Oz V’Gaon Forest in Memory of Ayal, Gilad and Naftali
By Vera Schwarcz
The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av was my last Shabbat in Israel after a month of learning and writing. I came here to refocus my life after becoming a widow and retiring from teaching Chinese history for 40 years.
What better way to enter the mood of this special time than a visit to the Oz v’Gaon forest near the town of Efrat? This Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is a time when memory, both personal and communal, weighs heavy on my mind.
On Friday morning, we set off with two minivans from the center of Jerusalem. In 25 minutes we arrived at a green enclave in the middle of the hills of Gush Etzion. There, a couple of hundred people had already gathered from different parts of the country.
The first person I glimpsed when I got off the van was my dear old friend Nadia Matar, the fearless founder of Women in Green, known today as Women for Israel’s Tomorrow. I ran to greet her. She was in a middle of an interview about the history of this special site. We hugged anyway.
Nadia is the woman I admire the most from the many, many remarkable people I have been privileged to know in almost seven decades.
She told the story of the miracle that was unfolding before my eyes: During the 18 days in 2014 that the three Israeli teenagers were missing and the army scoured these hills, and the whole world was riveted with calls for “#BringBackOurBoys!” — Nadia’s group had already scouted out this forest. They had a feeling that the terrorists who kidnapped the boys were lurking around here. The night that their bodies were found — not far from the spiritual center where we are at today, hundreds marched into the forest to set up a memorial. All they found was an old forest ranger’s brick house filled with trash. The boys’ battered bodies had been removed for burial.
With bare arms, they started to clean tons of garbage. They worked through the night. The next day, everyone went to the heart-rending funeral attended by many thousands from all around Israel.
They came back again, again. Knowing that this was Israeli land designated for tourism, they sat up camp. Not simply for leisure but to create a special place were memory of the boys’ murder and commitment to the Jewish future in the land of Israel would be firmly wedded. Hundreds of youth groups came to clear paths. One young family with a baby stayed on permanently in their tent. The local army commander provided protection every night from those who would burn the place to the ground. Recent Russian immigrants came and were moved by the force of Zionism here and stayed to help pave paths, run electrical lines, set up running water.
Today, there is a small synagogue here where people walk to from surrounding communities. Nadia walks over for Shabbat from Efrat and also spends part of every weekday here. Families come all week to learn and play. Every Friday hundreds gather for lectures on Torah and current events. The day I came, they showed a 90-minute film about the complexities of conscience in the life of a young solider trained to be a pilot and sent, instead, to haul Jews out of their homes in Gush Katif during the disengagement 10 years ago. It was painful to watch and provoked deep reflection. This movie, too, linked memory of past grief to future hopes in the land of Israel.
If you are visiting Israel, coming to Oz v’Gaon provides living testament of the uniquely Jewish way of creating hope out of the darkest sorrow.
The American poet Emily Dickenson had an intimation of such soul-craft when she wrote:
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
“Mine” in Israel includes everyone. Ayal, Gilad and Naftali were everyone’s boys. Their murder left a grief that is both heavy and inspiring. There is no easy place to lay this pain to rest. Yet, in the Oz v’Gaon forest I found a consciousness of unity that is awesome to behold.
Vera Schwarcz taught Chinese history at Wesleyan University for forty years. A resident of West Hartford, she is the author of nine books, many of which touch upon Chinese and Jewish views of memory and trauma.
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CAP: (l to r): Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’ar, Naftali Frenkel