Life in Ramat Beit Shemesh - Coming Home
Life in Ramat Beit Shemesh – Coming Home
By Mort Barr
As we enter our fourth week in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a routine has been established. I wake up at 5:40 AM, walk across the street to Minyan at 6:10, return home at 7:00 for breakfast and then walk to Ulpan (Hebrew class) – about a 15-20 minute walk, mostly uphill. (I still have not figured out how the return trip can appear also to be uphill!). Indeed, we are in the foothills of the Judaean Hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, about 1,000 feet above sea level (like Atlanta, but not like Atlanta – the views here are breathtaking with a sense of קדושה (holiness)). However, the winters are milder and shorter and the summers are brutally hot but less humid. The temperature range is a linear combination of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When we want to know what the week’s temperature high-low range will be, we average those two cities together and the result is usually close to being correct. Here, most apartment buildings are built into the hills, which appear higher than the data indicates when ascending them.
Beit Shemesh is rooted in Tanach, and is first mentioned in the Book of Joshua (15) as a city in the territory of the tribe of Judah on the border between their territory and that of the tribe of Dan. Later in Joshua 21 Beit Shemesh is mentioned as having been set aside as a Levite city. We are close to the Elah valley where David slew Goliath. Here, one can imagine the battle scene as described in Samuel 1, ch.17, with Saul and the men of Israel massing on one side of the valley, the Philistines stationed on the opposite hillside, with the ravine between them.
Beit Shemesh is mentioned in the book of Samuel I as being the first city encountered by the ark of the covenant on its way back from Philistia after having been captured by the Philistines in battle. It is written in the Tanach, “The people of Beit Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley when they looked up and saw the Ark (of the covenant)….The cart entered the field of Y’hoshua of Beit Shemesh and stood there by a big rock. They cut up the wood of the cart and offered up the cows as a burnt offering to HaShem. Then the Levi’im removed the Ark of Hashem and the box that was with it, which contained the gold objects, and put them on the big rock. That same day the men of Beit Shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrifices to HaShem (Sh’mu’el 6:13-15 א.)
Driving down route 38, one can sense the city’s biblical origins and a clear connection to our ancient heritage. As we are connected to our past here, we are also connected to our present: After being her for three weeks, I am now convinced that Ramat Beit Shemesh is the center of the Jewish Universe: A young fellow in my Ulpan worked with my son-in-law in California for a kiruv organization – he asked to send his regards. Another fellow in my Ulpan originally from Chicago was the boss of my neighbor in Atlanta. During Sukkot I met two visitors at synagogue (from Toronto and Gateshead, England) visiting children and after the three of us spoke, the two discovered they were cousins related by marriage. What’s more, the wife of the man from Gateshead is related to another Atlantan living in Ramat Beit Shemesh and was planning on visiting them soon (a cousin of mine through marriage). Further, another visitor from New York is a cousin of a neighbor of ours in Atlanta. This sort of thing does not end: I can add that we live where there are many South Africans and many connections to the Atlanta South African community. We are all connected to each other and to our mesora (heritage).
Beit Shemesh and the newer section called Ramat Beit Shemesh (or Beit Shemesh heights), is both an old and a new city rolled into one enormously eclectic mélange of, dati Leumi (modern Orthodox), Anglo Chareidi, Israeli Charedi and secular with a population of about 80,000, about 35 km (23 miles) from Jerusalem and about 45 km from Tel Aviv. We have our share of conflict; between Israeli Chareidim and modern Orthodox; between secular and religious. However, as I always remind myself, we are in a distinctly Jewish country with distinctly Jewish problems and G-d willing, we will find distinctly Jewish solutions. For certain, as the sun begins to set here in this holy country, one can sense Shabbat approaching with all five senses: Erev Shabbat has a distinctly Jewish bouquet everywhere of schnitzel, cholent and a potpourri of cooking aromas; the world slows down around us; shops shut down after the morning hustle and bustle; the public buses return to their parking stations devoid of passengers; a holy quiet descends upon all of us and our differences melt away into the hallowed sunset of Shabbat.