KIRYAT ARBA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank - Raphael "Rafi" Blumberg contemplates the next possible dramatic turn in a life that brought him here from Glen Avenue in Baltimore and remarks that God has a sense of humor.
"Life is entertaining in the sense of not being certain what can happen tomorrow," he says. "If you look at it with detachment, you can enjoy it."
But the prospects are not very enjoyable these days for Blumberg and thousands of West Bank Jewish settlers whose fate is on the bargaining table between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David.
Firmly rooted in this Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the ancient city of Hebron, Blumberg, 44, sees nothing good for him, his family or his neighbors emerging from the Camp David peace summit.
"I'm optimistic that [Barak] will fail," he says.
Camp David poses a crisis for the three-decade enterprise inspired by a dream of settling Jews throughout the Biblical Land of Israel, "between the sea and the Jordan" - most important, Judea and Samaria, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The fate of thousands of settlers hangs in the balance.
Successive Israeli governments, defying world opinion and Arab fury, have either tolerated or encouraged expansion of settlements in the Palestinian heartland, allowing their populations to exceed 175,000.
But the Barak government knows it can't keep many of the settlements and expect peace from Palestinians demanding a coherent state in the West Bank and Gaza. At best, the government hopes to preserve large settlement "blocs" near the borders that Israel held before the 1967 war.
Like his sister Rivka, who lives with her family in another West Bank settlement called Elon Moreh, Blumberg has heard reports that the homes of 50,000 settlers, if not more, could fall outside sovereign Israeli territory in a final peace agreement. If this happens to them, it would mean being uprooted or living under Palestinian rule.
"It's not that I dislike peace, it's that the terms being created are unnatural and unlikely to lead to what I think of as peace," says Blumberg.
From Northwest Baltimore
Raised on Glen Avenue in Northwest Baltimore within a tightly knit Orthodox community, Blumberg believes that this land was given to Jews by God and speaks with reverence of the shrines that make Hebron the second holiest city for Jews after Jerusalem.
But it was convenience that first drew him here. Studying at a yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement outside Jerusalem, about to get married, he found an opportunity to live rent-free in an absorption center here.
Sixteen years later, owner of an apartment and the father of four, he is attached and says his spiritual connection has deepened. His children speak Hebrew at home. His father, Dr. Arnold Blumberg, a retired professor from Towson University, and his mother, Thelma, have an apartment at the settlement and spend five months a year visiting their grandchildren here.
Blumberg's reddish-gray beard and skullcap identify him with Kiryat Arba's many devout Jews. But his scholarly mien and soft-spoken manner contradict the settlement's image of angry militancy.
By day, he is writing a book about a beloved teacher at the Talmudical Academy in Baltimore, which he attended. The teacher, Rabbi Baruch Milikowsky, was among the students from the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania who were rescued with the help of American Orthodox Jews and sheltered in Shanghai, China, during World War II. The book project is financed by wealthy alumni of the school.
Blumberg also translates Hebrew leaflets into English. He works in a separate cluttered apartment that he shares as an office with a scribe who prepares Hebrew documents by hand.
At night and on weekends, he helps in child-rearing duties with his wife Mona, an English-language secretary at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. Sabbath dinner is special. When his oldest son gets onto a heated political topic, Mona Blumberg is likely to say, "That's too much. Let's hear Torah thoughts," and Blumberg will deliver comments on the weekly Torah reading.
The family frequently has students as weekend guests, and Blumberg will walk with them on Saturday mornings to Hebron's holiest shrine, the tomb of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.
Cheek by jowl with the bustling Hebron marketplace, the shrine has for years been a source of violent tension between Kiryat Arba and its surrounding, overwhelmingly Muslim, Arab population, for whom the tomb is the Ibrahimi Mosque. Muslims also consider Abraham their patriarch.
The tension of Hebron has exploded many times, killing Jews and Arabs. One of the worst of those events was in 1994 when a deranged Kiryat Arba doctor, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque during a packed service and sprayed the Muslim worshippers with automatic weapons fire, killing 29 and wounding more than 100 before he was set upon and beaten to death.
Blumberg, who knew Goldstein slightly, says he did "a terrible, terrible thing" and is not among the Kiryat Arba zealots who frequent the killer's grave. "The vast majority of people [here] viewed what he did as negative," Blumberg said, speaking slowly and trying to avoid a "character assassination."
Accentuating the positive
But he prefers to dwell on the positive aspects of what he insists is "a nice place to live," a tranquil, well-landscaped community that now boasts boys' and girls' high schools drawing students from all over Israel, new institutions and an Olympic swimming pool.
Compared with his Baltimore neighborhood, so homogeneous that people differentiated themselves based on where in Poland their forebears were born, this settlement is diverse, containing many secular families, some professionals and a polyglot mixture of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Europe, America, North Africa and Ethiopia, he says.
Apart from when he was a student at the Johns Hopkins University, or attending Orioles or Bullets games, "I would go weeks, except for buying gum at the Giant, when my social contacts were almost entirely Jewish," Blumberg says.
His sister, Rivka Livnat, also feels life on the West Bank would be hard to give up. The mother of six, ages 5 to 15, this elementary school teacher turned homemaker enjoys a community where her oldest child can leave to visit a friend at midnight without her parents' worrying.
She shares a modest, tree- and shrub-cloaked home at the Elon Moreh settlement with her husband, No'am, an eighth-generation Israeli who studies and teaches the Torah at the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva at Joseph's Tomb in nearby Nablus, which they call by its Hebrew name, Shechem. No'am's sister, Limor, is a prominent Likud party member of parliament who served as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's minister of communications.
Although she enjoys her infrequent visits to Baltimore, her children have never been there, and she has no thought of sending them to the United States for school.
In her element
A summer afternoon finds Rivka Livnat in her element, fixing lunch in the kitchen and bantering with a houseful of children home on vacation. As she sits down for an interview, her 5-year-old comes over for a hug. She, her husband and daughters dress in ultra-Orthodox style.
She wears a long skirt and long sleeves, and her head is totally covered in a stretch kerchief. No'am wears a skullcap, black trousers outside of which hang the white cords, or tsitsit, attached to a garment worn under his shirt.
Almost silent at midday, Elon Moreh sits isolated atop two steep, rocky hills on a mostly empty West Bank ridge. Its telltale rows of identical beige stucco buildings and orange roofs mark it from afar as a Jewish settlement. No'am, who was badly injured in the Israeli Army, was one of the group that established the first Elon Moreh outpost on the rocky terrain in the mid-1970s, defying a Labor government torn over yielding occupied territory to the Palestinians. The government eventually allowed the settlers to build a permanent community nearby.
"We believe in practicing the Torah. One of the commandments is, 'Israel is ours and we should live there,'" says Rivka Livnat, referring to the biblical land of Israel. "It's a privilege and also an obligation." With time, the small, relaxed community, its schools and neighbors, have become home to her.
With just over 200 families, no large stores or gas station, Elon Moreh is isolated, all the more so because its residents venture into the Palestinian city of Nablus with trepidation. To study, No'am and fellow students drive to a nearby Israeli military base, where an escorted bus takes them at precise times to Joseph's Tomb, depositing them just a few feet from the gate.
Two months ago, a member of the settlement was shot while driving a half-mile away.
"The purpose of a thing like this is to make traveling impossible," Rivka Livnat says. Her husband disagrees: "I think the purpose is to kill Jews."
Both Blumberg and the Livnats recall, as newcomers, enjoying better relations with local Arab merchants before the Intifada erupted in the 1980s.
Blumberg bought a used refrigerator in downtown Hebron when he first moved here. "We don't do that now. We're afraid of getting a knife in the back." No'am Blumberg was always wary of going unarmed to the market in the city of Nablus, and his wife avoided it altogether. But once, she recalls, a salesman allowed her husband to take a box of eyeglass frames home so his wife could choose the one she liked. "I don't think you'd find that in Baltimore," she said.
But it's been years since they shopped in Nablus. "Since there's so much peace we can't go there," she says with a trace of sarcasm.
Preparing for trouble
Both families are anxious about the future. The Israeli army is preparing settlements in the event of a collapse of the peace process and resulting violence, training some settlers in riot-control techniques and handing out rubber-coated bullets.
Meanwhile, each settlement defies fate by building - a school and homes at Elon Moret, sleek multistory buildings at Kiryat Arba.
They don't know what they would do if a peace agreement is reached that deprives their settlements of Israeli government protection.
"I would have to see what the conditions are. I wouldn't put my children in danger," says Rivka Livnat. Her brother recalls the words of a rabbi some years ago: Asked when settlers should pack up and leave, he replied, "When Jews are being killed every week."
But neither family rules out the possibility of staying where they are, even if it means living under Palestinian rule.
"I would have to discuss it with my father and my friends," said Rafi Blumberg. But he quickly added, "It doesn't sound like why I came to Israel. I didn't come to be a subject of Yasser Arafat."