Betsy & Peter Fischer help commemorate Gush Etzion’s story
The story of the Etzion Bloc, the area of Jewish settlement just south of Jerusalem, is a dramatic one. Beginning in 1925, two attempts at settling the area failed due to ongoing Jewish- Arab hostilities during Israel’s pre-state mandate era. In a third attempt, from 1935 to 1947, four kibbutzim were established on lands purchased by Jewish National Fund (JNF), thriving until they were destroyed by Jordan’s Arab Legion in a bloody massacre the day before David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Following the end of the 1948 War of Independence, the bloc fell on the Jordanian side of the armistice line until the 1967 Six-Day War, when the area was reclaimed and resettled by the descendants of the third attempt. Today, more than 100,000 Jews live there.
“The Gush has a great story to tell about the founding of the State, the Six-Day War, and the pioneers who settled in Gush Etzion,” said Cherry Hill resident Peter Fischer, using the Hebrew term gush, or “block” in English, for the area. Peter and his wife, Betsy, were in Israel to mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city of Jerusalem and to attend the dedication of an auditorium at the new Gush Etzion Heritage Center at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, one of the rebuilt kibbutzim. The auditorium’s construction and opening was made possible through the generosity of the Fischers and their good friends, Susan and Franklin Gurtman of Caldwell, NJ.
“There was a small visitor center here but they needed a better place to tell their story, so we wanted to help build it. It’s important to the future of the Gush and Israel,” said Betsy, who is president of JNF’s Southern New Jersey Board and also chairs JNF’s Gaza Envelope Task Force, which works to ease the lives of Israelis living near the Gaza border.
The dedication ceremony took place in the entryway of the glimmering new center, with its sweeping views of the Judean Mountains and South Hebron Hills. It was hosted by the mayor of Gush Etzion, Shlomo Ne’eman, and Shani Abrams Simkovitz, the director of the Gush Etzion Foundation that raised monies to match JNF’s funding for the project. The auditorium houses a theater with a rotational, full-length film that presents the story of Gush Etzion in Hebrew and English.
“To me, the story of Gush Etzion is about celebrating the experience of independence,” said JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson, who attended the ceremony. “Yes, it’s a story of loss, but it’s also a story about who we are as a people, and about rebuilding and looking to the future.” Robinson also noted that the dedication could not have come at a more appropriate time. “In a year when we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and the return of the children of Gush Etzion, today we dedicate a place that not only honors the past, but also shows the strength and spirit of Gush Etzion as it moves forward,” he said.
Since 1967, Gush Etzion has expanded to include more than 20 new communities. According to Simkovitz, the communities serve as proof that the Gush has become a vibrant part of Israel’s national consciousness and is growing in popularity among domestic and international tourists.
“Every soldier who is inducted into the Israel Defense Forces is brought to Kfar Etzion, the site of the final massacre in 1947, to learn about the history, bravery, and heroism that happened here,” Simkovitz said. “Now, thanks to the generosity of the Fischers and Gurtmans, we have a beautiful auditorium in which visitors from around Israel and the world can experience the story of Gush Etzion.”
Story by June Glazer