‘If we don’t live here, no one else will’

Life as a Jewish minority in Beit Hanina.

Shaked Gorodescher, 22, with her dog Riley. (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
Shaked Gorodescher, 22, with her dog Riley.
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
For Jewish residents of eastern Jerusalem, life as a minority can be challenging, especially during a wave of terrorism.
But the director of the Israel Land Fund, Jerusalem City Councilman Arieh King, said that a Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem, no matter the security obstacles, is critical for the future of the capital.
“We feel it is important to live here,” King told the Magazine in an interview. “If we don’t live here, no one else will.”
“It’s a mission and we have challenges but there is much meaning to life here,” said King, who has been living in Ma’aleh Zeitim in the Arab neighborhood of Ras el-Amud, adjacent to the Mount of Olives, with his wife and six children for the past 19 years. “We live at the apex of Jewish history.”
One of the 10 original residents of Ma’aleh Zeitim, King, who grew up on Kibbutz Alumim in the South, established the Israel Land Fund in 2007 while trying to recover land on the Mount of Olives. King works to acquire land of strategic national importance and areas of historical and religious value to the Jewish people, according to the ILF website.
“I’m not saying that life here is a piece of cake – especially when stones are thrown at your house and the kids can’t go to Bnei Akiva meetings to meet their friends because of security. But we are in paradise now compared to the intifada of 2000, which was much more bloody and violent,” said King.
Eli Gorodetzer from Beit Hanina agrees.
A long-term resident of Beit Hashiva, a residential compound that houses five Jewish families in the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood, Gorodetzer moved to Beit Hanina 28 years ago. Situated in the well-off Arab neighborhood, Jewish residents have relatively quiet relations with their immediate Arab neighbors, according to Gorodetzer.
“There’s no animosity amongst our neighbors – we have neighborly relations. No one wants trouble,” he said.
“My mother, who is 92, from Katamon, comes to stay with us for Shabbat. The most challenging part of the visit for her is climbing up the 57 steps to get to our apartment on the top floor.”
Gorodetzer, 60, who works as a computer programmer, said that he bought the family apartment from an Israeli family that was one of the original seven families that moved to Beit Hashiva [House of Seven] after the Six Day War. Among those original seven families were pre-state Lehi underground fighters Ezra Yachin and Yael Ben Dov, who fought against the British Mandate.
During Shavuot of 1968, Yachin and Ben Dov, with five other families, moved into the building, which had been abandoned by its Arab owner.
“Most of the people who lived in the building at the time we moved in, in 1988, were of that older generation,” said Gorodetzer, who grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, and moved to Israel when he was 15. “Today, those original residents are in their 80s and 90s. Yael Ben Dov, who is 88, recently moved to a nursing home. But there is one young family with children that lives here today. But we are still looking for more families to move into the compound.”
THE BEIT Hashiva compound is not as fortified as one might think. On the Friday morning that this reporter visited the apartment building, there were no IDF soldiers or police guarding nearby. Gorodetzer explained that armored vehicles are not necessary to take residents from place to place as in other Jewish areas of eastern Jerusalem; residents drive their own cars in and out of Beit Hanina. The Beit Hashiva building stands in plain sight, and the black metal gate leading to the parking area of the building is simply opened with a code by cellphone. Red geraniums decorate the entrance, and a cluster of Israeli flags are pinned up on the window of one apartment. However, a concrete wall was built in 2000 during the second intifada for protection against Molotov cocktails and was further reinforced by another fence in 2014, built by the Construction Ministry, said Gorodetzer.
Following the 2014 murder of teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was from Shuafat in northeastern Jerusalem, there were 30 Molotov cocktails thrown at the Beit Hashiva building, Gorodetzer told the Magazine. One Molotov caught the family’s shutters on fire one evening as the family was watching television, but Gorodetzer was able to put the fire out.
“For the past eight months, things have been quiet since the terrorists throwing the Molotovs were caught. We feel safe here,” he said.
On the rooftop of Beit Hashiva, one can see Neveh Ya’acov across the highway, which was originally built in 1924 on land that the American Mizrachi movement purchased from Arabs of Beit Hanina. During the War of Independence, the Jewish residents of Neveh Ya’acov feared attacks from the Jordanian Legion and fled. From 1948 until 1967, the area was occupied by Jordan, until Israel regained control after the Six Day War. One can also see Psagot, located in the Binyamin Regional Council, and the Atarot industrial park. “If the Palestinian Authority had complete control over this area, no one could live in Pisgat Ze’ev; snipers could easily target that area,” Gorodetzer said, pointing to nearby Pisgat Ze’ev, the largest residential neighborhood in Jerusalem, home to 50,000 residents.
Gorodetzer and his wife, Vered, raised five children in Beit Hanina, today aged 16 to 27. The children went to school in Pisgat Ze’ev, and on Shabbat the family would pray at a synagogue in Neveh Ya’acov, a 10-minute walk from their home, or in one of the two synagogues in the Beit Hashiva building, which residents from Neveh Ya’acov attend as well. Gorodetzer explained that he is in constant touch with the police for security notifications.
WHILE THREE of the Gorodetzer children no longer live at home, daughters Shaked, 22, and Moriah, 16, do, along with the family’s energetic red Irish Setter, Riley.
“Their childhood was not typical,” said Vered. “They couldn’t walk anywhere alone as children. We always accompanied them, picking them up from school or walking them to the bus stop.”
Vered, who grew up in Kibbutz Lavi in the North, said that as a stay-at-home mother she was always on hand to drive her children whenever they needed her.
She also raised her children to respect their neighbors. “We got to know the people around the neighborhood and we became friendly with them. We get along here because we live quietly,” she said.
Shaked described life growing up as one of five Jewish children in an Arab neighborhood as an experience that she appreciates as an adult.
“In a way, it was heaven,” she told the Magazine. “I feel that it was really important that I grew up here. You always hear bad things about Arabs, but by growing up in this neighborhood, I saw that there were good people.
“We learned to see the human side – not the political side. You have to interact with people,” said Shaked, who works at a Steimatzky bookstore and is big fan of Michael Jackson. “Because there were no kids in our building, my siblings and I became very close. I also played with the children of an Arab family who lived nearby. Even though we couldn’t communicate, we spent a lot of time outside playing together.
“The father of this Arab family translated my name, Shaked, into the Arabic word for almond, so his kids could more easily pronounce my name. I was known as Luz or Luzia to my neighbors,” she recalled.
But she said that life outside of Beit Hanina is more interesting at this point as a 22-year-old. “It’s always a weird feeling for me to be able to walk freely wherever I want. I’m at a point in my life where I want to see more of the world.”
Her father echoes his daughter’s sentiments regarding their neighbors. He recalls how one year, before the Rosh Hashana holiday, the family needed to buy fruit for the traditional New Year blessings and decided at the last minute to shop at a neighborhood grocery. The Arab owner, upon seeing Eli, showed him the Rosh Hashana fruits, telling him in Hebrew that he had the best fruits for the “Shehehiyanu” blessing recited on the New Year holiday.
“I look at the larger picture,” Gorodetzer concluded. “We live on the same land. When you live together, you see each other as regular people and treat each other accordingly. There’s good people and bad people wherever you live in the world, but you have to give people the chance to be human.”