Ein Tzurim, he met Moshkowitz, whose dream it was to establish Efrat.
After seven years of hard work and many trips around the world amassing funds and followers, the Riskin family made aliya in June, 1983, along with about 60 families from his congregation.
MORE THAN twenty years later, Riskin's role in the settlement has only grown.
"The most important thing in Efrat is the educational system; that's the heart of a religious community," says Riskin, who founded the Ohr Torah Stone educational organization, which runs kindergarten, elementary, high school and post-high school yeshivas and institutions for boys and girls in Efrat and Gush Etzion.
The dynamic religious leader of the mostly religious community, Riskin also gives daily classes, provides counseling and attends every family's occasions - even if that means, he says, going to a bar mitzva, two sheva brachot and a wedding all in one evening.
Aside from the more than 30 educational institutions, 28 synagogues operate in Efrat, most of which are Ashkenazi, but Sephardi shuls - and even a Yemenite shul - do exist.
"We are a heterogeneous community, but in the main, Efrat is religious Zionism and modern Orthodoxy," says Riskin. "But a committed modern Orthodoxy, not a typical American modern Orthodox lite. Halacha is taken seriously here."
He adds, "It doesn't have the overbearing morality squad some religious communities have - there's no big brother watching how people dress in the streets."
Today, Efrat boasts a diverse population of 8,500, made up of British, French, South African, American and Israeli residents. Contrary to popular belief, Mayor Eli Mizrachi claims Efrat is now 60 percent Israeli.
"In the beginning, it was mostly Anglos," says Mizrachi, who has been living in Efrat for two decades. "But now that the Zayit [neighborhood] was built, there are many more Israelis."
The large number of Anglos is one of the reasons many English-speaking immigrants move to Efrat; the common language and background make the transition to a new country easier. But like immigrant communities the world over, integration is not always easy, and the difficulties are mostly fundamental.
"A big problem for adults is finding a job, but the proximity to Jerusalem makes that easier," says Mizrachi, noting that unemployment in all of Gush Etzion stands at 2.3%. "But one of the biggest problems is the language. New children come to school, don't speak Hebrew and have problems with the classes and the teacher."
In the worst cases, this can lead to what has been notoriously termed "Efrat's drug problem" - young immigrants who make aliya with their families, don't know the language, get frustrated, don't go to class, and subsequently end up hanging out "on the street, where it's easier to make friends and they are welcomed," says Mizrachi.
"First of all, there is no place in the world that doesn't contend with this issue. But we are concentrating a lot of efforts to deal with this, and it's already much less than it was in previous years," he continues. Mizrachi adds that English-speaking Sherut Leumi girls will soon be employed in the school system to help these young immigrants. "But if the family as a unit makes an effort to learn the language, I think it will make a huge difference."
"Teenage years are difficult years, and drugs are a world issue," says Riskin, who is personally involved in the education of almost all of Efrat's youth.
"There's always an identity crisis with teenagers, and that becomes exacerbated when you're dealing with immigrants. But the overwhelming majority of youth in Efrat are the greatest ever," he says, "and are seriously committed to the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel."
The other factor involved in youth straying "off the path" is the oft-heard complaint that "there's nothing to do" in Efrat. This is commonly espoused by teenagers, though the city boasts three youth groups - Bnei Akiva, Ezra and Etgarim - and an active community center constantly running cultural activities for both youth and adults.
"I went through different stages in my relationship with Efrat," says Daniel Sulski, 23. "When I was younger, I was very happy, it was fun and there were tons of other kids. Then, between the ages of 16-22, I didn't like it at all, because I was bored and always wanted to get out and go to the city. I needed more action.
"But today, I appreciate it more. I like being far from the city in a smaller, quieter place," Sulski continues. "I'd like my own family to live in a place like Efrat one day."
For those for whom the lure of the city is still too great, Mizrachi has the ultimate playhouse in the works - a sports center complete with a swimming pool, bowling alley, gym, miniature golf, billiards and table tennis. But, he says, it will take time and money - $3 million dollars, to be exact - before it is completed.
Next year is Efrat's "year of the youth," and the municipality plans on devoting a majority of its efforts to projects and programs for youth in the city.
IN THE MEANTIME, Efrat is dealing with the more pressing issue of the security fence that the government has yet to begin to build around the city because of unresolved concerns, both of its residents and of neighboring Arab communities.
The municipality did finally receive permission from the Ministry of Defense to build on two of its newest hills, Tamar and Dagan - which contain only caravans now - but is still waiting for other bureaucratic verifications to be completed before actual building can begin.
For Dagan, this includes approval of the "blue line," a system implemented recently by the Defense Ministry which checks the actual borders of parcels of land in Judea and Samaria. For Tamar, the blue line has already been clarified and approved, but the Ministry of Housing is still in the "planning stages" with the municipality. For both, the start date for construction to begin ranges anywhere from six months to two years.
They are still waiting for the final verdict on the Eitam hill, which constitutes more than 40% of Efrat's land reserves and which was originally declared as government land. Nine Arab families made claims against the government for different parcels of the land, however, and the military court for Judea and Samaria is in the process of checking the validity of the documents they submitted. Officials in the municipality say they hope a decision will be made within a year, though they are impatient to begin.
Many of Efrat's youth and adults are actively involved in the political affairs: Behind the fair fa ade of the typical American suburb lies the strong ideological basis upon which Efrat was founded.
Since the 1920s, Jews have attempted to live in the area of Gush Etzion, inside which Efrat sits today, three separate times, but were either driven away by harsh physical conditions or repeated attacks by neighboring Arabs.
In 1943, there were 450 adults living in four thriving settlements in Gush Etzion. In 1948, more than half that population was murdered, the rest taken into captivity and all the settlements destroyed by Arabs.
The strategic area of Gush Etzion was so valued as a crucial defense of Jerusalem that after it fell in 1948, prime minister David Ben-Gurion eulogized the struggle as the most "magnificent," "tragic" and "heroic" of all the IDF's battles, and said "if there exists a Jewish Jerusalem, our foremost thanks go to the defenders of Gush Etzion."
For many Jews who moved to Efrat from all over the world, it was this history that prompted them.
"If one wants to be part of Jewish history, Judea and Samaria are the place to be," says Nadia Matar, the head of Women in Green and a self-described "meshugena activist" who moved to Efrat 17 years ago. "We moved here to be pioneers, to make a statement in an area that was a question mark to other parts of the world."
Matar says she and her husband were looking for a community, but that first and foremost, the decision was ideologically based.
"I wake up every morning and see the hills between Jerusalem and Hebron where our forefathers walked, where everything we learned about in the Torah happened, and you don't have that in Tel Aviv," says Matar.
"I'm happy I moved here because I feel I have a historic responsibility," she continues. "We, the settlements, protect the country, we're the reason Kassams don't fall in Jerusalem."
SINCE THE disengagement from Gaza last summer and evacuation of Gush Katif, youth living in settlements all across Judea and Samaria have taken on a much more active role in protesting government decisions and operations regarding the settlements, and clashes between youth and police have not escaped Efrat.
"The youth here are amazing, the best in Israel, because they actually know how to give," says Mizrachi. "But they are constantly in an ideological struggle because of what happened in Gush Katif, they've lost a lot of hope, and they feel they have to give everything they have to this struggle."
Last October, that led to the attempt by youth activists to set up an illegal outpost near Efrat which Riskin did not condone, he says, and which the police dismantled. But when that energy is directed elsewhere through talks with teachers and rabbis, the results are evident in the countless volunteer projects run by the youth in Efrat, says Mizrachi.
Volunteering with the elderly, underprivileged kids or terror victims are just some of the projects the youth are involved in, and just recently, Mizrachi notes, they raised NIS 7,000 for charity.
The chesed center in Efrat, called Yad B'yad, houses a soup kitchen, a branch of Yad Sarah and a clothing bank, and runs missions throughout Israel. It is one of the organizations residents are most proud of.
"We want to continue to build, continue to grow and continue to give, those are my hopes for Efrat," says Mizrachi.
Riskin echoes this sentiment. "I would like to see Efrat double in population," says Riskin. "The initial goal of Efrat was for it to be a mixed religious and secular community, but because we built religious schools the secular didn't come.
"I'd like to see us develop the Eitam hill," he continues, "and for there to be a call to non-observant families to come there, and I would like to move there with my wife."
Now that they have received permits to build more houses, the municipality is working closely with Nefesh B'nefesh to provide homes for dozens of families who want to make aliya to Efrat.
Marci and Aaron Trischwell and their two young children made aliya to Efrat through Nefesh B'nefesh less than two years ago to the newer neighborhood of Zayit.
"We love it here," Trischwell says. "We chose Efrat for its great education system for our kids, and it has enough Americans that we feel comfortable and enough Israelis for our kids to feel comfortable in the future."
In the future, Mizrachi says he hopes Efrat will be the capital city of Judea; after the completion of the last three hills, it is estimated to boast more than 20,000 residents.
"I hope the nation knows that Gush Etzion will always be part of Israel. All of it," he says, acknowledging the uncertainty surrounding the security fence and the future establishment of borders.
"I'm worried about the government's plans. Sometimes I feel the settlements in Judea and Samaria are seen as the enemy rather than the Arabs," remarks Matar. "But I think the struggle to save the settlement enterprise is the struggle to save the entire state of Israel."
Driving through the small city's clean, tree-lined streets with playgrounds on almost every corner, it's easy to see the appeal of Efrat. The slogan is, after all, "a good place to live."
"We're very happy we live in Efrat," says Sulski. "Yes, there have been hard times, and scary times and we've had to be pretty strong to carry on staying here, but I'm happy here."
"We have no intention of leaving," her husband Avi adds. "I don't think our kids would let us."
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