A different kind of settlement activity took place Sunday outside Rishon Lezion, Israel’s fourth-largest city. June 1 marked the groundbreaking for the Shtetl, the latest project by Holocaust survivor and historian Yaffa Eliach.
Seven miles southeast of Tel Aviv, in the heart of the Jewish homeland, Eliach plans to recreate her Lithuanian hometown of Eishyshok.
"I cannot tell you how I felt to be back on our land after 2,000 years to restore our great past that was destroyed," Eliach said from her Manhattan home hours after returning from Israel. "Now we can show the great Jewish past to the future generations."
A Brooklyn College professor emerita, Eliach chronicled the 900-year history of Eishyshok in her book "There Once Was A World" and created a composite portrait of the largely Jewish town in the Tower of Life at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Despite fund-raising challenges, Sunday’s groundbreaking signals that work will begin on the Shtetl’s marketplace and surrounding forest. Eventually, the 67-acre Shtetl is planned to include (in the mold of Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg) two synagogues, a yeshiva, Hebrew and Yiddish schools, private homes and businesses, a lake and a castle, which will house a museum dedicated to Jewish tradition and Jewish cultural contributions. The Shtetl’s presentations will cover nine centuries of Jewish life and to represent a range of communities: Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi, Yemenite, North African and Ethiopian.
Construction could start within the year, she said, and the Shtetl may be in full swing within 10, depending, of course, on funding. Eliach estimates construction alone will cost $100 million. But the Sept. 11 attacks and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict have diverted many prospective donors’ attention. "People are focusing more on assisting people who are wounded, on security, and not so much actually for life," Eliach said. "I focus on life."
So far, the Shtetl Foundation, founded in Dec. 1999, with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as honorary president, has secured a promise of $2.5 million from the Israeli lottery. Private donors have pitched in a quarter million. Eliach herself has provided $1.5 million from book sales and lecture fees.
The State of Israel and the 120-year-old city of Rishon Lezion donated the land, one of a dozen potential sites in Israel and Pennsylvania. Mayor Meir Niztan has embraced the project, which Eliach expects will create 400 jobs and streams of tourists.
Sunday’s ceremony drew 1,200 people by Eliach’s count, including the former chief rabbi, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.
The event was especially meaningful, Eliach said, falling as it does between Jerusalem Day, commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating Moses’ receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
"It is so symbolic that we are bringing Jewish life from the diaspora back to Israel," she said.