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Home at Last

Joel and Donna Zeff packed up their family and left the fast-paced, secular rat race of L.A. in search of a haven. They found it in the embattled West Bank.

June 30, 1997|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALON SHEVUT, West Bank — The move from Westwood to the West Bank was a natural for Joel Zeff and his wife, Donna. For years, the question the Orthodox couple had asked themselves was not if they should move their family to the land of their Jewish forefathers, but when. And finally, where.

The Zeffs left Los Angeles for Israel in 1994 for the same reason millions of Jews from around the world have migrated to the Middle East in the last half century: to take part in what Joel Zeff calls "the greatest Jewish adventure in 2,000 years"--the building of a Jewish state.

Housed in a temporary "absorption center" for a year, the couple searched for a community that would provide a safe environment for their children and a comfortable standard of living. "We wanted a place where we could buy an apartment, raise our family and just sort of get old," Donna Zeff said.

They found their haven in the embattled West Bank.

Never mind that Joel Zeff passes an Israeli army checkpoint to get to his teaching job at the David Shapell College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem each day, or that the community the family settled in is enclosed by a barbed wire fence and an electric metal gate.

Forget the bomb that exploded at the bus stop out front a few months back--that can happen in London or Tel Aviv--and forget that Palestinians frustrated with a broken-down peace process also claim this land as theirs.

The Zeffs have never felt safer than in Alon Shevut.

"This is really a suburb of Jerusalem. . . . It is like a small town in the United States in the 1950s," Donna Zeff, 39, said one morning in the final days of pregnancy with her seventh child.

A small college campus would be a more apt description. Alon Shevut offers an encapsuled life to its residents--modern Orthodox Jews who, like the Zeffs, wear modest dress, keep kosher and honor the Sabbath.

It is a separate reality of manicured lawns with pink oleander trim, of crimson rose beds and tiger lilies. Paved footpaths connect the Zeffs' apartment building to a central plaza with a post office, bank, grocery store, health clinic and synagogue whose picture windows open to the ancient Judean hills.

"If you look around, you almost don't see Arab villages," said Joel Zeff, formerly the rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla Congregation. "There are 17 Jewish communities lumped together here. You don't look out and see a hostile population. You see a Jewish population and feel comfortable."

Minimizing contact with the Palestinians--and potential clashes--was one reason the Israeli government bulldozed a new "bypass" road from Jerusalem to West Bank settlements such as Alon Shevut last year. The $42-million highway tunnels beneath the Palestinian village of Beit Jala and swings past Arab olive groves into the hills with bands of stone like tree rings marking the centuries. Israelis may drive the highway, but Palestinians are not allowed.

Alon Shevut, part of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements built in the 1970s, looks like what the Israeli government undoubtedly hopes the controversial Har Homa development in east Jerusalem will become in another 20 years: A large, deeply rooted and seemingly permanent Jewish community on the ruddy land captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.

Unlike the Har Homa project, which has brought about a halt in peace negotiations because the Arabs believe its development violates the spirit and letter of the accords, Alon Shevut was raised on the ruins of Jewish communities wiped out by Arabs during the final days of Israel's War of Independence in 1948. For that reason, and its proximity to Jerusalem, even liberals in the former Labor governments that forged landmark peace accords with the Palestinians envision annexing the Gush Etzion bloc to Israel in a final peace agreement.

But the Palestinians insist that all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem should be turned over to them for an independent state, and, so long as there is no peace treaty, West Bank residents such as the Zeffs are seen by most of the world as settlers in occupied territory.

The Zeffs do not see themselves that way, of course. Like most devout Israelis, they call the West Bank by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, and see the land as a Jewish birthright. Although they say politics did not motivate them to settle here, they were more than happy to give up the Southern California "good life" to help populate this disputed territory.

"I look at these hills and they have Jewish meaning," Joel Zeff said. "The Santa Monica Mountains are pretty, but they have no Jewish meaning."

The family lives in a five-bedroom garden apartment with a splash pool and Little Tikes toys in the yard. Armed sentries at the front gate and a gaily painted bomb shelter near the front door are facts of life in Israel. To the Zeffs, the important thing is that their children are free to walk to school without a chaperon and safe to play in the park alone. And they are close to their Jewish roots.

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