There are those who envision observant Jews as passive people who study the Bible, pray, and patiently await what the Almighty gives them. Yehudah Etzion defies this stereotype.
Born to pioneering parents, Avraham and Yaffa Mintz, z’l in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, Yehuda was always a visionary. It was after the Yom Kippur War that he became one of the founders of Gush Emunim, the movement committed to settling Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. He was instrumental in first establishing the community of Elon Moreh, northeast of Shechem and then Ofra, located in the heart of Israel. It is in Ofra that he has lived for the last four decades with his wife, Chaya, and raised his seven children. It is Chaya, as a special-education teacher, who is the main supporter of his many visions. A visionary may change the world but he doesn’t receive a very large income.
Yehuda is an observant Jew and he studies and prays three times a day, for G-d to “Blow the great shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather in our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth.”
Yehuda Etzion doesn’t just pray. He doesn’t just envision. He acts. At this point in time the vision closest to his heart is facilitating the in-gathering of the exiles. The corner he’s concentrating on is Ethiopia.
The first wave of immigration from there was between 1977- 1984 with Operation Moses. Scores of Ethiopians had made the trek from their homes in the north to Sudan. This trek was usually made by foot amid all sorts of dangers, including starvation, disease, and murder. Once in Sudan the Israeli government sent in planes to rescue them and settled most of the Ethiopian immigrants in Absorption Centers.
Operation Solomon took place in 1991 and brought another one thousand or so Ethiopians home. According to Yehuda there were many more left behind and the State of Israel is ignoring them. The official line is there’s doubt about the legitimacy of them being truly Jewish. He refutes that line stating that there are three hundred and fifty thousand non-Jewish Russians who were absorbed into Israel. He’s sure the problem is not the Ethiopians’ Jewish heritage but rather their skin color.
That tragic sentiment galvanized him into action. He’s gone to Gondar, in northern Ethiopia twice this past year, once for a month and once for two. While there he built a study group teaching youth and teachers about their Jewish heritage, preparing them for coming home.
He’s also politically active trying to get more Ethiopians out before the upcoming elections. In addition he works with some of the potential immigrants on an individual basis bringing them home as tourists. That means all their needs, housing, job training, medical, and schooling, must be met with private donations. It’s a full-time job but it’s not Yehuda’s only job.
Another project is publishing the papers of Shabtai Ben Dov who died in 1978. A member of the Lehi, Ben Dov sued the government following the Six-Day War after Israel returned control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Waqf. He didn’t win that lawsuit and Yehuda is continuing his fight. As he says,
“Where the state doesn’t go, I go.”
It pains him that the situation on the Temple Mount is more or less the same as it was before 1967, when all of eastern Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation. In his eyes it’s pitiful that Jews are forbidden to pray there and often arrested for simply moving their lips. In the nineties he began the organization, Chai V’Kayam, that encouraged Jewish worshipers to ascend to the holy spot.
Another one of his visions that require fund-raising is restoring some special beams. Forty-four years ago Yehuda heard a lecturer in the Ofra Field School speaking about ancient trees. The lecturer informed the audience that she’d seen evergreens and Cedars of Lebanon that were 2800 years old. These beams were tested using carbon dating, proving that they were indeed used in the First Holy Temple and even more impressive is that the cedar is the same cedar from Lebanon, spoken about in the Book of Kings,
“So Hiram gave Solomon timber of cedar… And Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders…prepared the timber and the stones to build The House.” (1 Kings 5:24-32)
They were later on used for construction of the roof of Al Asqa Mosque. Following the earthquake in 1927 they were discarded, sold to an Armenian scrapman, and ended up by the Atarot airport. Some of the beams had been destroyed to make pressed wood but others were still on hand. Yehuda purchased them immediately, brought them to Ofra where they are kept in storage, waiting for the money to refurbish them and use them in the Third Holy Temple when it’s rebuilt.
That is Yehuda’s main vision, the rebuilding of the Third and eternal Holy Temple. He shuns praying at the Kotel (the western wall) and he no longer joins the annual march around the walls on the 9th of Av for he feels both distract attention from the true goal.
Every year, Jews commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple by fasting on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which this year is honored from the night of August 10th until the night of August 11th. As we near the end of our fast, we include a special prayer in our afternoon service, a prayer bemoaning the desecration of the Holy Temple. We conclude it with,
“Blessed are You, HaShem, who consoles Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.”
These will not be idle words for Yehuda for he knows he is doing everything in his power to make our vision a reality.
“May our eyes witness Your return to Zion in compassion.”