This week’s parasha begins with the story of Jacob’s trip to Haran and his stop in Bet El on his way. Jacob stops in Bet El to spend the night there, and God appears to him in a dream and promises him that he will return to this land, and that his children would be the exclusive heirs of this land. The next morning, Jacob wakes up and realizes that he is in a special place, which the Torah calls Bet El (formerly known as Luz).
The commentators discuss the location of the different places mentioned: the ladder, Be’er Sheva and Bet El, but I would like to go ahead a few thousand years to a remarkable Jewish settlement in a small Arab village right near the biblical Bet El.
In 1906, Jacob Shertok decided to make Aliyah to Israel (after having made Aliyah in 1881 and then returning to Russia). Accompanying him were his wife Penia, his children: Rivkah, Moshe (Sharet, who would become the second Prime Minister of Israel), Ada, Judah Sharet and his wife Geula, as well as his sister Guta and her husband Baruch Katinski, his brother Zev (Velodia) and his wife Anna.
Soon after they moved to Israel, Shertok found out that there was a Sheikh selling his estate in Ein Siniya because he was going to Paris, and Shertok decided to try to settle this place, instead of moving to Hadera which had been his original plan.
Shertok and his family reached the village, with a ten year lease agreement, and they moved into the large estate house, where they moved their large Hebrew language library and their grand piano – the first such piano in the Arab village. Their goal was to found a Hebrew settlement, but they remained the only Jews in the area. The estate also included a flour mill, which served as a regional center for the residents of the area, who came to grind their grain there. The family also established an oil press in order to sell olive oil to those who lived in Jerusalem. Another source of income was a herd of goats, which the boys Moshe and Judah shepherded. Judah Sharet’s experiences as a shepherd, and the sounds of the music of the Arab shepherds, came to light many years later in his songs.
Judah studied at the kutab (a Muslim “heder”) and then joined Moshe at the village school in Bir Zayit. Ada studied at the missionary school in the same village. They rode donkeys to school. Guta and Baruch Kaminski had a daughter, Ziona, in Ein Siniya, and the place seemed to be on its way to being established. Zionist activists (among them Yitzhak Ben Zvi) came to visit the odd family, and reported in astonishment:
“Children who used to study at the gymnasium are now living the lives of real farmers, and they are not afraid to live as our forefathers did. I have visited many farms in my life, but I have never seen such a thing… They live in peace and harmony with the Arabs in the village. Most people don’t have the courage to live like this.” – Noam Sharet-Forter
Shertok’s dream of establishing a Jewish settlement didn’t come true; although they were safe and happy among the Arabs, the children’s education was far from ideal, and other Jews did not join them. The profits from the flour mill and the oil were not enough to support the whole family, and in 1908 Shertok and his family moved from Ein Siniya to Jerusalem, thus concluding a period of unique and brave settlement in the same places our forefathers lived.