Jerusalem: 'What I lost was not just a home'

Former Neveh Dekalim residents are finding their struggle to remain together a 'mission impossible'.

Three months ago, Debbie Rozen spoke to a Louisiana radio station about her love for her home in Neveh Dekalim. Now with her house reduced to a pile of rubble, she is watching the destroyed New Orleans buildings on TV from her hotel room in Jerusalem. She understands why, even amid the floodwaters, the city's residents refuse to leave. "Because a home is a home," she says. Like the residents of New Orleans, finding a new abode has become the central issue in her life, ever since soldiers asked her last month to leave the community in which she had lived for the last 20 years. In an odd way, being in a hotel underscores the loss, she says, because "It gives you the feeling that you are about to go home." When people ask her where she's from, she automatically responds, "I'm from Neveh Dekalim," even though it no longer corresponds to her geographic address. "What I lost was not just a home, not just walls," but the sense of being part of a larger community of people, she explains. Neveh Dekalim was a place where she knew everyone and met her friends and neighbors daily on the street, she says. Like most of the 21 Gush Katif communities, the members of Neveh Dekalim are struggling to stay together in both their interim and permanent living arrangements. But while a number of the communities are likely to do so, the members of Neveh Dekalim the largest settlement to be evacuated are finding it to be an impossible task. The government has set aside the undeveloped area in the community of Nitzan, between Ashdod and Ashkelon, for the Neveh Dekalim families, but it's unlikely they will all move there. "We can't expect 500 families to think alike again. It's not simple," she says. People have to take into account the distance from where they work and where their relatives live, she says. So while Rozen, like many of her neighbors, has her eye on Nitzan and is waiting for a communal decision to go there her old neighbor, Didi Gershonson, is thinking about the Negev. It's likely, he says, that Neveh Dekalim will split into two groups, one that heads to Nitzan and another that starts a new settlement in the Negev. He's only recently decided that his family of seven will be among the 70-90 families that are temporarily moving to Shapira, between Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi. The government, he says, is constructing modular homes for them there. The Disengagement Authority has also said it would provide modular homes for the families who opt to move to Nitzan. "But that's not for another three months," he says. So until then, his address remains the Shalom Hotel, Jerusalem. WHILE MOST of the 18 Gush Katif communities were kept together when they were moved to temporary housing, Neveh Dekalim was divided among seven hotels in Jerusalem and two in Ashkelon, making it hard for former residents to convene to discuss the matter. Still, in the next few weeks, former Neveh Dekalim residents say they will try to make this one last decision together. Gershonson reiterates his belief that they will split into two groups, with some other families making individual decisions to head out on their own or to join other Gush Katif communities. Gershonson, who taught in the yeshiva in Neveh Dekalim, is now out of a job. Rozen explains that what would have been the bittersweet experience this year of sending her youngest of six children off to first grade, was made harder by the fact that he left from their hotel room and not from their home. She lives on one floor of the hotel; her children on another. When she needs to check up on them, she calls them on her cellphone. After working for five years as a spokesperson for the Hof Aza Regional Council, Rozen is now unemployed. But that hasn't stopped her phone from ringing with calls from the media. She still answers many of them, she says, even though she is no longer on the payroll. "I was the spokesperson to the last moment," she says. When the soldiers first came, she sat them down on her front lawn and asked her assistant to bring her a pile of Gush Katif brochures to hand out to them. "We weren't waiting with our suitcases; we didn't pack," she recounts. On the Friday of the evacuation, when most Gush Katif residents had already left, she was among the few families still there. She hitchhiked out of the area, and got her car, which she had parked just outside of Gaza when the army asked everyone to remove their vehicles earlier that week. She went grocery shopping for Shabbat and managed to drive back in. In an effort to carry on with "normal life," she took her family to the beach before Shabbat. They met soldiers there, who asked where they were from. Instinctively, she answered "Neveh Dekalim." They seemed shocked, she recalls, and explained to her that people no longer lived there. On Tuesday, she drove back there for a final visit and photographed for the last time all the places she loved. "It was amazing," she says. "You see the trees blooming and no homes." In Netzer Hazani, she says, the mango trees were still there, but the birds were circling around, looking in vain for roofs to land on. Stranger still, she says, was the number of children's yard toys and play sets that remained "signs of life next to debris."