In February 2022, an old friend named David Ha’ivri told me that he was coming to Miami to raise funds for the Jewish community of Eli in the Binyamin region of Judea and Samaria. Comprised of 5,500 families, Eli is one of the fastest-growing communities in the area. Its credo is “The Land. The Dream. The People.”
On March 31, I met Eli’s Mayor Ariel Elmaliach for the first time. We both felt an instant bond. As he talked about Eli, its humble beginnings and its vision for growth, my eyes lit up.
I am not one of those American Jews who believes that Israelis building on Israeli land is an impediment to peace. In fact, I don’t think the pace of building is fast enough. When I said this to Ariel, it sparked an instant friendship.
I immediately got involved in small fundraising projects for Eli and did whatever I could to use my network to help as well. Throughout 2022 and 2023, Ariel and I kept in touch on a monthly basis.
Then Oct. 7 happened. One of my first calls was to Ariel. I asked him if there was anything I could do and let him know that I was there to help with whatever was needed.
I recall him saying something along the lines of “Come to Eli, bring your people here to support us.”
On Jan. 11, I did exactly that via a World Zionist Organization and Young Jewish Conservatives solidarity mission.
We had high-level meetings with several Israeli Knesset members, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Yuli Edelstein, Danny Danon, Israel Katz and Ofir Akunis. We toured Kibbutz Kfar Aza and the Nova Music Festival site, both the sites of horrific massacres; as well as the town of Ofakim. We crisscrossed the country for four days to let the Israeli people know that we love them and stand with them.
Of course, I had reached out to Ariel beforehand to arrange a visit to Eli.
Our schedule was tight, and we had only one day to spare at the end of our mission, but nothing was going to stop me from bringing a group to Eli.
On the hour-long drive from Jerusalem on Highway 60, many of us were exhausted mentally and physically. We were running on fumes, but there was a sense of excitement. We passed the historic town of Shiloh and the famous Psagot Winery. Then we were at Eli’s security gate and we made our way up the hill to the town center.
Unfortunately, Ariel wasn’t able to greet us, but we would see him later.
Once arrived, we met with IDF commanders, Eli families and the owners of a shop where I proudly purchased a new tallit and tefillin bag. We also ate some of the best schnitzel we ever had.
We were then taken to Eli’s situation room or, as they refer to it, the “peace room.” We were greeted by 20 to 30 soldiers who gave us a briefing on how they keep Eli safe. They showed us the high-definition camera system that automatically detects any type of movement on the perimeter of the town. It then prompts computer operators to review the footage and make a snap decision on whether it indicates a threat or not. These desks are manned at all times.
When the briefing ended, I was halfway out the door when I stopped and turned around to give an impromptu speech in which I thanked the soldiers for keeping Eli safe. I got emotional when I told them that while they might not feel that the Jewish Diaspora supports towns like Eli, I certainly do, as do many others. You could see the emotion on their faces when they heard a Jewish American tell them to keep building Eli for what was probably the first time in a while.
Finally, my dear friend Ariel arrived. Our embrace was everything I expected it to be. I thought that Ariel might be wearing a suit jacket of sorts, but he arrived wearing military fatigues with the same smile on his face as when we first met.
Ariel is leading a major expansion effort in Eli that is supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many others in Israel. In June 2023, the Israeli government authorized the construction of an additional 1,000 homes in the town. The decision came after four Israelis were murdered on the outskirts of Eli on June 20.
Towns like Eli are the future of Israel. Diaspora Jews need to visit it to see with their own eyes how beautiful the community has become in such a short period of time.
We must support the people who populate these towns and not fall for false narratives about how places like Eli are the reason there is no peace in Israel. There is no peace in Israel because one side glorifies life while the other glorifies death.
To the people of Eli and my dear friend Ariel: We are behind you not just today or tomorrow, but forever. Am Yisrael Chai. Am Eli Chai!