A Leap of Faith

A Family's Journey From Pikesville To The West Bank

From Suburb to Settlement

Cover Story

July 17, 2005|By Story by Stacey Hirsh | Story by Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

KOCHAV YAAKOV, West Bank -- The white van rolled past cement barricades, past a barbed-wire fence and an armed guard at the entry gate, past rows of cream-colored houses with red-tile roofs before pulling to a stop. Glenn and Gilla Jasper, a young Orthodox Jewish couple from suburban Baltimore, had reached their new home.

About 16 hours before, on a cold day in New York last December, the Jaspers, along with their five small children, had boarded a plane with some 230 other Jews from North America making an aliyah -- Hebrew for "going up," or immigrating to Israel. They had said an emotional goodbye to family and friends and left behind a comfortable life in America to fulfill a years-long dream of making a life in Israel. Banners and speeches at both John F. Kennedy International Airport and Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv had honored their journey as noble and historic.

But now, after all the tears and revelry, after a sobering ride from the airport through a military checkpoint, the Jaspers were arriving at their new home. Unlike all the other immigrants on their flight, the former Pikesville residents were moving beyond the so-called Green Line to the West Bank, the disputed territory that is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. Their destination: Kochav Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish settlement of about 400 families just seven miles from Jerusalem but a world away from their former life.

As the Jaspers and their tired children -- two boys and three girls, none older than 7 at the time -- climbed down from the van that sunny afternoon, three women from the community waited to greet them. Through a wrought-iron gate, past lemon and fig trees and tomato plants, the Jaspers trickled in the side entry door to the first-floor apartment they were renting in a simple two-story house. The door was decorated with signs in English: "Welcome home Jaspers!" and "Welcome to Israel."

The apartment, with its bare white walls, cold tile floors and four small bedrooms, was a far cry from the expansive home they'd sold back in Pikesville. There, they'd had a library, a circular driveway, a two-car garage. Here, with most of their possessions yet to arrive, they had only what neighbors had provided: some beds, a crib and desk in the bedrooms, a table and some plastic chairs in the dining room, some eggs and vegetables in the kitchen.

The previous tenant had left something too: a bumper sticker on a bedroom door. In Hebrew it read: No Arabs. No bombs.

It was a stark reminder of the reality of the new life they'd chosen. By becoming West Bank settlers, they were entering the heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aligning themselves with a movement seen by many as a major roadblock to Middle East peace. And they were doing so at a time when more unrest was likely: the Israeli government plans to move more than 8,000 settlers out of their homes in Gaza this summer and remove settlers from four small West Bank settlements.

Palestinians and human rights organizations say the settlers have taken land not legally theirs and displaced others by doing so. But for the young couple from Pikesville, whose religious convictions had intensified over the past few years, the politics of the moment mattered far less than the ancient mandates of their faith. Like many of the almost quarter-million Jewish settlers in the West Bank, they believe it is land promised to them by God long ago.

Acting on those convictions puts the Jaspers among a tiny minority of America's 6 million Jews. Of that number, a few thousand at most immigrate to Israel each year. A mere handful of those immigrants end up in settlements on the West Bank.

Less than a decade before, Glenn, 33, and Gilla, 34, wouldn't have imagined moving here. On their first trip to Israel together in 1997, suicide bombers set off explosives on the same block in Jerusalem where they had eaten lunch just minutes before. When the bombers blew themselves up, they killed four other people, injured nearly 200 and left the visitors from America stunned. Glenn and Gilla spent most of the rest of their visit inside, afraid to leave their hotel.

Now, seven years later, they and their children would make their home here. As in Pikesville, they would live in a close-knit Orthodox community, but behind a barbed-wire electric fence, and with one of their bedrooms outfitted with a heavy steel door to double as a safe room. Glenn would commute to a white-collar job at a public relations agency in Jerusalem, but would have to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint each day to get there. They would live alongside Palestinians, who chafe under Israeli military control.

Before they left Pikesville, Gilla tried to calm her fears about living here.

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