By Aubrey Isaacs
It started as a perfectly innocent family picnic.
After a deeply rewarding but thoroughly exhausting summer, teaching a group of wonderful AMHSI students from all over the USA, my family and I traveled north for a few days of vacation in the mystical city of Tzfat. As we planned our trip, we took into account that we would need a stop for a picnic lunch on the way, to break up the long drive from my home in the Negev. Following a recommendation from a friend, we decided that we would stop at a water spring near the village of Shadmot Devora at the foot of historic Mount Tavor, where Deborah’s forces had gathered to inflict defeat on Sisera and the Canaanites.
We drove through Shadmot Devora and then followed a rough path through olive orchards and eventually found the spring. We were not disappointed.
The spring consisted of a large shallow pool that was being fed by a stream of water that had been pumped 100 metres from its actual source in a well dug beneath a blackcurrant bush. The pool had been recently repaired and was beautifully located. It was shaded partially on one side by a large fig tree and on the other by an equally large mulberry tree. A stream of water flowed into the pool and from its other end the water overflowed and ran into the valley below. The area was clean, with JNF picnic tables under the shade of the trees. I was delighted. It was a sweltering hot August day and we had discovered an ideal picnic site.
As we arrived we were pleased to see that the site was relatively quiet. A busload of soldier girls was preparing to depart. They were a company who serve as lookouts. They spend their days in front of computer screens scanning every inch of Israel’s borders preventing terrorist infiltration from our none too friendly neighbours. They had been granted a few hours respite from their duties and had been taken on an outing to cool down in the spring. Nineteen year old girls on whom our safety and security is dependent.
As I approached the spring I saw a number of signs. The first told the history of the site and reminded me that the nearby village had been set up as a “Wall and Tower” settlement. Established overnight in 1939, its founders had utilized a loophole in the British Mandatory laws that sought to restrict the establishment of new Jewish communities. The well had been dug in 1941 and the spring water had for many years provided the village’s needs.
After jumping into the deliciously cool water and appreciating how well the site was maintained, I decided to walk around and read the other signs. A large sign asked us to show respect. The site is also a memorial. It has been recently renovated and re-dedicated to the memory of five soldiers. They were participants in an officers’ training course and were killed together last year as they blocked a terror tunnel that Hamas had dug from inside the Gaza strip into the lands of Kibbutz Nachal Oz. The terrorists had intended to emerge from the tunnel and to attack a kindergarten. Five brave soldiers lost their lives thwarting this plan. As my eyes scanned over the list of the names of the five young soldiers my mind jumped back to the previous week in Jerusalem.
It had been the last hours of the AMHSI summer session. It was July 28th 2015. Our very final activity is at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, where we tour the military cemetery and tell stories of some of the heroes who are buried there. At the end of the tour I took my students to see the fresh graves of soldiers killed in “Protective Edge” in Gaza in summer 2014. As we filed silently past the graves we saw a woman sitting at one graveside staring at the tombstone which was adorned with the photograph of a handsome soldier. It was abundantly clear that the lady was the soldier’s mother.
With some embarrassment I ventured to question her. Her son Nadav had died on Rosh Chodesh Av the previous year. The date on the Gregorian calendar had been July 28th and she had now come to spend this first anniversary at his graveside. She spoke to us with a soft and dignified calm. Her life has been turned upside down yet she had a sense of pride and confidence that her Nadav had died doing what he believed in and had given his young life for the safety of Israel. He had died in battle facing the enemy and his motivation and dedication are now a source of comfort for her in her loss and mourning. My students gathered round in awed silence and waited for me to translate her words. The reality of this spontaneous meeting with the mother of a fallen soldier on the anniversary of his death, just hours before getting on a plane to return home to the USA made a deep impression.
Now, one week later I again “met” Nadav. I discovered that he was from Shadmot Devora and it was in his memory and that of his four comrades that this beautiful water spring had been renovated. As if this was not enough of a revelation, my son took a look at the names of the five soldiers and pointed out another familiar name – a friend of my nephew’s from Jerusalem.
As we relaxed in the water, suddenly out of nowhere four large Hummer military jeeps drove up and parked next to the spring. Sixteen red booted infantry soldiers, dusty from traveling in their jeeps, alighted, approached the spring, removed their uniforms and promptly jumped in clothed only in their underpants. It was a strange site to see these young men on active duty, move briefly into relaxation mode.
The soldiers were accompanied by a pretty young soldier girl. She removed her clothes and jumped into the water in her bikini. Afterwards she lit a cigarette and sat vivaciously chatting and slightly flirting with the handsome young soldiers. My eldest daughter Naomi gestured to me to swim over to the side of the pool where she was sitting. When I did so she whispered confidentially into my ear, “Abba, do you see that girl there in the bikini?” I answered with a hint of sarcasm that it was rather hard not to notice her! Naomi continues in a whisper “I know her.”
Naomi is a qualified social worker and works in a challenging position in an SOS village for children at risk. Her village is staffed by professionals and they are assisted by a group of about twelve young pre-army volunteers. These are the cream of Israel’s youth, eighteen to nineteen year olds who donate a year of their lives to volunteering before they go on to serve at least three more years in the IDF. The young girl in the bikini had volunteered at the same SOS village where my daughter now works. One of her co- volunteers had been her boyfriend for seven years. Together they had given a year of their lives to helping children from broken homes and then they had each joined the IDF. Her boyfriend was another one of the sixty-eight Israeli soldiers who gave their lives last summer in Gaza fighting against the Hamas terrorists. Looking at this young attractive and cheerful looking girl it was hard to imagine the pain and loss that she was carrying within her.
We made strong dark Turkish coffee, dunked one last time in the pool, took a few pictures and returned to the car to continue our journey north. As I glanced back at this beautiful spot, I wondered where else but in Israel can an innocent picnic break turn into a lesson in history and values and a meeting with people who give so much for our country. My innocent family picnic had turned into a moving reminder of how precious this land is and what a heavy price we pay for the privilege of living here in peace.
Born and bred in bonny Scotland, Aubrey made aliya as soon as he finished high school. He studied in yeshivot in Jerusalem and in Gush Etzion, served in the tank corps of the IDF, received a BA in Jewish History and at Bar Ilan University, rabbinical qualifications and an MA in Jewish Thought from Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Aubrey served as Director of Jewish Education in Glasgow, Scotland and then for 11 years as Rabbi and then, Director of the WUJS Institute in Arad. Aubrey joined AMHSI as an educator in 2004 and in 2011 became director of the school’s new Negev Campus at Eshel HaNassi. Aubrey has a special love for the desert and lives in the northern Negev town of Arad.