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Safed Diarist

Faith Hill

`Turn right after the central bus station," says Yaffa Smolensky, a new immigrant from Phoenix, Arizona, giving me phone directions to her home. "Then look for the staircase going up the hill--if it's still there." Yaffa and her husband, Moish have counted four katyushas whizzing over their home. In the first three days of the war, Safed was one of the hardest-hit towns in the Galilee, with several dozen katyushas fired, leaving two dead and many wounded. But the Smolenskys don't intend to seek refuge farther south, as many of the town's 27,000 residents have done. Members of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement, they run a food and clothing distribution center for Safed's poor. A neighbor arrives to say goodbye: He and his family are joining friends in a West Bank settlement. "The children are going crazy," he explains, apologetic about leaving under fire. He acknowledges the irony of seeking refuge in the West Bank: "These days, safety is relative."

YAFFA KNOWS THAT THIS IS ONE OF  those moments when Jewish faith is being tested. And so, she says, she sees the challenge as a blessing. She feels especially privileged to be in Safed, a city of the medieval Kabbalists that has drawn hundreds of contemporary mystics, many of them newly Orthodox, such as she and Moish. According to tradition, she adds, the messiah will come from Safed: She notes that the war against Hezbollah began at the start of the three- week period of mourning for the Temple, a time of heightened longing for the messiah. And, says Yaffa, he's coming soon: "When evil has its back against the wall, it will fight back with all it has. The terrorists are coming out all over the world because they know their end is coming. This is their last stand."

IN THE OLD SECTION OF TOWN--centuries-old stone houses and cobblestone streets and blossoming fig trees--the messiah is everywhere. Yellow flags imprinted with the word messiah hang from homes; the face of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, many of whose followers believe he will return as the messiah, appears on posters with the words welcome KING MESSIAH.

NOT ALL OF SAFED IS MESSIANICALLY charged: Many Russian immigrants, attracted to cheap apartments, have settled here. Yet even Safed's secularists aren't immune to the miraculous. "A katyusha hit the side of the mountain just below my house at 8:10 in the evening one night," says secular resident Moshe Rosenfeld. "And then another katyusha hit the same spot at 8:10 in the evening the next night. How should I know what it means? I'm not a prophet. But it must mean something." Perhaps what's really extraordinary is that he's still sitting on the steps of his house, refusing to budge. For all the wackiness here, the faith of Safed generates courage and good humor--precisely the qualities Israel now needs most.

ALONG WITH THE LUBAVITCHERS, THE other main Hasidic presence here is the Breslovers, whose nineteenth-century founder, Rebbe Nachman, taught that defiant joy is the essence of devotion. During prayers one evening in the Breslov synagogue, a katyusha fell so close that the building shook. Worshippers responded by praying with greater intensity. Aharon Haviv, a former scuba-diving instructor and now a Breslover Hasid, is strolling the near- deserted midday streets. In the distance is the muffled sound of Israeli artillery fire. "I'm a Jew walking in the land of Israel," he says, smiling broadly. "Why should I be afraid?" So far, no katyushas have fallen today, and besides, says Aharon, "You can't escape your fate. A grandmother and grandson were killed on the next hill. They fled from Nahariya [on the Lebanese border]. To be safe."

HE OFFERS TO TAKE ME TO MEET RABBI Elazar Mordechai Kenig, the spiritual leader of the Breslov community--"a true holy man," Aharon assures me. On our way, we pass an old man in Hasidic black, bent beneath the excessive light of the Safed sun. "You see that guy?" says Aharon. "He used to be the stage set designer for Frank Zappa." Rabbi Kenig, a hefty man with a gray beard and whirling sidelocks, tells me Safed's new miracle stories, such as the one about the family whose home was demolished by a katyusha on the very Sabbath they happened to be away. "Miracles are happening at every moment," he says, smiling. What about the miracles that didn't happen, I ask, like the death of the grandmother and grandson? The miracles that we are privileged to see, he responds, "are points of light that strengthen our faith. They help us say, `All of God's ways are righteous.'" The strength of Israel, he adds, "isn't in planes or nuclear bombs, but in the spirit. We're not like the goyim. Too many Israelis think there is no difference between goyim and Jews. Look at the lust of goyim to murder us." Surely there are some good ones, I suggest. "Of course," he concedes. "But our way is not theirs. The only protection for the Jewish people is learning Torah and doing good and more good. There are no other solutions--not war and not peace."

IN A PINE FOREST OVERLOOKING TOWN is the immigrant absorption center, which was hit with three katyushas, causing one injury. The immigrants here are all Ethiopian--Falash Mura, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity and who have returned to Judaism. An elderly man with missing teeth, wearing donated secondhand clothes, tells me he isn't afraid: God brought us home, and God will protect us.

THE DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER, ASHER Siyum, came from Ethiopia in 1984, at age 13, after walking across jungles to a refugee camp in the Sudan. Asher has become a hero of faith among the immigrants: One of the katyushas struck his office minutes after he left it. He shows me the office: shattered glass, unhinged doors, walls exposing insulation and wires. He points to a hole just behind his chair, marking where a katyusha fragment penetrated. "The immigrants say God must love me," he says. Yet Asher knows that true faith isn't the naive belief that God will always protect you, but accepting any outcome as the expression of His will. "When we left our village to walk to the Sudan," he says, "my father brought a shovel. I asked him why, and he says, `So that we'll be able to bury those who will die on the road and carry on to the land of Israel.' That's faith."

This article originally ran in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.