An Orthodox oasis

Named for Isaiah's promise, tiny Tifrah chooses spiritual growth over physical grandeur.

yeshiva study 88 (photo credit: )
yeshiva study 88
(photo credit: )
Yehiel can barely contain his joy as the Egged bus rolls off the highway and into Tifrah. Finally, he says with relief after the long ride from Jerusalem, he has arrived. Tifrah lies 10 minutes of nondescript highway travel outside of Ofakim, a town as down on its luck as any in the country. Nonetheless, it looks like a gleaming metropolis compared to this dingy little moshav. What could possibly draw Yehiel, in his pressed white shirt and black Borsalino hat, to this place that is covered in sand and enveloped in sticky, humid heat? "The yeshiva, of course!" he says, jumping off the last step of the bus, grabbing his belongings and walking quickly toward the largest building around. "I know," he says, used to the skepticism, "the big, famous yeshivot are in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, right? Well, as serious and great as they are, when the guys go walking around there, what do they see? Store windows, and other distractions [e.g. girls]. Here, there's nothing. Where are you going to go? What are you going to do? All you have here is the yeshiva." It's true. Beyond the corner grocery store, there's hardly any landmark in Tifrah worth mentioning. Somehow, the biggest little haredi town in the Negev has managed to last 60 years that way. Come to Tifrah some afternoon and you'll find what appears to be a ghost town. Children's bicycles and baby strollers lie overturned on unkempt lawns, in front of small houses in various states of disrepair. There's no commercial center, no movie theater, no shady park, not even so much as a falafel stand. Located in a lonely stretch of desert where people could go to "get away from it all," but don't, Tifrah is half oasis, half mirage - and all haredi. The watchword here is making do with little. Physicality, as it is plain to see, takes a very distant second to spiritual development. The focus here is part of a conscious effort by the residents to put simplicity first… and second, and third, too. But it's also an outgrowth of the fact that not much else has taken root here. The name of the town is borrowed from a verse in Isaiah, Chapter 35, which foretells the future glory of Israel, when the desert will "blossom as the rose." While that prophecy has taken shape in other parts of the Negev, it has essentially skipped over this little patch of the rose garden. No matter, residents say; Tifrah's survival is miracle enough. To hear the story of that miracle, you have to find the home of Mordechai Finkelstein, a short man with a wispy white beard who has lived here since 1958 and serves as the unofficial historian of Tifrah. It's a modest house, one of the oldest standing here, but it is where the Finkelsteins' nine children were raised and where countless yeshiva students have enjoyed a Shabbat meal. The shelves are lined with religious books - but also the histories of Winston Churchill that Finkelstein made his children read, a book of paintings by his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and the memoirs of his father, the leader of his community in a small Romanian town that bordered on Hungary. Finkelstein grew up in Haifa ("I went to synagogue and played with Zevulun Hammer," he relates with pride) and joined cross-border raids into Jordan ("I went through a sergeant's course with Dan Shomron, who would go on to become chief of the General Staff," he adds). He sought out Tifrah in a time when, he says, "the word pioneering was never used in quotation marks but was taken seriously." Taking Tifrah seriously, Finkelstein gladly unfurls the tale of his beloved moshav. Sitting in the parlor on a sweltering day, cooled by a small fan as he fills a bowl with sunflower seed shells and puffs on cigarette after cigarette, Finkelstein offers up a glass of cold cola and digs deep into his memory. IT WAS 1949, he says, and a group of Orthodox Hungarian Jews, most of them Holocaust survivors and most of them in second marriages after the slaughter of their families, were holed up in a transit camp with thousands of other new immigrants to Israel. They were desperate to find a place where they could start a new life in the Jewish state. Fortunately, the Jewish Agency had land to offer them at Tifrah. "One evening, about 25 of the men set out from the transit camp and met a woman from the Jewish Agency, who showed them their new moshav," Finkelstein says. "Well, there was nothing here. I mean, nothing! There was a wall and a few trees amidst the sands. There was nowhere to sleep. A handful of construction workers from Beersheba were brought in to help the olim erect tents. And that's how the moshav came to be." In time, the men built tiny two-room houses. Electricity and running water would have to wait for six years. "Amenities" would wait even longer. "In 1962, when I got married, I became one of the first members of the moshav to install a bathroom inside his home," he says, still proud of the achievement. Finkelstein had come to Tifrah after his army service - following his brother, who had come in 1955, and his father. Together they tried to make a living as farmers, like most of the members of the moshav. Most had a few chickens; communally, there were a few cows, and they raised peanuts, potatoes, strawberries and grapes. Some found work outside the moshav, mostly in Beersheba, to make ends meet. Mordechai would tend to the family fields in the morning and then work in the city during the afternoons and evenings. In those days the moshav was nominally a member of Mapai, but that would soon change. When Tifrah residents started having children, the moshavim movement sent female teachers - with heads full of socialist educational ideas and legs wrapped in pants. "It was an intentional move to force their way of life on us," Finkelstein says, the slight still burning. That got the Orthodox residents' blood boiling and, as Finkelstein tells it, the entire population of the moshav stormed off to the Jewish Agency's offices in Jerusalem, where they demanded of the future prime minister Levi Eshkol that he switch them to the haredi Poalei Agudat Yisrael. "At the time," Finkelstein says, "switching political affiliations was as difficult as parting the Red Sea. And when Eshkol relented, after several days of protest, he received very harsh criticism. But he said, 'What am I going to do against these stubborn Hungarians?!' So that's how we became the haredi moshav that defeated Mapai." The satisfaction of the political victory, however, was short lived. Life on the frontier was brutally hard, and many of the original settlers left. Then, Finkelstein says, "when North African immigrants arrived in the mid-1950s, the Jewish Agency pressured us to accept them, since there were empty houses here." The integration of the new immigrants with the old was less than successful, to say the least. But Finkelstein insists that the Hungarians' opposition to the newcomers was religious, not racial. "The social tensions were serious. They had a different way of life, a different view of education. By 1957, the Hungarians had brought in 'reinforcements' in an effort to ensure political dominance. Eventually, though, the two groups reached a modus vivendi whereby the administrative duties of the moshav would be split roughly 50-50, and there would be separate schools for the two ethnicities. "The forces were still even, though, and we knew the tensions would remain," Finkelstein continues. "So we brought in 10 more haredim to tip the balance. These were a bunch of newly religious guys who had served heroically in the IDF. One of them had served in the naval commandos; another, had he not become religious, was destined to become head of the air force." Even as such animosity faded, and fresh faces were brought in, attrition continued to keep tiny Tifrah from flowering. In those days, many of the soldiers serving in the Nahal Brigade were essentially auxiliaries reinforcing settlements across the country, and Tifrah tried to entice the Orthodox soldiers who came to the moshav to stay. That met with little success. In addition, the moshav's agricultural production continued to dwindle as the members aged and as the end of government rationing made farming less economical. By the 1970s, the moshav's production was pretty much limited to milk, and that too was doomed. "Long ago, there were days in which, if you went to Beersheba with a few liters of milk, you could come home with a decent amount of money," Finkelstein recalls. "But later on, it only made economic sense to be in the milk business if you had a large farm with lots of cows. That involves a large investment, and we weren't able to do it. Tifrah had only a few cows, and the people who were left doing the farming had grown old. So the milk business here dried up. Those who could, sought work outside the moshav." TIFRAH'S SAVING grace was Yeshivat Tushia, which opened up in 1968. It had two dozen students then, but boasts more than 600 now. Almost all of them, it seems, know Finkelstein, greeting him warmly and updating them on their studies. The building where Yehiel and his classmates study without distraction is the largest and most appealing in the entire moshav. Nestled between decrepit dorms and shady eucalyptus trees, it is the only edifice around that has been refurbished in the past few years, and it is by far the busiest building around. The afternoon prayers of hundreds of young men ring out in the main hall, then fade into a symphony of talmudic argument that could easily be mistaken for any other yeshiva in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. In a way, it's the fulfillment of the dream of the original pioneers of Tifrah. On the other hand, it's a symbol of the moshav's struggle to survive. Only a few of the students will stay here once they marry, joining the kollel at the other end of the moshav. As for the veteran residents, the situation isn't promising. Some 300 families live in Tifrah, totaling about 2,000 people - but, Finkelstein, notes, many of the residents are elderly. Most of their children moved out to the main centers of haredi life, in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Kiryat Sefer and Ramat Beit Shemesh. "Only one of my children stayed in Tifrah," Finkelstein notes with sadness. "I'm to blame, of course. I always said, 'If I had to live anywhere other than here, Jerusalem is a good place to be.' And that's where they went." While money is tight around Tifrah, Finkelstein says there's enough to keep things going. Members receive money from the National Insurance Institute. The men receive study stipends from the yeshiva, and many of the women work as teachers. And, the moshav still owns farmlands that it rents out to farmers, in cooperation with other moshavim in the area that suffered similar agricultural travails. Combined, there are 200,000 dunams under contract, bringing in a yearly gross income of NIS 100 million, he says. (Until five years ago, Finkelstein ran the company that oversees the properties. Now he is semi-retired, working a few days a week as a financial controller for a roofing tile company in Beersheba.) Finkelstein says plans are in the works to build an old-age home in Tifrah, and maybe a factory, too. Some have even suggested trying to make the place more like Kiryat Sefer, with a hub for hi-tech work catering to haredi employees. But if history is instructive, Tifrah's blossoming will remain modest. "Several years ago, when Meir Porush was deputy housing minister," says Finkelstein, "he offered to authorize the construction of 1,000 apartments in Tifrah, but we turned him down." Why? After struggling for so long to survive, wouldn't the influx of residents have breathed new life into the little moshav? "We would have gained a thousand homes," Finkelstein says, pausing before delivering the moral of the story, "but we would have lost what was unique about Tifrah." Looking out on the sandy street that rings the hard-luck town, he sums up more than 50 years of shaping this little corner of the desert. "We like Tifrah like this," he says, "it's good for us the way it is. We don't want to lose the character of this place. We want tranquility." Besides, he says, "Just being here is a success."