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In jest, Israelis evacuated from Gaza over the summer told themselves this year that they were exempt from celebrating Succot because their lives these days are like one long extension of the holiday.
"There's a lot of truth in this joke," said former Neveh Dekalim resident Dekla Cohen, who has been living with her seven children in the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem since the government forced them to leave their home in mid-August when it evacuated the Gaza Strip.
"We feel the temporary nature of our lives all the time," said Cohen.
Every day, she said, she heard conflicting reports of how long she could remain in the hotel and what their status is with regard to the modular home she hopes to move into.
Like Cohen, some 600 families who lived in the evacuated settlements are still in hotel rooms. Most of the 1,500 families who were removed from Gaza are in some form of temporary housing. Those in hotels are waiting to move into modular homes or rental apartments as they make plans to find or build permanent homes.
Cohen's neighbor, both in the hotel and from Neveh Dekalim, Dror Vanunu, said: "During Succot, God asks that you leave your permanent home and go into a temporary dwelling. But I am already living in a temporary place and from here I am going to a temporary place."
There's the short-term temporary home, then the longer-term temporary one before his family will actually get to their permanent home, said Vanunu, trying to explain the different stages of their tenuous existence that he said was likely to last for a two-year period.
Even his use of the word "permanent" to describe the home he hopes to build is cautionary in a way it would not have been several months ago.
One thing he learned this summer in the last days of the withdrawal as he stood looking at the rubble of the home he had just built was that even the permanent structures in one's life are temporary.
"When you lose your house, you lose your belief in the stability of your life," he said.
What remains in that moment is God, said Rina Ackerman, also of Neveh Dekalim and the Shalom Hotel.
It is for this reason, she said, that "Succot is Gush Katif's holiday. It's the holiday of the entire nation. During Succot you put yourself in God's hands. With His help there is no more secure place than a succa."
The Gaza evacuees, she said, are like the Jews in the wilderness. Taking the analogy a step further, she said, the hotels they are currently staying in are to the settlers what the temporary huts were to the Jews who left Egypt during the Exodus.
"If that's true, they had better food," she quipped. "The manna that fell from heaven could be any taste the eater wanted, whereas they are stuck with the menu offered them by the hotel."
For Ackerman and other Gaza evacuees, this is not the first Succot where the reality of their lives underscores the extent to which their fate is in God's hands.
In settlements where Kassam rockets and mortar shells often fell, eating and sleeping in a temporary, unprotected hut for seven days was often a perilous affair.
Cohen recalled that last year during Succot, a Kassam fell on her house, five meters from the family succa. There were even shards in the schach - the cover of the succa - but the succa itself was unscathed, she said.
Vanunu said he was eating in a succa last year when a Kassam fell nearby. The rocket didn't chase him away from the succa because he felt God was protecting him.
He believes that even now, even though all the prayers he and thousands of others uttered throughout the summer begging God to save them did not turn the tide of events.
"All of us felt we deserved a happy ending to our heroic struggle," said Vanunu. He himself believed so deeply that disengagement would never happen that through much of the parliamentary struggle against it, he built a new home, completing it only last winter.
With each parliamentary loss his answer to the queries from The Jerusalem Post as to whether he now believed disengagement would come to pass was always the same.
"I'm building a new home," he said.
Vanunu said he thinks of his relations to God like that of a son to a father.
"Sometimes a fathers tells you 'no.' It is very hard when he does something you do not understand that he thinks is better for you," said Vanunu. "The same God who protected us in the last five years from thousands of Kassam rockets allowed Sharon to throw us out, whether we like it or not."
But Ackerman said she believes that God allowed the disengagement because he needed the settlers for a more difficult task.
"We believe that we sacrificed our house so that the nation's salvation will happen sooner," she said.
"People sometimes ask me if the time hasn't come to take down the orange ribbons that were symbolic of the struggle for Gush Katif," Ackerman reflected. "I say, 'God forbid.' God decreed that we should lose the battle for Gush Katif because he wants something from us."
And, she added: "Disengagement empowered many people in Gush Katif to become leaders with a message. It's better for them to use their newly found voice to spread that message throughout the country rather than to remain in Gaza."
While many of the families who lived in Gaza are looking to stay together in larger groups when they rebuild their homes, Ackerman said, she believes it would be better if they dispersed in small groups to work on reviving Zionism and the nation's religious beliefs.
"If we focus on a nostalgic reconstruction of Gush Katif, we will lose an important opportunity," she said.
Ackerman said she only recently came to understand why left-wing, secular Israelis believe that the occupation started in 1967 after the Six Day War.
"Why don't they equally consider Tel Aviv or Haifa to be occupied territory?" she asked.
The areas acquired before 1967 are "secular" whereas the territory occupied during the Six Day War has religious significance, such as the Temple Mount, Jericho, Hebron and Gaza, she said. The land that is seeped with Israel's religious history is in the so-called territories, she said.
"What is Zion? It's the Temple Mount," said Ackerman.
It's this link that people from Gush Katif can help the rest of the nation understand, Ackerman said.
"Our battle is not just for the Land of Israel but for what connects us to this land," she said.
People have forgotten that the Star of David on the nation's flag is a religious, messianic symbol, she said.
Ackerman said that if she were not a mother of 11 children she would move to Tel Aviv, because it is the residents of that city who most need to hear about religious Zionism.
"The fight against any further territorial withdrawal begins now," she declared.
Ackerman is sure that the list of settlements the government plans to evacuate has already been drawn up.
She said she was not among those from Gush Katif who felt their rabbis misled them by giving them the message that they would be saved by a miracle. From the perspective of faith, she said, there was no other path to choose.
The Ackerman family was among those Gaza evacuees who had packed nothing when the soldiers came to their door.
"Packing would have given God the impression that I had given up and then God might have given up on me," she said. "I didn't want God to give up on me."
"We prayed for a miracle, like a parent who prays that a child with a fatal illness will somehow survive," said Ackerman. "Wouldn't they spend all their money looking for any cure possible?
"And no one would say to them, 'Why aren't you preparing the child's grave? Didn't the doctors tell you there is no chance of survival?' The prayers were not in vain, but the answer was no.
"I see the nation of Israel as a very sick child. I'm praying for her and trying to heal her until the last moment.
Faith is not a conditional affair, she said. She admits that she has moments of anger and questions, but that doesn't mean she intends to break her partnership with God.
Maybe God was testing the people of Gush Katif the way he tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, she said.
"Maybe he wanted to see how strong our faith in him is."
Even when the soldiers entered their living room, they prayed and sang.
In those moments, she said, the miracle she prayed for was that the soldiers would refuse their orders. She had hoped her home would be the one in which the soldiers found redemption by quitting the scene.
Hoping to push the scales in that direction, she and her husband invited the soldiers into their living room.
They introduced the soldiers to their 11 children and asked each child to explain why he or she wanted to stay in their home. Then she asked the soldiers to tell the children why they were being evacuated.
Sometimes, when she can't sleep at night in the hotel room, she questions the choice to remain steadfast until the end. Thinking of the way their lives are cramped into a few small rooms, she wonders, "Am I a bad mother?"
But than she comforts herself with the fact that those who filled out forms and worked with the Disengagement Authority are not any better off than they are.
And she's found a miracle in places that she didn't expect, such as the hundreds of volunteers who helped her and the other evacuees. The volunteers helped them pack and store their possessions.
Vanunu said that although the hotel is not his home, he found the work the evacuees and their children had been doing on the hotel succa to be comforting. In a strange way, he said, it have him and his children a "feeling of belonging."
"It's good to be building something, even if it's a temporary structure," he said.
Already on one succa wall, evacuees have placed cut-outs of homes and trees designed to look like the settlements they left. On top is a banner including their communities in the messianic blessing said on the holiday.
In place of the messianic succa of King David, they say, "May the Merciful One resurrect the succa of Katif that has fallen."
They are not the only settlers and evacuees to make use of this theme.
Machon Hatorah Veha'aretz put out a book of prayers and teachings for the holiday filled with photographs of Gush Katif, under the title of "Succat Katif."
The Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip created a poster also with Gush Katif photographs for the succa adding the Gaza settlements into the prayer for the ushpesin (guests) who are remembered during the meal.
When speaking to his three young children about Succot this year, Vanunu said, he would tell them that not only does he hope they will soon have their own home, but that he envisions them returning to Gush Katif.
It's not the first time he gave them that message.
On their last morning in their Neveh Dekalim home after taking the mezuza off the doorpost, he told them how the settlement of Gush Etzion was destroyed and then rebuilt.
"We have patience," he said. "We believe we will be back again." n
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