Sisters Tehilla, left, and Temima Jasper play in the front yard of their Pikesville rental home, two months before the family moved to the West Bank. (Sun photo by John Makely)
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 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. She told herself that anyone entering the settlement would have to pass through security. That the Palestinians working construction there would be constantly watched over. She hoped her home would be far enough inside the fence that any suicide bomber wouldn't reach it before blowing himself up. And she said she would never leave the settlement if she felt unsafe.
As she took in her new surroundings, that feeling quickly took hold.
"I love the apartment, and I love the people," she said after looking around. "But I'm never leaving."
Glenn, too, understood this new life would be a challenge. But God, he says, "will take care of everything."
It had been a long journey, and the Jaspers were drained. The children went to a neighbor's house to play, and Gilla began trying to make their new house feel like home. The first thing she hung was a small wooden plaque in the shape of a house. A poem was written on it in Hebrew:
In this house, there should be no sadness.
In this apartment, there shouldn't come any difficulties.
Within this door, there should be no panic.
In this area, there shouldn't come any arguments.
In this place, there should be blessing and peace.
Gilla Jasper had dreamed about moving to Israel for years. It had started after college in 1993, when she spent three months studying in Jerusalem. From her room, she could hear Orthodox Jewish men praying each morning, their nasal melodies evoking warm childhood memories of her Iranian grandfather at prayer. She delighted in seeing little boys in religious dress playing in the Old City, imagining children of her own someday doing the same.
Just days into her stay, she wrote to her parents: "[N]ow I have something to plan and save for. To live comfortably in Israel! (It may take 10 years but I'll do it!)"
For the passionate, dark-haired young woman from suburban Connecticut, it was a new feeling. She'd grown up in an Orthodox household; her father, an Iranian refugee, is an Israeli citizen. Her mother kept their house kosher, and Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Israel, was always in the backdrop of her life. But, while Gilla was observant in her teenage years, she hadn't been zealous about her faith. Now, she felt the urge to live a more observant life, to live in Israel.
She wouldn't return again, though, for another four years. Shortly after going back to the United States, she'd fallen in love with Glenn Jasper, a vibrant, outgoing young man she'd known as a child in Stamford, Conn. Glenn, a public relations specialist in New York, had grown up Orthodox, too, though he had no desire to leave America for Israel.
As they married and began a family, though, the couple found their commitment to their faith deepening. They sought out Orthodox communities, first just north of Manhattan in Riverdale, N.Y., and later in Stamford, Conn. Still, even when they made their first visit to Israel together in 1997, more than a year after they were married, Glenn was less than enthusiastic about Gilla's idea of living there. The bombing that narrowly missed them only solidified the feeling.
A turning point came in 2001, when a job offer from Ciena Corp., a telecommunications company in Linthicum, brought them to Maryland. On a visit, they discovered an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Pikesville, just northwest of Baltimore. There they found a welcoming community where rabbis taught that being in the Jewish homeland meant making history and friends supported those considering moving to Israel.
Within a few months of their arrival, Glenn joined a group from Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion synagogue on a week-long tour of Israel aimed in part at fostering aliyah.
Aliyah has long been a critical factor in the creation of a Jewish homeland, a place where Jews can supposedly live without fear of assault or anti-Semitism. There are commandments in the Torah, the book of Jewish teachings, that can only be fulfilled in Israel, and living in Israel itself is a commandment. Israel's law of return offers citizenship to any Jew who moves there.
The trip would change Glenn's outlook on moving to Israel forever.
A speaker who met with his group told its members that it was the job of the Jewish people to help prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah, the savior who some believe eventually will guide all Jews back to Israel. A guide took them on an emotional tour of the tunnels along Jerusalem's historic Western Wall, challenging them to help see Judaism's ancient temple rebuilt. The experience left Glenn sobbing.
Glenn also made his first visit to the West Bank. As his group toured a number of Jewish settlements, including a pair of outposts where a few settler families lived in trailers, Glenn found himself moved by the settlers' sense of purpose. He would lead a Sabbath service at one settlement, and send an e-mail home to friends:
"16 families. Yup. 16. In trailers. And let me tell you right now that these people are not there for the low cost of entry. They are not there to prove a point to [Yasser] Arafat and the world. They are there because they are pioneers. They are settling the land promised to their forefathers. I'm telling you! According to them, this is not a political maneuver. ... They treated us like royalty, because our [synagogue] has provided them with some funding. But you know what? We should be treating them like royalty."
By the time he'd returned to Pikesville, Glenn was convinced that he and Gilla should make aliyah. The emotion of the moment, though, would be tempered by practical concerns. Leaving behind family and friends, giving up the life they had built, concern over the seemingly endless cycle of violence in Israel - all weighed heavily as Glenn and Gilla debated living there.
But so did the words of the prayers they recited each day, a litany of pleas to God to let Jews return to their homeland.
"I just started to feel really, really embarrassed to say these prayers and have them be empty," Gilla said.
Glenn, too, was growing more and more devout. He prayed three times a day and went to synagogue every Friday night, often taking his oldest son, Ezra, with him. He raised money for various Zionist and settler causes, donating some of it to an outpost he had visited on the trip with his synagogue that had so moved him. He joined Torah study groups and made its hundreds of commandments the guide to his life, down to the ritual he followed to put on his shoes each morning.
He had taken to heart a lesson taught by one of his rabbis in Pikesville. "Judaism is not something you do," Rabbi Shmuel Silber once said. "Judaism is something you are."
The decision to make the move finally came when a struggling Ciena Corp. laid Glenn off. It was a sign from God, the Jaspers felt. They set in motion their plan to move, a process that would take nearly 18 months.
Once they had decided to go, Glenn and Gilla researched communities on both sides of the Green Line before deciding on Kochav Yaakov (pronounced ko-HAHV yah-KOVE). Established in 1984, it began, like many other settlements, as a handful of trailers. Today it is a community of about 400 families in mostly permanent homes, along with several synagogues, schools, a market, pizzeria and hardware store. About 10 percent of its residents are English-speaking, and homes sell for about $150,000. It also includes a newer neighborhood, Tel Tzion, 900 mostly Hassidic Jewish families in permanent apartments.
Kochav Yaakov is one of an estimated 140 Jewish settlements now on the West Bank, all erected since Israel captured the territory in the Six-Day War of 1967. Last year, about 232,000 Israeli settlers were living in the West Bank, more than double the number there 11 years earlier, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington. More than 10 times as many Palestinians - about 2.4 million - lived there last year.
Many settlers have moved there for religious reasons. But Philip Wilcox, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, estimates that about half of West Bank settlers are there for economic or lifestyle reasons. Polls have indicated that many of the nonreligious settlers would move back to Israel if offered financial compensation in the event of a peace agreement, he said.
As they prepared to move, the Jaspers tried to focus not on the politics, but on practicalities. They chose Kochav Yaakov, they said, primarily because it was affordable and close to Jerusalem, with an observant Orthodox community. That it was beyond the Green Line, that they might be seen as a "cancer," as Gilla had seen settlers referred to, worried them. Still, they expressed no doubt that the West Bank was part of Israel.
"We have applied for Israeli citizenship," Glenn explained a few weeks before the move. "We're going to have Israeli license plates on our cars. People sending mail to us will address it within the country of Israel. It's not going to say settlement. ... We very much think it's Israel. Absolutely."
On their first night in Kochav Yaakov, Glenn had a nightmare that someone broke into the settlement. The next night, he dreamed he had left his new home's doors unlocked.
On another night early on, Gilla heard an announcement being made in Hebrew over a loudspeaker. She remembered hearing that warnings about security breaches were broadcast that way. She frantically called a neighbor, only to learn that the voice was coming from the neighboring Hasidic community, announcing a coming event.
Over the weeks and months ahead, their initial unease would lessen. In their first weeks on the West Bank, it turned out, the Jaspers' biggest worries were little ones. There were new routines to learn, even for simple tasks. To take a shower in the morning, Glenn had to wake up at 4 a.m. and flip a switch to heat the water.
Shopping was less difficult than they'd heard. The settlement's grocery store was well stocked; it had things that Gilla had been warned might be impossible to find in Israel. The local hardware and variety stores were filled with household supplies. The mall in a nearby community had trendy shops with blue jeans and slippers for the kids. Before shopping, though, customers had to walk through a metal detector and past a guard with an Uzi.
The Jaspers' new neighbors in the settlement went out of their way to make them feel welcome, inviting them to Sabbath dinners, having their children over to play. The Eilbergs, a family from Baltimore who had moved to Kochav Yaakov six months before, had them over for a visit. A woman who works in the settlement helping new families adjust took Glenn and Gilla to open a bank account and register for health insurance.
Meanwhile, Glenn began working almost immediately in the Jerusalem office of Ruder Finn Inc., an international public relations firm. He'd interviewed with the agency months before, but was offered the job on the flight over from America: Nefesh B'Nefesh, the group that had organized the Jaspers' flight, was a Ruder Finn client. Part of Glenn's new job would be to help publicize the organization, which aimed to increase the immigration of American Jews like himself to Israel.
Most mornings, he would commute an hour by bus to his office with a view of Israel's parliament building, and stay until well after sundown. By the time he arrived home, the children were often asleep.
The Jasper children adapted quickly to life in Kochav Yaakov, making new friends, climbing the rocky terrain of their new surroundings. Still, entry into their new culture was sometimes bumpy. On the first few days of school, then 5-year-old Tzvi cried, clinging to his mother. No one in his class spoke English, not even the teachers, and he didn't want her to leave. On Ezra's first day of school, he received what Glenn and Gilla had learned was a typical "greeting" for new boys in Israeli schools: being hit by other boys for no apparent reason.
Within weeks of their arrival, there was also some bad news from home: Glenn's grandmother had died. He called every day for days after he heard the news, and wrote something to be read at the funeral. Still, it wasn't the same as being there.
"We knew these kinds of things would happen," he said. "We just didn't expect them to happen this fast."
During their first Sabbath in Kochav Yaakov, the Jaspers enjoyed a potluck lunch on the settlement. In nearby Ramallah that same day, to honor the 40th anniversary of the militant Palestinian group Fatah, members of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, black ski-masks covering their faces, marched in the streets, shooting guns in the air, chanting, "We sacrifice our life for Palestine."
Kochav Yaakov is closer to Ramallah, headquarters for the Palestinian Authority, than it is to Jerusalem. So close that, on a visit to the settlement before moving there, Glenn was able to watch from a rooftop as longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was airlifted by helicopter from his tattered compound for medical care just before he died.
Closer still to Kochav Yaakov is the Palestinian refugee camp Qalandya. It is a stark contrast to the Jaspers' settlement. Outside the camp, a military checkpoint where cars are examined is crammed with taxis and pedestrians. Makeshift storefronts with dirty mattresses and cages of turkeys out front dot the littered entry road. Inside the camp one day, men sat in a barren coffee shop, sipping coffee.
Nour Nafe'e, 30, lives here, on the edge of the camp. Since Kochav Yaakov was built 20 years before, he said, the settlement has expanded before his eyes. He has seen new homes go up and new roads appear.
"Every time we do see more and more new buildings," he said. "They took the whole mountain here."
Khalid Shahin, 37, a Palestinian father of five children, lives even closer to Kochav Yaakov, in a small house just across the road. He has lived there since 1983. Now, he said, if his children play near the settlement's barbed-wire fence, soldiers shout at them and tell them to go home. He also said that at various times, Israelis have wrecked his house and destroyed his car.
Inside settlements like Kochav Yaakov, though, the grievances of Palestinians are overshadowed by settlers' own concerns. Glenn and Gilla, in fact, have come to see settlers themselves as victimized, forced to live behind fences and armed guards in order to protect themselves.
This essential disagreement has long been the way of life here. Both Israelis and Palestinians tell stories of the conflict's tension and bitterness boiling over into everyday life. But even as the Jaspers were making their home here, the landscape appeared to be changing.
In February, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a cease-fire. Then in March, Israel shifted control of two West Bank towns to the Palestinians (one since re-occupied) - part of an now suspended agreement for Israel to pull back in four West Bank towns. This summer, Israel plans to begin moving more than 8,000 settlers out of their homes in Gaza.
The movement has already been met by much protest, from demonstrations in the streets across Israel to hard-line Israelis moving into areas marked for evacuation this summer. Though many settlers are opposed to this plan, a majority of Israelis would trade the settlements for peace. Sixty-seven percent are in favor of a peace agreement that includes dismantling most of the settlements, according to a public opinion poll conducted in March by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
About 75 percent of Palestinians view the Gaza pullout plan as a Palestinian victory, according to the poll.
"If a new peace process comes about ... settlements will be right on top of the Palestinian agenda, so [settlers] indeed are right in the middle of it, wittingly or unwittingly," said Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.
Inside Kochav Yaakov, Gaza is a constant topic of conversation. Glenn and Gilla say they don't plan to join protests in Gaza this summer. But Gilla's perspective on the pullout has changed. Back in Pikesville, she had said that she thought moving settlers out of Gaza would be a positive step. Now she fears it could be the start of giving the Palestinians even more of the West Bank - including, someday, Kochav Yaakov.
"It's such a stress on our minds because now we live it," she said. "This is much more real. It's very intense."
For his part, Glenn has begun making a quiet protest of his own. Attached to his briefcase is a baseball cap. In Hebrew, it reads: "A Jew does not expel another Jew."
A few weeks before the Jaspers' move, friends and neighbors had gathered for a going-away party in Pikesville. A pair of rabbis spoke, and friends gave them a scrapbook full of encouraging messages. "It's hard to find the words to express the sentiments we feel - admiration, empathy, and envy come immediately to mind - watching you prepare to fulfill the dream of ourselves and so many others," one family wrote.
Gilla gave a speech too, thanking God and their friends. But the evening had already made her homesick. Standing in the kitchen at the end of the night, she said: "Now I don't want to go."
For the Jaspers, like many who make aliyah, perhaps the most difficult challenge of their new life was an emotional one: leaving family and friends behind.
For many who move to Israel, separation from loved ones is a prime reason they do not stay. About 40 percent of Americans who move to Israel return home within 10 years, experts say. Glenn and Gilla wanted desperately to avoid being one those statistics.
Before they moved, they made plans for their families to visit. They set up their home telephone with a U.S. number so friends and family could phone without the international calling charges. And they kept family in their thoughts and prayers.
In their first days on the West Bank, the Jasper family visited the Western Wall, the holiest site for Jews to pray. At the wall, men and women pray separately, in areas divided by a barrier.
The women, lined up shoulder to shoulder, stood close to the Western Wall, pressing their hands and faces up against it. They rocked back and forth, eyes closed, and prayed. Gilla took the hand of her 4-year-old daughter, Tehilla, and placed it against the wall. Tehilla took the hand of her little sister, Temima, and did the same.
On the men's side, Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled napkin. "Please HaShem," he wrote on it, "make our savta better." He was asking God to heal his grandmother, Gilla's mother, who had been battling cancer.
He stepped up to the Wall with his younger brother, Tzvi. Its ancient cracks were crammed with thousands of notes, scribblings of people's most private hopes and prayers. Ezra took the napkin and found a place to add his.
By May, the Jaspers had taken several steps toward making Kochav Yaakov their permanent home. They bought a car, and purchased a house, one bigger than the apartment they had been renting. They'd also become more involved in their boys' schools, and in a charity clothing exchange on the settlement, working with Glenn's mother to donate money and clothing in memory of his late grandmother.
More than six months into their new life now, they say they miss friends and family, though some have already been to visit. And though they still use English at home, Glenn and Gilla say their children are beginning to speak - and even think - in Hebrew.
Many of Gilla's fears about living in the West Bank have diminished. She regularly drives to the nearby mall and into Jerusalem with the children. Glenn notes that the family has taken to sleeping with the windows open.
When the family made a trip into Jerusalem one day early on, Glenn and Gilla went back to Ben Yehuda Street, the spot where eight years before, they had just missed a suicide bombing. Now, on this same street, they bought frozen yogurt with their children.
In many ways, the Jaspers say, they are living the life they dreamed about.
Gilla knows there are people who disagree with her decision to live there. She says she tries not to focus on them, to stay instead in her bubble of family and friends and those who share her way of thinking. Glenn is more direct: Had he known what he does now when they were planning to move to Israel, he says, he would have set out to live in a settlement from the beginning.
If anything, his time on the West Bank has only reinforced his Zionist beliefs. On a right-wing Israeli news Web site this spring, he posted a commentary:
"We're crazy settlers," he wrote. "At least, that's what everyone tells us. That's what the newspaper says. That's what the new 'security fence map' shows. That's even what relatives say when we invite them to visit us. But it's strange, because I don't feel like a crazy settler. I do believe there are crazy settlers. I just don't think I'm one of them."
The truly crazy, he argued, are those who say they are Zionists yet decide not to make their life in Israel.
"I'm just living the life of someone who takes seriously the words of our prayers and of our Torah. I believe that this is the land promised to our forefathers, and that it is where all Jews should be living."
More than six months into his new life, Glenn says he is proud to be living in Kochav Yaakov. He is sure that living here, his faith will continue to grow and deepen. He's not as sure what that might mean for his politics and activism. For now, he says, he is taking things day by day, and feels certain that God has a plan.
Not long after his arrival in Kochav Yaakov, Glenn had walked to the hardware store to buy a frying pan. On a shelf near the pans, next to some cordless phones and CD-ROMs, sat a black pellet gun with the word "DEFENCE" written on its side.
Glenn says he can't imagine ever carrying a gun. But he wonders how living here might change him, from his standard white-collar attire to his philosophies and beliefs.
"I've been thinking about a lot of those questions. Not just would you carry a gun, but how my opinions on the situation might change based on being here," he said. "And how I dress and how we go about being parents. All this kind of stuff ... it's going to be challenged."
From the hardware store that day, Glenn walked up a small hill to a ritual bath used for purifying utensils. He immersed his new frying pan into the rainwater and blessed it, as dictated by the Torah. Then he walked back to his cream-colored house with the red roof, to his wife and his five little children, to whatever might lie ahead.