What do you get when you mix together chasidut, a desire to work the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael, ahavas Yisrael, and creativity? The answer is Bat Ayin! A friend of mine, who often goes to this small hilltop yishuv in Gush Etzion for Shabbos, had been inviting me to join her for a while. I had many reasons for turning her down time after time. But when I heard that Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin was looking for a madricha for their summer program, I figured it didn’t hurt to apply and check it out – and now that I’m there, the joke is on me!
As I alighted from the bus at the traffic circle on Bat Ayin’s main road and made my way down the hill, a beautiful mountain panorama lay before me, and I felt the clear air entering my lungs. I noticed the variety of homes as I walked. Many families live in caravans (trailers) while others occupy houses of all sizes and types. There are small matchbox-style homes that the owners built themselves and others that are large and multi-level. Some houses are faced with beautiful stone, while others are built from colorfully-painted cement or wood, log-cabin style. Each home is surrounded with a bit of land, and many have well-kept gardens. Each home is unique, attesting to the individuality of the people residing inside.
With few sidewalks in the neighborhood and homes with no addresses, I was guided by landmarks. My destination was fairly simple to find. I passed the shul, the playground, and the gan, and a bit further down the hill, on the right, I saw a wooden sign with white lettering: Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin.
The midrasha was founded and is directed by Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Seigelbaum, originally from Denmark, to provide Jewish women and conversion candidates a holistic women’s learning experience. It offers classes in Torah and chasidut, as well as activities such as gardening, art, and herbal workshops. After touring the campus, which is comprised of caravans surrounded by beautiful plants and herbs, a greenhouse, an orchard, and a chicken coop, I met with some staff and students and sat in on a couple of classes. I felt keenly that I was home. Although I did not know a whole lot about the midrasha, and I certainly did not know much about the yishuv itself, my appreciation for the place grows greater the longer I am here.
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Interested in finding out about Bat Ayin’s beginning and development, I met with the rebbetzin of the yishuv. Rebbetzin Batya Kohen was kind enough to give me some of her time as she is very busy not only with her own household and yishuv affairs but also with her midrasha, named Zohar. She explains that she opened the midrasha with just evening classes to give an opportunity to young Israeli women of all backgrounds to learn Torah while working or studying in college.
Rav Daniel and Rebbetzin Batya were one of the seven families who founded Bat Ayin in 1989. Their group formed the yishuv on the principles of Torah, yiras Shamayim, chasidut, and agriculture. Rav Yitzchok Ginzberg, a brilliant talmid chacham and kabbalist in Kfar Chabad, led the yishuv’s infrastructure and provided both practical and spiritual advice to the early settlers. Rebbetzin Batya explains why they named their yishuv Bat Ayin. The first book of chasidut that was written in Eretz Yisrael was in Tzfat and was named Bat Ayin. Also, an ayin is a spring, and there are some ma’ayanot (springs) in the area. Additionally, they thought that the pasuk in Tehilim, “…Shamraini ke’ishon bat ayin…,” asking Hashem to guard us like the pupil or apple of His eye, was especially apropos for their yishuv.
“We wanted to create a yishuv to unite the spiritual and the physical, and to bring down into the keilim (the physicality) the high ideals of chasidut,” Rebbetzin Batya explained. “Part of that idea was to create a place where baalei teshuva would feel comfortable and form a culture within the frum culture. Everyone who comes here is on a spiritual search, and there’s a lot of ahavat Yisrael and caring to do avodat Hashem.” She told me that many people who do teshuva and try to integrate into the chareidi society have a hard time fitting into the educational system and culture. “Because the chareidi society is structured in a very specific way,” Rebbetzin Batya explained, “if you didn’t grown up in it, you might have a hard time becoming part of it and feeling at home.”
One of the policies that Rav Ginzberg enacted in the yishuv’s beginning was to only use organic pesticides, since they are an agricultural community. Another policy – one that other yishuvim have since incorporated – was that no Arabs are allowed into the yishuv. Rebbetzin Batya explains that this is meant both to establish the Torah’s principle that it is a mitzva to hire Jewish laborers and also to ensure security for the yishuv families.
One incident that took place in the yishuv’s early days underscores the need to have enacted such security measures. A couple of men noticed an old Arab shepherd trying to get closer and closer to the edge of their caravan encampment, together with his sheep. At first, the men asked him to leave, but he just smiled and came closer each day, until the men took stronger measures. He was never seen around the camp again, and the settlers discovered that he wasn’t as innocent as he appeared. This shepherd was sent to spy out the area for terrorist infiltration. “Our yishuv had a very bad name with the Arabs,” says Rebbetzin Batya. “They called us “the crazy ones” and we were very happy about that.”
Rebbetzin Batya also explains that Arab workers often create problems at building sites, “because they hate us.” From personal experience, when they were living in Har Nof prior to their move to Bat Ayin, the Kohens had plumbing problems because the Arab workers had put stones in the pipes. Rebbetzin Batya bemoans the situation: “They hire Arab builders and then have to hire a security guard to watch them build!”
Security in the Gush has tightened since the abduction and murder of the three teenage boys in 2014. At Tzomet HaGush, the major junction leading to Alon Shvut, soldiers in full gear stand on duty behind cement blockades with their rifles drawn at every moment. In Bat Ayin itself, many men carry guns, and there is a security guard at the yishuv’s entrance. For years, the settlers had protested putting up a security fence because of their strong belief that Eretz Yisrael was given to Am Yisrael and one should live without fear. However, after two tragic attacks in the yishuv carried out by terrorists who infiltrated from the Arab village on the neighboring hilltop, the government insisted on putting up a security fence, only on the side of the yishuv near the Arab villages.
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Rebbetzin Batya described what life was like 28 years ago. The first pioneering families shared caravans for the first few weeks until enough of the trailers arrived to accommodate each family. The men dug the sewer system themselves. To make a phone call (before the age of cell phones!), they would leave their homes and use a shared telephone attached to a pole in the middle of the camp. Neighboring yishuvim adopted the new settlers and made sure there were enough men for a minyan on the yishuv every day until it grew. Other yishuvim were just starting out as well, so a makolet (grocery) on wheels came around once a week, and people lined up to purchase their groceries.
Since its beginning, the yishuv has grown into about 220 families. The community, today, has a diverse flair, including many “hippies” sporting colorful flowing clothing and sandals. It is common for the men to have full peyot and beards, according to chasidish custom, and the vast majority of married women cover their hair with a mitpachat, a turban-like scarf. Most families belong to at least one, and usually more, of four religious paths, which are known as ChaBaKuK. This stands for Chabad, Breslov, Rav Kook, and Carlebach. A strong sense of spirituality and passion pervades the shul, and chasidut and kabbalic teachings are widespread. The main shul, known as the Mercaz, is Nusach Sefard and led by Rav Kohen. A few smaller shuls accommodate Chabad, Sefardi, and Breslov minyanim, and a yeshiva for mostly Israeli baalei teshuva is headed by Rav Natan Greenberg.
The yishuv has one well-stocked makolet, a doctor’s clinic, and a thrift shop. A falafel stand, which sits on the main road a few times a week, is rather new. While the settlement certainly lacks the hustle and bustle and tremendous abundance of city life, that just makes it easier to connect to one’s spiritual core. However, residents of the yishuv are not materially deprived, either. In recent years, many new stores have sprouted in the Gush, so people don’t need to rely on Yerushalayim for shopping, a 25-minute car ride away. Only a short distance away, in Kfar Etzion, a large array of shops includes shoe and clothing stores, a phone store, a bank, an electronic and hardware store, a pet store, and an “everything” store. A bit further down the road, by the Tzomet HaGush junction, the grocery chain, Rami Levi, has a huge supermarket, and a mall has lots of stores and several eateries, including a pizza shop and a nice dairy cafe.
Many people in Bat Ayin own cars, and those who do not take buses or tremp (hitchhike). There is even a tremping Whatsapp group, where people request and offer rides, which is especially helpful because the buses to and from Bay Ayin are not always reliable. Just a few days ago, though, the bus schedule was changed and additional bus lines were added. The hope is that public transportation will improve.
There is one boys and one girls school in Bat Ayin, both of which go until eighth grade. Some families send their children to other schools close by, such as Beitar or Ma’alei Amos. Rebbetzin Batya shares that when they first began the yishuv, they faced challenges with the chinuch system. “As baalei teshuva, we thought we could reinvent the wheel of chinuch,” she says, “but we really didn’t know how to do it at all. We wanted the system to provide the highest level of yirat Shamayim, tzniut, and Torah learning for our children. We were very open and also very closed.” She explains that they incorporated other creative studies and nature into their educational framework, which back then wasn’t found in the chareidi system but are now starting to develop.
“We wanted the children to love Torah and not feel forced, but we didn’t have the keilim (abilities) to do it,” the Rebbetzin continues. “We weren’t professionals in chinuch and didn’t know anything about it. We also didn’t understand who we were in the map. Gush Etzion is very dati leumi. We thought we were just on this small hilltop, but our kids realized that they are part of the larger Gush Etzion region and started to go against what we wanted them to be like. When you are in a society, you react to it. For instance, when you are standing at a bus stop, you look around and see that everyone looks different from you, and you start to feel weird. Even though we want to be on a very high level of shmirat mitzvot, it was hard to accomplish because of our openness. It’s very hard to find a combination of being open but also very strong.” On a positive note, the Rebbetzin says, “Since we started this yishuv, many yishuvim in the Gush have awoken to the world of chasidut, and I’m sure that it affects their yirat Shamayim.”
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I head to the home of Pinchas and Penina Taylor, olim from Baltimore, whose story I told in the last issue of the Where What When. They came to Bat Ayin from Kiryat Arba to be the av and eim bayit (dorm parents) of Midreshet B’erot, Penina explains. Penina wanted to devote time to her third book and jumped at the opportunity of a job that would give her the flexibility to write.
“We didn’t realize until after taking the job that this community was exactly what we were looking for,” says Penina. “In both Rabbi Lisbon’s and Rabbi Goldberger’s shuls, we got a real taste of what it means to be part of a kehila.” Once in Israel, the Taylors struggled to find a place where they would find a similar sense of being part of a kehila. After living in five communities in 10 years, they visited Bat Ayin to check out the midrasha, and felt a strong connection to Rav Daniel Kohen and the shul. After a year at the midrasha, they met with the yishuv’s va’ad (board) to determine if they would be accepted into the yishuv, a common practice in Israeli towns. Their entry went smoothly since they had a letter of recommendation from the rebbetzin of the midrasha as well as from Rabbi Kohen. They were not asked to do a graphology test, which is sometimes requested in order to weed out families who might pose problems for the yishuv.
Although the yishuv originally required joining families to speak Hebrew, that is no longer a strong qualification. Penina speaks at a basic level, but Pinchas has a hard time with languages and gets by in English, which most Israelis know a bit of. “I find it much easier to communicate in person,” says Penina, “because you can gesture if you have to.” She explains that both she and Pinchas are introverts, so they don’t need extensive social involvement and are happy with their own crowd of about 15 to 20 English-speaking families. These English speakers formed their own Whatsapp group, which is useful in obtaining information and being part of a social forum.
Penina shares her perspective on the community: “We never thought of ourselves as Bat Ayin material because of its reputation of being a bunch of hippies. In some ways it is, but that reputation is a bit exaggerated. I myself am somewhat straight laced, although I am a bit of a chameleon, so I can conform in the moment. There is also a sub-reputation of Bat Ayin as being very militantly Zionist and ‘crazy.’ Although the yishuv identifies with the State of Israel and most boys here do army service, many settlers will protest the government’s actions when other yishuvim are dismantled or other things are done that they disagree with.
“Because of our background and our desire to connect to G-d on a very deep spiritual level,” Penina explains, “we felt drawn to this place. The rest of it is just style, not substance. I felt the moment we got here that the older generation wants a very deep connection with Hashem, although that’s not necessarily true in an outward sense of the kids who were brought up here. Every community has its issues with keeping the next generation on the derech.”
Living in Bat Ayin has turned out to be a learning experience for the Taylors, as they discover new aspects of themselves. “The independent spirit here is one of the things I love about Bat Ayin,” Penina says, who soon found herself gardening vegetables. She also noticed that many families have a chicken coop and enjoy their own organic eggs, and decided to raise them herself. Penina’s neighbor sold her a few chickens and she learned how to care for them by watching lots of Youtube videos. “The first time I collected an egg from my own chicken, it was the most amazing thing,” she exclaims. “It’s an incredible thing to know that the eggs are from chickens that are well treated and that we are not contributing to tza’ar ba’alei chaim, which is unfortunately the case in the mass production of eggs.”
Penina sums up her feelings towards Bat Ayin’s community: “It’s the rav who sets the spiritual tone for the entire yishuv. He has a unique blend of spirituality and being down to earth and accessible. Penina also loves Shabbat on the yishuv. “When you go to shul on Friday night, you can feel that the women are there to connect with Hashem. There is a joy and love of Shabbat and a love of your fellow Jew. I sense that the people who are drawn to Bat Ayin have a purity of spirit, and that they are here to connect to Hashem on a level you just don’t see everywhere, and that is very attractive to us.”
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As I take leave of Penina and head back to the midrasha, I reflect on what I appreciate about Bat Ayin. One thing I find enjoyable about living in the yishuv is the peace and quiet, both day and night. When I leave my caravan, nature surrounds me, with only the chirping of birds, barking of dogs, and crowing of chickens to break the silence. A neighboring horse likes to neigh at night, and every so often I hear donkeys braying. Dogs in the yishuv roam freely, to some settlers’ chagrin. Much to my surprise, I once saw a young boy atop a donkey riding around by himself. That is Bat Ayin!
Many artists and musicians reside in Bat Ayin and I often hear violin or other instrumental music coming from people’s homes. Sunsets are beautiful. It is a true wonder to watch the sun set with its brilliant hues seeming to stop and disappear before reaching the horizon. Someone pointed out to me that if you look carefully, and from the proper angle, you can make out vertical lines in the distance. These are the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, seemingly floating in the heavens! To me, it is symbolic of Bat Ayin itself, a place where some of the most sincere people I have ever met endeavour to create a place for Heaven on