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At 6 p.m. on a warm summer night, a line of Orthodox Jews gathered on the shores of the Hudson River to board the Queen of Hearts, an older cruise ship with disco lights, for a fund-raising cruise up the west side of Manhattan.
The boat carried the group of roughly 250 to the Bronx and back Monday night, with clear views of Manhattan and the neon lights of New Jersey.
The cause, however, originated thousands of kilometers away, in Hebron, the city that for many Orthodox represents the "heart" of Israel. "This is where we made our history, where God promised the Land to the Jewish people," said the executive director of the Brooklyn-based Hebron Fund, Yossi Baumol.
Monday night's Cruise 'n' Shmooze, organized by the Hebron Fund, was the third of its kind. But this year the pitch was particularly timely. Profits will go to support families living in the disputed "Beit Hashalom" apartment building, Hebron Jews' most recent acquisition, whose purchase is currently being investigated by the government.
The structure was allegedly bought by Jews from its Arab owner two years ago. It is strategically located, overlooking the "Worshipers Route" that extends from Kiryat Arba to the Cave of the Patriarchs. The building connects Kiryat Arba with the group of settler-held properties in the heart of Hebron, creating a long-desired contiguity.
It has a floor space of approximately 3,500 square meters, and was reportedly purchased by a Jewish American businessman through a Jordanian real estate agency for roughly $700,000.
The Palestinian owner denied selling the building, but shortly thereafter he was jailed by the Palestinian Authority because of the deal. Amir Peretz, defense minister at the time, initially ordered the settlers to leave, but was overruled by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered a legal review.
Officials are looking into the documentation to discern the validity of the purchase, and the 20 families currently living there may yet be evacuated.
But none of this controversy was evident aboard the ship, where young and old alike drank and shmoozed till 10 p.m. to music by Shlomo Katz and Friends, a popular religious band. Initially, the Cruise n' Shmooze was intended for singles, and though the participants ranged in age, many of those aboard the ship Monday night were young Orthodox Jews looking to find like-minded partners.
"We are interested in building up the fund with new blood, young professionals who are Zionistic and have Hebron in their heart," said Bernie Thau, a member of the board of directors of the Hebron Fund.
Individual tickets were sold for $65, tax deductible, and profits totaled roughly $5,000, though more donations were expected to follow.
The cruise is only one of many such fund-raising efforts that target American Jews.
Tax deductible donations from the US can be made via the Hebron Fund, which was established in 1979 as an affiliate organization of the Jewish community in Hebron, whose primary goal is to raise money for residents of Hebron. The Hebron settlements maintain their own fund-raising site, linked to the Hebron Fund, and advertise on more mainstream Jewish sites like the Orthodox Union. Tours of Hebron are offered several times a week at $40 per person and $180 for a family.
According to Peace Now, the Shavei Hevron Yeshiva has raised substantial funds through the American Friends of Yeshiva Shavei Hevron, a nonprofit organization based in Ashland, Virginia. Kiryat Arba also maintains its own fund-raising network, the Brooklyn-based Friends of Yeshivat Nir, the hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Arba.
The Hebron settlements also receive funding through various Christian nonprofit organizations such as the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, which links settlements in Judea and Samaria with churches and individuals throughout the world.
"There seems to be an apparent contradiction between the US policy, which says that US taxpayer funds should not be funding settlement activity, and the fact that funds donated to these organizations are tax deductible, which amounts to a de facto tax payer subsidy," said Lara Friedman, government relations director of Americans for Peace Now.
But this kind of fund-raising is nothing new. In addition to government funding, settlements have relied on Jewish American dollars as well as immigration from the start.
"More broadly there is the reality that so much that is done in Israel in terms of advancing settlers, the most radical elements are being driven from the US, which is a tragedy," said Charney Bromberg, executive director of Meretz USA.
Bromberg said such efforts were particularly disturbing now, in light of recent reflections about the Six Day War. "There is almost a universal agreement that the war launched Israel into a terrible quagmire of settlements," said Bromberg. "Israel is still not free of it, and the Zionist dream will not be secure until it is."
But Jews aboard the ship were not of the same mind. To them, Hebron represents the "heart" of Israel, as many expressed time and again. Hebron is believed - by religious Jews, Muslims, and Christians - to be the site of the tomb of the biblical patriarch Abraham and other biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.
Phil Stein and Beth Aaron decided to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary aboard the boat. On the one and a half hour drive over to Manhattan from their home in New Jersey, the couple listened to their "Hevron CD" of music related to the holy city. "Being on the cruise didn't require much thought in terms of the cause," they said. "Hebron is the beginning of Jewish life in Israel."
They said they believed, as many aboard the boat did, that it was critical to support families living in Hebron because "they are reclaiming our birthright." Under no circumstance are they willing to give back Hebron in a peace deal, they said. "The years have shown you can't give anything up, there is no tangible benefit to give back land," said Stein.
At around 9 p.m., before dessert was served, Baumol stood on deck and told the story of how the then-chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, returned to Hebron in 1967, being the first to enter the Cave of the Machpela in many decades. Following the story came a video called "Hebron: The Chain of Faith," which chronicled life in the city. In the end the people of Israel and the government will "turn to us," the video says, because "despite all the obstacles we continue to believe."
Participants expressed confidence that Hebron would not be handed over. "We have faith in God that the government will do right by heaven," said Thau. "Through all the governments of Israel that have said Hebron is going to go, we are still here."