Four years ago, I went around Gush Katif in its last days and as I visited each settlement for what I knew would be the last time, I went into each synagogue…and took a stone. Sometimes it was a piece of the floor, now broken as the holy ark and benches were removed; sometimes a piece of the decorative wall outside that welcomed people as they arrived for prayer.
The first stone came from Kfar Darom. The second from Moshav Katif…and so it went. I quickly realized that if I didn’t write the name of each place on the stone, I would never remember where it came from and so my friends gave me a pencil and with that I wrote the names. Netzer Hazani, Atzmona, Ganei Tal…and so it went. I didn’t tell anyone about the stones. I don’t know why exactly, only that I felt that I had stolen something precious, something that wasn’t mine and yet, had I left it there, it would be lost to all of us.
In Kfar Darom, someone had left a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the floor in the synagogue. I took that too and put it with my other pictures – there was no shame there, but the stones were carefully wrapped and kept in a box. They sat there more than two years while I pondered what to do with them.
I thought of donating them to a local synagogue, but changed my mind. I thought of somehow building it into the concrete and stones of the home I am building, but changed my mind. I lent them once to my city for a display of items in honor and memory of Gush Katif, and worried frantically until they were finally returned.
At a loss as to what to do, who to ask, what to say…I kept inside me this painful feeling that I had done something wrong…that in the midst of the horrible suffering of so many people, 9,000 people and communities…I had taken something without permission. Would anyone really care that I had a bunch of stones when lives had been torn apart? My mind went over and over what I had done. Why? Why had I taken them? There was no one left to ask, when I took the stones. And had I not taken them, they would simply have been left to be abandoned by the Israeli government, desecrated by the Palestinians. So logical and yet nothing brought me comfort or lessened my shame.
One day while driving, I thought of Rachel Saperstein. She and her husband had welcomed me to Gush Katif a number of times. I went there with foreign guests, journalists, and Rachel and Moshe explained why expelling the Jews and destroying Gush Katif was meaningless, stupid, and dangerous. They welcomed my parents and my daughter and me when I made a more personal visit, and Rachel answered the phone when I called her. And while I had collected stones, Rachel had gone on to create Operation Dignity – a meaningful and real way to help the people of Gush Katif, with dignity and honor…and I had collected stones.
Deeply embarrassed, I told her about the stones…and she was enthralled, excited, grateful. How can you thank me for stealing from you? I wanted to ask her and not once did she make me feel that I had desecrated, destroyed, stolen. She did the rest. Rachel called and arranged for someone to take the stones.
“Please, don’t use my name,” I told them. They didn’t really understand but they respected my request and came and took the stones. It was so hard for me to part with them. I asked them to take care of them, silly, I said to myself. They are holy, I wanted to tell them – all that is left of so many beautiful synagogues.
I imagined what could be done with the stones, but didn’t suggest. It wasn’t my place, my suffering, my synagogues that had been destroyed…and they weren’t really my stones. A talented artist could build something, a memorial to the synagogues. Something to share with others, something to remember and to stand. Something holy. Something precious.
A few days ago, someone called me and invited me to a special event honoring those who had helped the communities of Gush Katif during and after the expulsion. I was a bit embarrassed – what had I ever really done to help them? I’d tried but hadn’t really accomplished anything. I never thought once of the stones when they called. It was the dedication of a Legacy Center, directed by Mochi Better to remember and educate people – and three artists were commissioned to create beauty out of sadness. Ayala Ben-Simchon and Anat Yaakov decorated some of the wall, and Ayala Azran from Neve Dekalim, now in Ein Tzurim was given the stones with which to create an everlasting remembrance for the synagogues and for Gush Katif. In one artistic piece, she captured the sea and the trees, and the communities…the synagogues…with a piece from each one, a stone, my stones.
My stones which were collected after all the people had been taken away. My stones which I took, without permission and kept in a box waiting to understand what I was meant to do with them.
My stones…which were never mine…have been returned to the amazing people of Gush Katif and they have been turned into a thing of beauty, as once these same people had turned all of Gush Katif into such beauty. Even in my wildest imaginings, I could not have pictured the symbolism and intricate work that the artist managed to add. Ayala created a lasting memorial.
Somehow knowing that those precious stones had been returned and were now back with the people of Gush Katif brought back again the sadness of those times when Israel unilaterally and insanely imagined it could make peace alone. It also brought a strange sense of peace…which also shames me. The people of Gush Katif are not home. For more than four years, Israel has refused to properly see to their needs after so improperly destroying all that they had built. Until the people of Gush Katif are properly settled and allowed to channel all the energy and creativity and love that is so much a part of them into rebuilding, the stones will never really be at peace.
I long to see the stones again, to touch them, to apologize. I guess I shouldn’t apologize for taking them from Gaza. There they would have been as abandoned and desecrated as the rest of the stones from which they were taken. But I will apologize for there having been a need to take them. I will apologize for the indignity of having been stored in a temporary box for two years, as the people of Gush Katif have been “stored” for four years now. And I will finally part from my stones, knowing that their future, like their past, is now once again back with the right people, the good people, of Gush Katif.