On a recent visit to Israel, my wife and I journeyed across ancient planes of our nation's past. We began, of course, where every Jewish pilgrim does – the Western Wall. Strolling across the broad promenade, we feel the thrill of the sacred place. We imagine the wall in its glory days, our ancestors striding along Herodian paths; their footsteps echo in our ears. This is an exhilarating experience, but we are determined to see more.
We visit the Southern Wall excavations and tour the ruins of ancient shattered stone. The mournful heaps evoke images of marauding Roman legions, furiously attacking the sacred temple walls, toppling them from a height of nearly fifty meters, when thy destroyed the Holy Temple nearly two thousand years ago.
We tread along ancient footpaths, mount the original hewn-stone steps, and stand at the ancient gates of the temple. We visualize our great grandparents entering through these towering gates in their pilgrimage during the three great festivals. We explore huge water cisterns constructed by the Hashmoneans after their triumph over the Syrian Greeks in 140 BCE. We visit ritual baths carved into the bedrock; our ancestors bathed in these pools as far back as 420 BCE, during the first temple period.
Retracing the steps of Jewish history, we backtrack a few more centuries and explore an ancient water tunnel built by King Hezekiah in 701 BCE to protect Jerusalem's water supply in the face of an impending Assyrian siege. This tunnel was remarkable in that it was excavated in mere months by two teams, one starting at each end, who met in the middle--without benefit of radio or satellite signals.
We continue our journey and backtrack even further to tour the City of King David. David conquered this city in 1003 BCE and subsequently built his castle upon this site. This fateful site is the cradle of our nation. At this palace all twelve tribes gathered to surrender their autonomy and coalesce, for the very first time, into a single nation. We are overawed to stand at the foothills of Jewish history, but we are not satisfied. There is still more to explore.
We travel north of Jerusalem and even further back in time to a city called Shiloh, the site where Joshua established the tabernacle in 1280 BCE . The tabernacle and holy ark remained in this sacred place for 369 years. Standing on the hilltop we imagine beautiful Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, praying for a child. We ascend the very mountains that the runner climbed when he reported to Eli, the High priest, that the Holy Ark was taken captive by the Philistines. We collect ancient pottery shards that were perhaps used by relatives from our past in the offering of the Paschal Lamb. We stand atop ruins of the walls Joshua scaled when he conquered this city nearly thirty-three hundred years ago. The shards and stones tell a story of centuries and millennia past. Judaism comes alive under our footsteps. Old textbook tales take on the dynamic vibrancy of life. We are mesmerized, overawed, but still not content. There is yet further back to go.
We continue in our journey back through the ages and south of Jerusalem to Hebron, home of Abraham, the first Jew, who settled here soon after his arrival in the Holy Land 3,745 years ago. This is where G‑d appeared to Abraham. This is where the covenant of circumcision was struck. It was here that monotheism burst upon world consciousness. It was here that Judaism was born.
We stand on the very grounds where Abraham pitched his tent and enshrined the ethic of Jewish hospitality. We walk the footpaths that Sarah walked as she taught her students and raised her son. We visit the wellsprings that served Abraham, according to local legend, as a ritual bath.
Here we visit the Machpeilah cave, the shrine the Zohar labels "the gateway to heaven." Here we visit the graves of Adam and Eve. Here we pray at the tomb of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Here we also encounter a merging of ancient history and contemporary Jewish living. When we exit the Avraham Avinu Synagogue we see a sign one has come to expect in every city across the world. . . Chabad House. That's right. Only eighty-six Jewish families live in Hebron and they are served by Chabad.
I met with the Rabbi Danny Cohen, rabbi of the Hebron Chabad House and learned of another historical tale attributed to Hebron. A tale that holds deep resonance for me as a chassid of Chabad.
Purchased by the Rebbe
The Chabad House, the rabbi told me, is built on land otherwise known as the Ashkenaz Synagogue of Avraham Avinu. This land was procured by Rabbi DovBer (1773-1827), the second Lubavitcher Rebbe. This was the first in a string of properties purchased by Chabad over the years. A nearby army base sits on property purchased by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, (1880–1950), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. "Romano House," a sprawling building that currently houses a Rabbinical Academy, was purchased by Rabbi Sholom DovBer (1860–1920), the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. According to Rabbi Cohen, almost every Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty has purchased property in Hebron on behalf of the Chabad community. Many of these properties are located in, what is today, the Arab section of Hebron and are thus, for the most part, inaccessible to Jews.
Rabbi Cohen works diligently to reclaim Chabad properties in Hebron. A library, recently endowed by Chabad of Hebron and established on the ground floor of Romano House, showcases a list of Chabad's many properties across the city. The library also showcases documents and artifacts from Chabad's colorful Hebron history.
Chabad in Hebron
This history goes back to the first wave of chassidic emigration from Russia in the early part of the nineteenth century. Many of the original immigrants settled in Hebron. Though circumstances forced many to leave Hebron, the gravitational pull of the city attracted many more. For many years, Hebron was the headquarters of the Chabad community in Israel. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder and first rebbe of Chabad, founded the charitable foundation "Colel Chabad" (which exists and operates to this day) to support Jews in Israel. Rabbi Schenur Zalman, as did his successors, regularly sent funds to Israel to be disbursed among the poor and impoverished. These funds, raised by chassidim in Russia, were sent to the Holy Land and distributed throughout the land.
Gravesite of Rebbetzin Menucha Rachel Slonim, granddaughter of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in the old Chabad cemetery in Hebron
Opponents of chassidism alleged that the funds were sent to Israel, a province of the Ottoman empire, in a clandestine effort to support a Turkish invasion of Russia. The Rabbi Schenur Zalman was incarcerated in the fall of 1798 and tried for treason, but was found innocent and exonerated. On the 19th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, the day of his liberation from prison, the Rebbe was informed of the birth of his granddaughter, Menucha Rachel. It is only fitting that Menucha Rachel and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Slonim, emigrated to Israel in 1845 to lead the Chassidic community of Hebron. Her grandfather was incarcerated for sending funds to Hebron, and his granddaughter, born on the day of his liberation, emigrated to Hebron to further her grandfather's cause.
A large building at the center of Hebron's Jewish community bears the name, Bet Schneerson ("Schneerson House"). As its name implies, this building served as headquarters to the Chabad community of Hebron and by extension, the entire Chabad community of Israel. A plaque at the entrance to the building attests that the illustrious Menucha Rachel and her husband Rabbi Slonim resided in this building.
Menucha Rachel was revered by her Jewish and Arab neighbors alike for her piety and wisdom. She was believed to be endowed with unique spiritual powers, and Hebronites regularly sought her blessing, counsel and guidance. For thirty-five years, the rebbetzin served as matriarch to the chassidic community of Hebron, and when she passed away in her ninetieth year, she was buried in the Chabad cemetery of Hebron. Access to her burial place was restricted to Jews for many decades, but through Rabbi Cohen's tireless efforts, was recently made accessible to Jews. A Rabbinic Seminary was established at her graveside, where students are paid a stipend to engage in daily study. Efforts to refurbish an old building on the premises are nearly complete. The newly renovated facility will serve the Rabbinic Seminary as well as the many visitor making the pilgrimage to the illustrious rebbetzin's grave.
Working with the Soldiers
Hebron's Chabad House is unique in that it serves a community of deeply observant Jews. Living in Hebron is fraught with tension and often physical danger. The Jewish residents of Hebron are highly motivated in their ideology and deeply committed to their Judaism. They are people of profound faith and joyful observance. They already live the Judaism that Chabad teaches. They already breath the idealism that characterizes Chabad. What then does Chabad offer to this exceptional Jewish community?
Rabbi Cohen gave me all the answer I needed in two simple words. The soldiers.
Hebron is guarded by hundreds of soldiers that rotate through the city on four month tours of duty. The Hebron Jewish community enjoys excellent relations with the soldiers. They provide food and drink, friendship and hospitality. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Cohen go the extra step.
Before Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the Cohens drive their car through army checkpoints, road barriers and hostile neighborhoods to visit soldiers in remote outposts. The soldiers love these visits and make the most of them. The Cohens bring along Jewish music and the soldiers join in exuberant song and dance. They provide the soldiers with Shabbat candles and delicacies. They conduct Torah classes with soldiers, who often experience their first taste of Judaism in Hebron. They bring along tefillin and offer the soldiers, what is often a very first opportunity, to don them.
In a unique partnership with Chabad of Lyon, France, the Cohens have undertaken to provide a pair of tefillin at no charge to every soldier who commits to wearing them every day. The tefillin are provided by Rabbi Gurevich of Lyon and distributed by the Cohens in Hebron.
Every Thursday afternoon, Rebbetzin Bat Sheva Cohen engages in an ancient Jewish ritual that originated with our Matriarch Sarah in Hebron. Our sages taught that Sarah baked challah every week for her family and Shabbat guests. On Thursday afternoons Rebbetzin Bat Sheva invites the female soldiers to join in her challah baking expedition. They learn to fulfill the beautiful mitzvah of "separating challah." The learn the cultural art of braiding challah, and the culinary art of baking it. The soldiers are welcome to take their challah back to base or to return to the Chabad House on Friday night to join the Cohens for dinner.
Many of these soldiers experience their first taste of Shabbat at Chabad of Hebron. Every Friday night, the Cohens host upwards of forty soldiers on their terrace overlooking the dome of the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. The media portrays Hebron as a hot spot of clashes between Arab terrorism and expanding settlements, but catch the Cohens on their Friday night terrace and you are likely to hear joyous singing, friendly banter and profound words of Torah.
Rabbi Danny Cohen with a soldier
You can sense the camaraderie between rabbi and soldier. Driving through the streets of Hebron, Rabbi Cohen slows to a crawl and rolls down his window. The soldier, standing guard, saunters up to the car and, with a wide grin, greets his rabbi. The soldier, one of a wave of fresh recruits to Hebron, only met the Rabbi the previous weekend, but already they are on friendly terms.
"Are you coming for Shabbat," Cohen asks.
"I'll be on duty," the soldier replies, "but all my friends are coming."
"We need to set up some kind of study session," Cohen calls out as he drives off. The soldier smiles, waves and nods his agreement. Even as he resumes his post, the soldier's eyes linger on the rabbi's receding car.
Of course, Chabad of Hebron also serves the Hebron Jewish community. Every Shabbat the Cohens host an open lunch for the entire community at the tomb of our patriarchs, the Machpeilah cave. The Cohens are also at the forefront of the struggle to maintain and grow a Jewish presence in Hebron, the second holiest city in Israel. They work alongside the community to promote Jewish awareness of Hebron. They recruit groups from across the country to visit Hebron for Shabbat and work diligently to host these groups in the lavish spirit of Abraham, patriarch of Hebron.
Chabad also works closely with the Jewish community of Hebron to reclaim properties abandoned by Jews after the Arab riots of 1929. In the campaign to restore Jewish access to Hebron's holy sites Chabad is especially active.
The famed Chassidic artist, Baruch Nachshon, was the first Chabad chassid to settle in Hebron and he received the blessing and strong moral support of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After his first son was born in Hebron, he conducted the ritual of circumcision at the tomb of our patriarchs. This was especially evocative as the very rite of circumcision was initiated by Abraham in Hebron. At this time, the tomb was not as accessible to Jewish visitor as it is today. This publicly held service is widely viewed in Hebron as a catalyst that opened the tomb to Jewish worship.
The Jewish cemetery of Hebron was similarly closed to Jewish funerals and visitation. In 1976, the Nachshons experienced a terrible loss with the unexpected passing of their two year old son. Sarah Nachshon, resolved to lay her child to rest in Hebron's Jewish cemetery, pleaded for permission to bury her child. Unable to deny a mother in grief, permission was unofficially granted and so did Sarah, yet another Jewish Sarah, rededicate the abandoned and desecrated cemetery of Hebron.
Five years ago Arab terrorists shot and killed Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month old baby. It was a shot that was heard across the world, sparking demonstration and debate. Today, a haunting memorial stands at the spot where Shalevet was murdered, but the hills from which the shot was fired holds an even more evocative symbol – a Chanukah Menorah.
When the Israeli army established outposts on these hills, Rabbi Cohen received permission to erect a giant Menorah on the highest point of these hills. This permanent Menorah watches over Hebron year round and transmits a message of Jewish permanence.
During Chanukah, the festival of lights, the Menorah is lit up for all to see. It telegraphs a singular message for miles around. It is a signal of hope and faith, a signal of courage and inspiration. Qualities one must have to live in Hebron. Qualities found in abundance at Chabad of Hebron.