Sep 21, 2015  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Blueprint Negev,

Starting over: A tree from Gaza plants new roots in rabbi's yard

Photo: Anne Taillandier
This road sign, a tangible reminder of Rabbi Eli Adler's life in Gaza, holds a prominent place at his new home 
in Halutza. 

Affixed to the outside wall of Rabbi Eli Adler's house in Israel's Negev desert is a road sign. Gush Qatif, it says in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. An arrow points left. Following the arrow would lead to the Gaza Strip, located a few miles away and the place where Adler lived and taught for years before Israel evacuated the rabbi and his community from the territory in 2005. But really, it could be inferred, the sign points to Adler's heart, where he holds a deep and lasting connection to the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements he and his family called home. 

Adler now lives in one of three communities -- B'nei Netzarim, Neve, and Shlomit -- that make up Halutza, a small cluster of towns founded by Gush Katif evacuees. Where there once was only vast desert, Adler and other modern-day pioneers have in a short 10 years created a thriving world of homes, schools, synagogues, solar fields, and farms that yield bountiful crops unexpected in any desert.

Photo: Anne Taillandier
Rabbi Eli Adler, leader of the Neve community, 
in his garden.
"This is a miracle here," Adler says, sitting at a table in his modest but modern home on a sunny weekday. "When we came here 10 years ago, there was nothing. It was like coming to an area which was frozen."

Adler, in his early fifties and a father of eight and grandfather of two, speaks enthusiastically of all he and other Gush Katif residents have accomplished in the decade since Israel evacuated Gaza in hopes of securing peace.

But that doesn't mean the adjustment to life in JNF-supported Halutza has been easy. Challenges have included water management for the farms, and rockets fired from across Israel's southern borders. And, especially in the early days, when Israel's disengagement from Gaza sparked strong opinions across the country's spectrum, emotions ran high and raw.

"It was a painful decision, the decision that the government made," Adler says. "We felt like it was a betrayal. People were hurt."

For those who decided to build Halutza, however, the resolve ultimately proved stronger than the pain. "We felt we still have strength and belief and visions and dreams and we will continue our goals in the next station," Adler says. "What spoke to us here was the adventure. We felt we could do something meaningful here for Zionism, for the Negev."

That overarching sense of vision, the one that led Adler to both Atzmona in Gaza and Neve in Halutza, is part of the reason the road sign on the side of his house holds such powerful meaning for him. As does one particular tree in his front yard. 

Photo: Anne Taillandier
One of Adler's trees from Gaza in its new home. 
It comes from his garden in Gaza. 

"I like gardening," Adler says. "I feel like I talk with the trees. I have relationships with them." Still, something inside wouldn't let him uproot his garden when he left Gush Katif. It was if to truly leave the land and start over also meant he had to leave behind everything that grew on it. 

Then, shortly after the disengagement, while Adler was living on a temporary army base, one of his students called. He had something for Adler. It was a palm tree from the rabbi's former garden that the student had tied to his car and brought out of Gaza. 

"It made me so happy," Adler says. "It was very, very special for us." 

The tree, which Adler replanted in a pail, now stands tall and healthy in Halutza, as if to symbolize the strength and tenacity of the 250 families who live there. 

"We're doing things here today that we couldn't accomplish in Gush Katif," Adler says. "We want to have not only agriculture, not only farming. We want to have business, high-tech. That's why we're paying scholarships for students to live and to study at Ben Gurion University. We want them to be part of our communities here, to build something high-quality." 

The future of Halutza, in Adler's eyes, is one of endless possibilities. 

"It's only the beginning," he says. "We're just starting." 

Photos: Mimi Banks/Robert Kerzner
Undeveloped land around Halutza and Halutza today: What a difference a decade makes.

See more scenes from a day in the life of Halutza in our photo gallery below.