Leah Goldsmith pulls back the curtains from her living- room window to reveal a breathtaking view. In the distance, just a few kilometers to the north of her home in the Samaria community of Itamar, she points out the twin peaks of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. She explains that in the Torah, Moses commands the Children of Israel that as soon as they cross the Jordan River into Israel, a special ceremony will be held at the site of these two mountains.
According to the text in the Book of Deuteronomy, six tribes of Israel were commanded to ascend Mount Gerizim, known for its beautiful, tree-covered slopes, while the other six tribes were to climb Mount Ebal, which was barren and strewn with rocks.
The priests and the Levites stood in the valley between the two mountains, and the Levites alternated between turning toward Mount Gerizim and shouting out the blessings that would come to the Jewish people if they kept God’s commandments, and facing Mount Ebal to recite the curses that would befall the nation should they forsake the Torah. The tribes would then respond with a thunderous “Amen.”
According to Goldsmith, she and her family, as well as the 220 other families who call Itamar home, are constantly asking themselves which mountain’s aura is most present in the community – the one symbolizing God’s blessings or the one representing His curses.
On the surface, Itamar is a peaceful and quiet mountaintop community nestled in nature, with forests and fields of wildflowers.
It’s a utopia where children can leave their bicycles strewn about without fear of having them stolen, and homeowners leave their doors unlocked without worrying about burglary.
However, over the past 12 years, Itamar – which is surrounded by some of the most hostile Palestinian Authority-controlled Arab villages, just outside the ancient city of Nablus – has suffered from a slew of terrorist infiltrations, resulting in the murder of 22 of its residents. According to Goldsmith, proportionally speaking, no other community in the entire State of Israel has experienced such loss.
While each attack was without doubt heart wrenching, she says, the March 11, 2011, murder of five members of the same family shocked the nation with its brutality. On that nightmarish Friday night, two Arab teenagers from the nearby village of Awarta managed to sneak into Itamar undetected and stabbed/shot dead five members of the Fogel family: Rabbi Ehud (Udi) Fogel, 36, his wife Ruth, 35, and three of their children – Yoav, 11, Elad, four, and Hadas, only three months old.
Three of the Fogel children survived the ordeal, as Tamar (now 13) was at a youth group activity while the murders were taking place, and her brothers Ro’ee, nine, and Yishai, three, slept through the attack and went undetected by the terrorists.
After their arrests, the perpetrators – 19- year-old Amjad Awad and his 18-year old cousin Hakim Awad, whose families have ties to organized terror organizations – showed no remorse for their actions, claiming they had acted for “Palestine.” They admitted they would also have killed the other two boys if they had known of their presence.
Both teens were sentenced in a military court to five consecutive life sentences toward the end of last year.
THE FOGELS, who had moved to Itamar after being evacuated from their home in the 2005 disengagement from Gush Katif, were such a positive and influential source of pride and strength in the community, especially for the town’s youth, that well before their murder, their neighborhood became known as the “Fogel neighborhood.”
Now, one year later, Itamar’s residents remain scarred by the massacre, but are steadfast in their belief that the best way to keep the Fogels’ memory alive is to continue their Zionist vision of building, planting and flourishing in their community and throughout the Land of Israel.
Just last week, on the Hebrew calendar anniversary of their deaths, the community dedicated a new beit midrash (house of study) called Mishkan Ehud (Ehud’s Home) in memory of the Fogels, on the campus of the local yeshiva where Ehud Fogel served as a teacher.
On the same day that a somber memorial service took place in the new study hall, attended by government ministers, Knesset members and respected rabbis and dignitaries from around the country, the community held a festive Torah dedication ceremony in the new beit midrash as Israeli flags hung on lampposts throughout the town fluttered in the hilltop’s strong winds, creating a setting reminiscent of Independence Day.
“That’s the yin and the yang,” Goldsmith says of the memorial ceremony and the new beit midrash. “It’s the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
A teacher by trade, she has been Itamar’s English-language spokeswoman since 1998, while her husband, Moshe, has served as its elected mayor for the past seven years.
The couple made aliya from Brooklyn in 1985, driven by a strong Zionistic pioneering spirit. They have raised five children in the community, and their eldest daughter now lives in Itamar with her husband and the Goldsmiths’ first grandchild. According to Leah, the lead-up to the anniversary of the Fogel massacre was an emotional time for the community’s residents.
“Just like around this time last year, the flowers have started to bloom, the sun is beginning to shine again, and everything is green and breathtaking,” she says. “With the setting now starting to look a lot like it did exactly a year ago, the horrible memories have returned.”
She recalls that the Sunday morning following the massacre was the most beautiful day of the year, prompting one of her daughters to ask at the time, “How could a day be so beautiful after this nightmare?” While Leah says the people of Itamar are strong, there is no doubt that the children have been traumatized by the various terror attacks over the years.
“We had kids sleeping in their parents’ beds for years,” she says. “But when the children matured and entered the army, many joined elite units. That was their way to cope with the terror and the fear – to be the best soldier you can be.”
AS THE mayor and a member of Itamar’s first-response security team, Moshe has witnessed many horrific scenes over the years.
He says that although there are pockets of quiet, all of the pain and trauma return after each attack. However, the Fogel massacre, “because of its cruelty, shattered the entire world – well, anyone who has a heart,” he says, hinting at the terrorists.
Nevertheless, reflecting on the attack one year later, he says his community was able to put itself back together rather quickly.
“Our yishuv [settlement] had such an amazing flow before the attack, so [the Fogel massacre] was a big shock,” he recalls. “However, the beauty of this place and its people is that we were able to return to our focus: building the Land of Israel.”
He notes a renewed sense of Zionism following the attack.
“People started digging deep, taking on new projects to strengthen the social fabric of the community,” he says. “Practically speaking, you see the town growing – people expanding their homes, the new yeshiva building – in short, you see a whole new sense of positive energy and strength. No one was weakened by the attack. We are stronger than ever before in our resolve to make this country flourish.”
As such, he sees great potential for his town and feels that one day Itamar will be one of the most important cities in the country.
“We are built on a huge piece of land, and centrally located – just an hour from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beit She’an. I believe we can bring tens of thousands of people to live in this region over the next 10-20 years, truly developing the area.”
Despite Moshe’s optimism for Itamar’s future, recent governments, including the current administration under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have publicly alluded to dismantling the more isolated communities throughout Judea and Samaria in a future peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. However, Leah doesn’t believe that turning over Itamar to the PA is a realistic option.
As she often tells foreign journalists who ask her about Itamar’s future, “you can cut off a foot if a body is ailing.
Israel tried that for peace when over 8,000 people were thrown out of their homes in Gush Katif. You can do the same to a hand and any other extremity, like the government did in [northern Samaria]. In the case of the Gush Katif expulsion, it only made things worse when missiles began landing in Yavne and Beersheba. I highly doubt that Itamar, whose strategic location represents the heart of the body of Israel, will ever be cut out – that would mean we’re all dead and done for.”
ON A tour of the community, she points out a key IDF intelligence installation located on one of Itamar’s hilltops.
Thanks to that facility, she says, the IDF has been successful in thwarting many terror attacks originating from the Nablus area, which was deemed a major launch pad for terror throughout the second intifada.
Just past the IDF installation is an enormous familyowned and -operated organic farm, which produces freerange eggs, flour and a wide variety of dairy products.
Leah remarks that while some in the Tel Aviv area may be against her presence over the so-called Green Line, “they are the same people who buy and enjoy our fresh organic yogurts and other products the most.”
She continues the tour, pointing out the various neighborhoods where diverse populations live side-by-side in harmony. There is a neighborhood of Breslov Hassidim next to a group of homes owned by Russian immigrants, followed by a hilltop where followers of Chabad have settled. The furthest hill from the center of the community, known as Hill 777, is populated by a mix of religious and secular people from all over the country.
Batsheva Shalev is a young dance instructor who teaches jazz and modern dance in the Center of the country.
She moved to Hill 777 with her husband and young son from Ra’anana a year and a half ago. Her family is not observant, she says, but she insists there is a mutual respect among the residents that allows her to be comfortable in her choice of lifestyle.
She and her husband were not necessarily looking to live in a “settlement,” but simply wanted to find a rural area and help increase its Jewish presence. When they visited Itamar, it was an instant love affair. Having moved in just several months before the Fogel massacre, Shalev is adamant that Israel’s enemies should know that “you don’t mess with us.”
She feels that the people living in Itamar should not just rely on fences or security guards for safety, but should each be vigilant and responsible for their own well-being. That’s why, since coming to Itamar, she has purchased a firearm for protection.
“When you live in a bad neighborhood,” she says, referring to nearby Arab villages, “you expect to be mugged. But our enemies need to understand that we are not helpless.”
Despite the Fogel attack, she is undeterred and proud of her decision to move to the community. In fact, according to the mayor, 12 new families have moved in since the massacre.
Amir Josman and his wife, Miriam, were living in Zichron Ya’acov with their toddler when they were given the bad news about the Fogel family. Ehud Fogel had been Amir’s teacher and a source of spiritual inspiration when he had learned in the Itamar Yeshiva from 2004 to 2007. Amir, a registered tour guide, decided that the family should move to Itamar to “strengthen the community and carry on Rabbi Ehud (Udi’s) legacy of spreading Torah Zionism.” He says he and Miriam “love living in Itamar, since it’s such a warm and united community.”
While Yitzchak Weiss and his family have lived in Itamar for six years, he was so touched by the relationship he had with the Fogel family that when his first child was born two months ago, he named him Ori, a combination of the names Udi and Ruth. Weiss is the head of Itamar’s first responders security team, and was one of the first on the scene the night the Fogels’ bodies were found.
“The Jewish people have undergone tragedies throughout the generations,” he says, “but this tragedy only makes our connection to our heritage stronger. Following the massacre, the Jewish people were unified as we received support from the entire world. That was Rabbi Udi [of blessed memory]’s mantra, that only through Jewish unity and togetherness could we bring redemption to the world.”
Weiss admits to having mixed emotions leading up to the anniversary of the Fogel murder, even as he takes part in the dedication of the new beit midrash. He expresses his feelings by citing a passage that Sephardim recite as part of the Yom Kippur service: “The eyes cry bitterly, while the heart expresses joy.”
AS THE anniversary of the Fogels’ deaths approaches, and while rain is a much-needed blessing, the scheduled festive procession to bring the new Torah from the family’s now-empty house to the beit midrash has been canceled.
The route was supposed to have traversed a brand new NIS 2 million road the government approved thanks to efforts that Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz made in response to the attack. The new road connects the “Fogel neighborhood” to the Or Shalem neighborhood, which houses the yeshiva. Leah Goldsmith is optimistic that the new road and its infrastructure indicate that this section of the community will one day be lined with new homes. Just before the more than 1,000 guests arrive to take part in the memorial and, due to the weather, an indoor dedication ceremony, members of the extended Fogel family begin to arrive – some visiting the newly completed building for the first time.
From their joyful demeanor as they tour the main study hall and side classrooms, each named in memory of one of the victims, one could easily forget that they were commemorating their loved ones’ yahrzeits.
Young Tamar Fogel bounces around the rooms with an old friend from Itamar. Since the massacre, she, Ro’ee and Yishai have been living in Jerusalem with their maternal grandparents, Rabbi Yehuda and Tali Ben- Yishai. According to Yochai Ben-Yishai, Ruth Fogel’s older brother, who lives in Beit Rimon, the children “have a tremendous family support system that has been with them throughout this painful ordeal.” He does admit, though, that Tamar misses her friends and community in Itamar.
As Ruth’s father inspects the beautiful ark at the front of the new study hall, various media outlets approach him to hear his thoughts and emotions.
“I feel their presence here,” he says of his slain daughter and son in-law, adding, “One day they will dance here with us.”