My Word: A journey to the Jordan Valley

Many former students from Shadmot Neria have returned to the moshav or surrounding region and have helped establish three more communities.

Students from the Shadmot Neria Yeshiva study in the beautiful surrounding of Shadmot Mehola in the Jordan Valley.  (photo credit: AVIHAI SHITRIT)
Students from the Shadmot Neria Yeshiva study in the beautiful surrounding of Shadmot Mehola in the Jordan Valley.
(photo credit: AVIHAI SHITRIT)
Sometimes history and geography lessons suddenly come alive, especially traveling in Israel. In high-school, we learned about the Great African Rift, running from Syria to Mozambique. A couple of years later, living in Israel and serving in the IDF, I realized the road I was traveling on – through the Jordan and Beit She’an valleys, on the way to Tiberias – was passing through part of that actual fault system.
Today, the Jordan Valley symbolizes a consensus rather than a rift. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan envisages sovereignty for the area and while the timing for it is disputed, the need for fully extending Israeli rule there is broadly accepted across the political spectrum, even ahead of the third elections in a year.
On Sunday, the eve of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for trees, my son’s hesder yeshiva held a parents’ evening, my first opportunity to really look at where he is living and learning ahead of his army service. The brief visit to Moshav Shadmot Mehola in the northern Jordan Valley was enough to show me what appealed to him. The valley – so hot in the summer – is green and extraordinarily beautiful this time of year. Residents like to joke that you’re assured of “a warm welcome” whenever you come.
The yeshiva goes by different names – Shadmot Neria and Yeshivat Habika’a (the Valley Yeshiva) or just by the first name of the community: Shadmot. This is symbolic of its various identities and roles. You cannot separate the yeshiva from its Jordan Valley location, nor from its philosophy, based on the thinking of Israel Prize-laureate Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria – a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – who established the yeshiva in 1993.
The yeshiva head today, Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, was among the pioneers who set up the academy. He describes his educational approach as “continuing the ways of Rav Neria to raise Torah observers of all types who will serve in their own ways and places as emissaries according to Rabbi Kook’s vision and, of course, to encouraging the development of the Jordan Valley.”
Many former students from Shadmot Neria have returned to the moshav or surrounding region and have helped establish three more communities. The words “religious Zionist” are said here with old-fashioned pride.
The friendly nature of the small yeshiva and the moshav is felt everywhere. This is the type of place where homes are found by family names rather than road names and numbers. We visited the home of my son’s adoptive family, who – typical of the others we met – welcomed us with open arms while shying away from publicity.
Their table, ready for Tu Bishvat, carried fruits and nuts – including the local delicacy, Medjool dates. The graceful palm trees that dot the local landscape offer more than shade and beauty.
All the people I spoke to – including Rosenfeld, CEO Shlomo Hazut and community rabbi and teacher Elisha Fixler – were eager to publicize the yeshiva, which is looking for more students to join next year, but reluctant to promote themselves. It was a touching combination in an era of egocentric marketing.
The students and staff are a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi, as natural and enriching as having books by the Maharal of Prague and Maimonides on the same shelf. My son’s rabbi-teacher, Moshe Ben Shimol, was born in Ma’alot and is himself a graduate of the yeshiva and now a Shadmot resident. Describing his pedagogic approach, he used an image perfect for Tu Bishvat. He believes the yeshiva is like a stake tied to a plant. The stick doesn’t determine the type of plant that grows, but it keeps it upright, gives it added strength, and lets it develop in its own way. I realized my 18-year-old son had not so much “grown and flown” as was still growing and branching out.
We were given a taste of the boys’ lives in the yeshiva – they will always be “our boys” to the parents – studying Gemara and other religious texts, spontaneously breaking into a song and dance before supper and eating a good meal (the cook is another former student).
With some 40 students living in a community of 130 families, everyone knows each other. Older students – many of them after their army service – study with the freshmen. All the students are expected to volunteer both in the yishuv and in the Jewish communities in the surrounding region, with a population of approximately 6,000.
The border with Jordan, mercifully quiet, looks like touching distance from the road and hilltops. The Jordan Valley is a natural boundary and the strategic necessity in keeping the area under Israeli control is evident. For obvious reasons, Jordan itself, clearly visible on the other side of the security fences and minefields, does not want a Palestinian state in this sparsely populated area.
It was no surprise that, with the renewed talk of applying sovereignty under the Trump peace deal, and ahead of yet another election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose the newly officially recognized community of Mevo’ot Yeriho to plant a tree and make a statement on Tu Bishvat.
The so-called Allon Plan, adopted by former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, designated the Jordan Valley as Israel’s strategically essential eastern border. Some 90% of the Jordan Valley is considered Area C, under full Israeli control, under the Oslo Agreements. The Palestinian Authority controls Jericho and its satellite villages and there are signs along the road warning that entry to Israeli citizens is forbidden. This isn’t apartheid; it’s to prevent Israelis being kidnapped and killed.
The biblical hills are timeless, and the pace is relaxed. The Jordan Valley is less than one-and-a-half hours by bus from Jerusalem and a million metaphorical miles away from Tel Aviv, where this week City Hall ruled that prayer stalls, where men could put on tefillin, may not be placed close to public buildings serving children. The Jordan Valley believes in coexistence as a way of life.
In many ways, the Jordan Valley reminds me of the Golan Heights. Both wish to boost the number of local residents (and visitors) but want to develop the area, create new jobs and provide better transport without ruining the area’s pastoral nature and successful agriculture.
The main artery, Route 90, is notorious for having the highest rate of road accidents in the country, partly because of its length and bends and partly because much of it has single lanes without lane dividers.
At the end of last month, Reut Schwartz, a 27-year-old, mother-of-three who grew up at Shadmot Mehola, became one of its victims, killed in a head-on collision. What happened after the seven-day mourning period seems extraordinary even for the local community. The young widower, Ezra Schwartz, reached out to the driver of the other vehicle asking to meet him and give him a hug. As journalist Sivan Rahav Meir wrote, this week Schwartz met the driver and his wife at his home in the Jordan Valley’s Ma’aleh Ephraim to offer them comfort and strength.
On the way home, driving along Route 90, we passed through a couple of Arab villages, where the well-stocked stores line the edges of the road. Taking a ride with the parents of another student, we all agree that if not peace, then at least quiet and coexistence, will only exist where there is economic growth. That growth, we concur, must be fostered by Israel. Outside influences, such as the European Union and Turkey, have their own agendas that despite their lip service do not bring the benefits of stability.
The UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, this week published a list of companies with ties to “Israeli settlements.” Such blacklists, facilitating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, do nothing to encourage either peace or prosperity. The Palestinians often suffer from them as much as the Jews they are meant to single out for boycott.
Back in Jerusalem, I concluded that physically, the Jordan Valley is a deep depression; spiritually, however, it is uplifting.
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