The Har Nof Massacre: How Jewish Life Carries On

When Palestinians killed five people at a synagogue in the Jerusalem suburb where my son lives, the response was admirably restrained

Robert Low

On the morning of Tuesday November 18, I turned on the Radio 4 eight o’clock news as usual. The lead story was that two men had entered a synagogue in what was described as “an ultra-Orthodox” area of Jerusalem a few hours previously and killed four men at the morning service (a fifth victim, a Druze police officer, died later). This was shocking enough but my blood ran cold when I heard the name of the suburb where the attack had taken place: Har Nof.

It is where my son Daniel has lived for the last five years, with his wife and three young children. He is a deeply religious yeshiva student and like all the men in Har Nof he goes to synagogue to pray every morning without fail. I scrambled around to find the phone, then called him. My relief at hearing his voice can be imagined. “I sent you an email already to say I’m OK,” he said, adding that the attacked synagogue, Kehilat Bnei Torah, was just two blocks away, on Agassi Street, and that he had often been there to pray. The names of the dead men had not yet been released, but he went on: “I’m sure I’ll know some of them.”

Har Nof is that sort of place: if you’ve lived there for five years there won’t be too many unfamiliar faces. Since Daniel moved there, my wife and I have got to know it well on our frequent visits to keep up with his growing family. It’s also a part of Jerusalem you will never get to see on television news programmes or read about in the British press unless there’s a tragedy like the synagogue massacre, because it doesn’t conform to the media’s prevailing image of the city, which is one of constant confrontation, division and tension between Jews and Arabs, with the Jews almost always being in the wrong. I would guess that the TV and newspaper reporters who rushed to Har Nof to cover the aftermath of the massacre were visiting it for the first time.

It’s a modern suburb on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, perched on a hill (Har means mountain in Hebrew, though that’s a bit of an exaggeration here) with stunning views overlooking the thick pines of the Jerusalem Forest and, to the north, the densely populated valley through which the motorway to Tel Aviv runs. Like most of Jerusalem, it consists mainly of apartment blocks of up to six storeys, all built of the ubiquitous butter-coloured Jerusalem stone, climbing up the steep slopes and linked by wide, winding roads like Agassi Street. The quickest way to get around on foot is by the many stairways cut into the rock. There is a small shopping centre, with a supermarket, a few other shops, a post office, a health centre, a takeaway pizza place and an ice-cream parlour, both with a couple of tables if you want to eat there. There are a few other shops scattered round the suburb, but no bars or restaurants, much less a cinema; no hotels either. There are plenty of buses connecting Har Nof to the rest of Jerusalem and for those with cars there’s plenty of free parking, a rarity in the rest of the city.

Har Nof’s main business quickly becomes clear as you walk along its streets: religion. The apartment blocks are interspersed with large buildings housing synagogues and yeshivas, and a further clue to Har Nof’s make-up comes from the inscriptions outside many of them, proclaiming the origin of their funding: Antwerp, Paris, Mexico City, and many more far-flung places. Almost everybody in Har Nof is from somewhere else: the United States, Britain, France, South Africa, Australia, South America, and many of them are quite recent immigrants. Outside one rocky building site, a large notice announces a future development by the Jewish community of Venezuela, but I have seen no activity there in the five years we have been visiting Har Nof, probably because the Jews of Venezuela, who have undergone constant vilification at the hands of the governments of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Redondo, can’t get their money out of their slowly disintegrating country.

During the day, the streets are quiet: everybody of all ages is studying. At lunchtime and in the late afternoon, they fill up, above all with children returning from school. The girls wear light-blue blouses with long sleeves and long dark-blue skirts, the boys dark-blue kippot (skullcaps). The men all wear the same sombre uniform: dark suits (though the jackets are usually discarded in hot weather), white shirts and wide black hats. They are not Hassids, with their long side curls and 18th-century Polish court dress to be found in many quarters of Jerusalem, notably Meah Shearim, close to the Old City, but like them they are all bearded and equally devoted to the study of Torah; they are generally described by outsiders as Haredi (literally, “one who trembles at the word of God”). The women dress modestly, with long dresses and headscarves or sheitels (wigs). All the young women are pushing buggies: Har Nof is packed with children. Families of ten are common. The large playground at the end of Daniel’s street is packed with children, while the young women tend their babies and chat. American accents predominate: indeed, my two older grandchildren speak with a pronounced American twang, the dominant accent of their classmates. The apartment block stairwells echo with the distant sound of babies crying.

There is an air of reserve about Har Nof. People keep themselves to themselves, although occasionally a young American mother will exchange a few words as we push our kids on the swings. The place really comes alive on Shabbat. Traffic is forbidden (by municipal ordinance) and the streets throng with children playing, the older ones looking after their younger siblings. Occasionally a small boy will hurtle past on a makeshift trolley, without fear of crashing into a vehicle at the bottom of the hill, while the men walk to and from synagogue (Haredi women rarely attend). The one thing that irritates the tidy-minded outsider is the amount of litter in the streets, flowerbeds, everywhere: the Haredim seem to have no interest in the appearance of their public spaces, perhaps because they are so focused on spiritual matters (although the same can be said of most Israelis, religious or secular).

But if they don’t care about appearances, they do care about each other. Whenever anyone is ill or in trouble, has suffered a bereavement or just given birth, the neighbours rally round, even when they barely know you. Each time my daughter-in-law Ruchy came home with a new baby, people would appear at the door with cooked meals for the freezer. She does the same for them once she’s up and about again. When I last spoke to her, she was cooking for the family of one of the synagogue massacre victims, who had left ten children. A giant of a man, he was on an upper floor when the attackers burst in downstairs. Instead of saving himself, as he could easily have done, he raced downstairs to tackle them and was cut down.

By strictly Orthodox custom, the funerals took place only a few hours later. My son attended, along with thousands of others, and sent me an email a couple of days afterwards: “At the funeral the Rabbi of the synagogue, in the midst of everyone’s pain and while he himself was fighting back his tears, pleaded and demanded from all the thousands that were present that there mustn’t be any reprisals or revenge and that wanton violence is simply ‘not our way’. Amongst the many verses he quoted to make his point (of which many form part of a prayer that we say on every Shabbat to remember our many martyrs) he mentioned a verse in Deuteronomy 32:43: ‘He will avenge the blood of His servants and He will bring retribution upon His foes.’ We will try to protect and defend ourselves but revenge we leave to the Almighty. As Richard Dawkins (of all people!) pointed out, if you believe in God then you can feel secure that justice will be done and murderers will meet their retribution, if not in this world then in the next.” He contrasted this attitude with the celebrations of some of the relatives of the Palestinian attackers in East Jerusalem.

Watching the live TV news coverage of the aftermath of the synagogue attack it struck me that one of the few places where people wouldn’t be watching it was Har Nof itself, for nobody has a television. Everyone, however, has a mobile phone and younger people use computers for email and to study, with strict internet control settings. We stay in touch with Daniel and his family via Skype. Money is often tight: married yeshiva students receive a small monthly stipend, but many Haredi women run successful businesses, providing goods and services to the community, like imported clothes or wigs. Flyers abound, advertising the latest offers. Many families depend on support from wealthier relatives abroad. Some young women display a lively interest in current affairs: I have had stimulating discussions about politics around the supper table. Giving to charity is a strict obligation: people come knocking on the door every day to ask for donations and are always given a few coins.

Life is simple and old-fashioned in the best way. Haredi boys like my grandson Shlomo Zalman (named after a famous Polish rabbi) do not have their hair cut until their third birthday. To mark the event, there was a little ceremony at his school, to which we were invited, and could not have been made more welcome. Shlomo repeated a few phrases in Hebrew after the rabbi (one of the few Hassids in Har Nof), dipping his finger in a dish of honey after each one to teach him that Torah learning is sweet. Afterwards, we distributed cake and sweets to the other boys, which were gratefully wolfed down. The only girl present was Shlomo’s elder sister.

The most controversial political issue affecting the Haredim before the synagogue attack was that of compulsory military service. All other Israelis have to do three years’ national service when they leave school but until now religious Jews have been exempted. The current government is trying to change that, with little success so far, and the Haredim remain violently opposed although they get no sympathy from the majority who can’t escape conscription.
Although Har Nof might appear a little dull to the outsider, it’s easy to see its attraction to those who have chosen to come to Israel to live there. They can live a completely observant Jewish life without any hassle and without the outside world intruding — or they could, until November 18. 

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