The members of our tour stood staring at the "special" bus to Hebron, which was armored with bulletproof windows. It was my first time going there and my pragmatic side piped up in a quiet voice: "Do you really want to get on such a bus? Is it really worth risking your life to visit Hebron?" My thoughts bubbled like a hot teapot. "Yes," my courageous side responded. "It's our holy Jewish land, even if others want to rob it from us. The day of a person's passing is destined, and it won't happen if it's not time." I was sure that G‑d would protect me. Feeling like a martyr willing to stand up for G‑d's truth, I ascended the stairs of the bus for my first visit to our ancient city.

Sarah decided that her son was meant to be buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of HebronAs the bus made its way to Hebron, our guide, Esti Herskowitz, told us a story about Sarah Nachshon, wife of the great Jewish artist Baruch Nachshon. In 1975, Sarah gave birth to Avraham Yedidya, who tragically passed away of crib death when he was only six months old. When Sarah discovered her lifeless baby, her husband was away and she couldn't contact him. Grieving and on her own, she made preparations to bury her baby. She reminded herself that everything G‑d does is for a good reason, even if that reason is beyond our limited understanding. She decided that her son was meant to be buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron, where no one had been buried since Arabs attacked the city and murdered 67 Jews in the 1929 Massacre.

The funeral procession of cars proceeded from Kiryat Arba, a suburb of Hebron founded in 1971, now home to 8,000 Jews, but the procession encountered roadblocks; Israeli soldiers had been ordered to prevent the burial in the ancient cemetery, lest it anger the local Arabs.

Esti related that Sarah got out of the car holding her deceased baby and told the soldiers that if they wouldn't let them drive to the cemetery, they would walk. The mourners got out of their cars and started to do just that. Senior army officials ordered the soldiers by walkie-talkie to stop the funeral procession, but the soldiers responded that the officials would have to come and stop Sarah themselves. One soldier got out of his car and offered to drive her to the cemetery, which was too far a walk.

At the cemetery, Sarah told the hundreds of people in attendance: "I, Sarah, am holding my dead baby, Avraham, in my arms. Just as Avraham, our father, came to Hebron to bury his Sarah, so too, I, Sarah, have come here to bury my Avraham. At this moment, I know why G‑d gave me this irreplaceable gift for only six months – to reopen the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron."

Hebron had been the home of Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah, I remembered. They were all buried in Ma'arat HaMachpela, Cave of the Patriarchs, as were Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah. Our sages say that our prayers ascend to heaven through Hebron.

The Torah tells us how Caleb went to Hebron to pray at the holy burial site so that he wouldn't fall in with the mindset of the ten spies sent to scout the land of Israel who'd brought back unflattering tales of the land the Jewish nation was about to conquer.

Arriving in Hebron

Rabbi Danny Cohen overlooking the city of Hebron
Rabbi Danny Cohen overlooking the city of Hebron

Esti and the leader of our Chabad tour to Israel, Rabbi Laibel Baumgarten of Long Island, radiated excitement as the bus carefully navigated the hilly, curvy road. Finally, we were there! Amid a cluster of small buildings, the door of the bus opened and a man greeted us with a warm smile. It was Rabbi Danny Cohen, Chabad emissary to Hebron, who serves the soldiers with a strong yet gentle presence. Some 50 soldiers attend his Friday night Shabbat meals each week. His many programs include making rounds to the army bases to put tefillin on soldiers and nightly visits to the lone army posts with a "coffee squad."

The wall, Danny told us, was a memorial for eight-month-old Shalhevet PasBorn in Brooklyn, Danny settled in Israel with his family when he was six. When he came of age, Rabbi Danny served in an IDF combat unit and eventually became a sergeant. Danny spoke words fueled by passion and longing, history and hope, as he reached out to minds that had not yet been touched by crucial truths that seemed so distant from their daily lives. We climbed off the bus and an oppressive feeling descended on me from the surrounding buildings. Then we looked up and saw a wall decorated with a baby carriage made of pastel stones that looked soft as a baby blanket. The wall, Danny told us, was a memorial for eight-month-old Shalhevet Pas, who was gunned down in 2001 by an Arab sniper from an adjacent hilltop. I remembered this incident well.

The memorial to Shalhevet Pas radiated life, and its existence was proof of the normalcy that Jews were bringing to the neighborhood. The snuffing out of her innocent infancy brought out the senselessness of her murder and that of all the others assassinated by cowardly deeds.

Chabad's Presence in Hebron

We walked up a hill past a small Arab cemetery and into a very old room, the "Mitteler Rebbe's Shul," whose walls had recently been redone with a decorative arrangement of stones. The Mitteler Rebbe (1773-1827), the second Rebbe of Chabad, had raised money for and supported this shul and the Jews in Hebron. He was imprisoned in Russia for his fundraising activities, and was falsely accused of sending funds to the Turks, who ruled Israel at that time and were enemies of Russia.

"We're still using it 180 years later. Celebrating his gift is a special thing," says Danny.

As we sat around the table, the rabbi told us that 30 years ago, the Rebbe wrote to the artist Baruch Nachshon, telling him that the way to conquer Hebron—not only spiritually, but physically—is by learning Torah and Chassidic teachings in Hebron. Danny now has a Torah learning program in Hebron. The program is located in "the most strategic part of Hebron," says Danny, past the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida and the ancient Jewish cemetery, at the far end of where Jews are allowed to journey. Everyone, including the army, can see the men walking up to the synagogue, staying to learn Torah and Chassidus, and coming down.

Gravesite of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel
Gravesite of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel

The Mitteler Rebbe called for Chabad Chassidim in Russia and Safed and Tiberias, holy Israeli cities, to move to Hebron to concentrate their presence there. In 1819, many Chabad Chassidim from Russia moved to Hebron. The Mitteler Rebbe's own daughter, Menucha Rochel, also fulfilled her dream of moving to Hebron. In 1845, after her father had passed on, and her cousin, the Tzemach Tzedek, was Rebbe, she and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Kuli Slonim, left the city of Lubavitch and made the move with a contingent of Chassidim to settle in Hebron. On the day they left, it was raining, and she told the Tzemach Tzedek that she wanted to wait until the rain would stop. He told her that she should not delay, and the rain would not fall on her. She followed his instructions, and indeed, though it was raining, it is said that no rain fell on her carriage for hours.

Jews and Arabs alike would seek her advice and blessingsShe was the matriarch of the Chassidic community in Hebron until her passing in 1888. She lived in the home of her oldest son, Rabbi Yehuda Leib, in what became known as Beit Schneerson. Jews and Arabs alike would seek her advice and blessings. Today, the renovated Beit Schneerson is home to several Jewish families. We were sitting in the midst of Jewish history. Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel was the great-great-grandmother of Rabbi Baumgarten, and today was her yartzheit, he told us. Later, we prayed at her resting place in the historic Chabad cemetery.

The Avraham Avinu Synagogue

The nearby Avraham Avinu Synagogue was built in 1540, subsequently destroyed by Arabs in 1929, and rebuilt in recent times. The rabbis took us inside, opened the ark, and showed us the ancient Torah scrolls that had survived the massacre and pillaging of 1929; they are considered the crown jewels of the community. As we sat in the lovely synagogue, we were told the story of its destruction and rebuilding. In 1619, a plague had broken out in Hebron; many fled, while others died of disease. In a book entitled "Emek HaMelech" (Valley of the King), printed in 1648, it is written that on the eve of Yom Kippur, there were only nine men in the synagogue. They were waiting for a tenth man so they could pray together, but many of the locals had gone to Jerusalem. The sun was setting and the men were sorrowful because there was no minyan. Then, they saw an old man walking toward them from a distance. They were overjoyed and honored him greatly, offering him a final meal before the fast, but he said he had eaten already. They were then able to pray with a minyan.

A Torah in the Avraham Avinu Synagogue
A Torah in the Avraham Avinu Synagogue

After Yom Kippur, they drew lots to see who would have the merit to host the guest at the break fast meal. The chazan (cantor) —a man who merited wondrous dreams and visions—was selected, and he led the guest to his home, but when he turned to let the guest enter, the man was gone. They searched, but couldn't find him.

That night, the cantor saw the old man in a dream. He told the cantor that he was Abraham and had left his grave to enable his children to pray with a minyan, because he had seen their distress. When the men from the synagogue heard this, they were overjoyed and blessed G‑d. From then on, they called the synagogue the Avraham Avinu Synagogue.

Israeli authorities repeatedly persecuted and arrested Tavger for his work to excavate the synagogueAfter the 1929 Massacre, few Jews were found in Hebron until after the 1967 Six Day War. When the Jews returned to Hebron, they found that the Avraham Avinu Synagogue had been destroyed. The site was being used as a goat pen, a public latrine, and a garbage dump. In 1975, a physics professor, Dr. Ben-Tzion Tavger, immigrated to Israel from Russia with plans to build a physics lab. Instead, after visits to Jewish sites in Hebron, he got a job as a guard at the Jewish cemetery in Hebron. There, he discovered fragments of the tombstones of the martyrs of the 1929 Massacre strewn along the edge of the cemetery and near Arab homes. Professor Tavger wrote in his book "My Hebron" that Arabs destroyed the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. "According to documents," he wrote, "the functioning of the goat shed within the synagogue had been approved by the Israeli authorities." Someone had signed a lease with an Arab to use the site of the synagogue to house his animals. Tavger dug in the animal shed and debris that covered the site, and began excavating the ruins of the synagogue.

Through a twist of distorted logic, IDF soldiers had been ordered to guard the goat shed, latrine, and garbage dump instead of the site of the ancient synagogue and cemetery. Israeli authorities repeatedly persecuted and arrested Tavger for his work to excavate the synagogue. "How had such a disgraceful process come about?" Tavger asks in his book. "The government had assigned guards to attack me... Jews had lied with barefaced audacity in order to keep the goats in the place of the synagogue. Many times the trials had been held in military courts."

On Rosh Hashana, 1976, the synagogue site was cleaned up, and prayer services were held there, but right afterwards, the synagogue was declared a closed military zone. Many Jews were arrested while praying amidst the excavation.

Jewish Growth in Hebron Today

Even today, "The community unfortunately isn't able to grow," Danny relates. "There are restrictions. Building is impossible. Arabs are allowed to build freely in areas around us, but Jews… are forbidden. People have a false idea that in Hebron and surrounding areas, Jews are living in homes that Arabs deserted and that the Jews "stole." Danny explains: "The truth of the matter is, whoever comes and visits, I can show them the property deeds. Jews in Hebron are all living in Jewish properties from the 1800s and 1900s; some go back even earlier. These were all Jewish homes that were abandoned in 1929 after the pogrom, when the Arabs destroyed the community." Arabs then took over the Jewish properties.

Only 3% of the city is open to Jewish transportation and settlementPeople have misconceptions that in Hebron, Palestinian rights are overlooked to allow Jews to live there, adds Danny. In fact, the opposite is true; only 3% of the city is open to Jewish transportation and settlement, and 97% of the city is Arab. Jews are not allowed to pass through Arab areas. While in most of the world, Jews are allowed to buy property, the Israeli government still forbids many Jews to take possession of their estates or to buy property in Hebron, Danny observes.

For example, the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, where Danny lives, "is a huge area of Jewish land." Nobody, not even Arabs, disputes that this neighborhood was owned by Jews who lived in Hebron before 1929, but the Israeli military—the defense minister—has not allowed it to happen. "There's a whole army base on one side and a whole row of Arab stores that are sitting on top of a property that, if you check the registry in Israel—and I did that—it says [the properties are owned by] 'Yosef [Yitzchak] and Shalom [DovBer] Schneerson,' the Previous Rebbe and his father!" The properties are registered to them till this day.

Hebron: A Microcosm of the Middle East

Danny talks about the discrimination Jews are subject to in Hebron. He said that while Arabs build as much as they want, Jews are forbidden to build even small structures. Hebron is like a microcosm of the whole Middle East situation, says Danny. There is one square mile populated by 500 Jews, which is the site of 4,000 years of Jewish history, surrounded by nearly 200,000 Arabs who state falsely that we have no claim there. Hebron, therefore, gets more negative media coverage than any other place in Israel, so the Israeli government is always nervous about having a large, strong Jewish community there.

Now it's Israeli military law—not the Israeli government's law—that governs the Hebron area, so all the Jewish properties are under the jurisdiction of the military authority. "It doesn't matter if you have the deed," Danny continues. "Here, any action needs approval from the defense minister, which, unfortunately, most of the time is a political decision, not a security one."

In 2008, some 400,000 people visited HebronWithout difficulty, Danny could find supporters who would build or buy a building for a Chabad House in Hebron that would serve over 1,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of tourists on a monthly basis. In 2008, some 400,000 people visited Hebron. Danny would like to see the same number of Jews who visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum "to come and experience Hebron: the past, the present, the future."

Returning to Hebron in 1979

Beit Hadassah
Beit Hadassah

It wasn't until after Passover of 1979 that Jews began living in Hebron again. Sarah Nachshon—the same woman who had buried her baby in Hebron—and Miriam Levinger led a group of 10 mothers and 40 children in the middle of the night from Kiryat Arba through dangerous Arab areas to Hebron and into a former medical center called "Beit Hadassah," which was built in 1893 and in 1979 stood empty and dilapidated. The building originally housed a clinic, pharmacy, small synagogue, and an elementary school. It had been devoid of Jews since 1936, when the Jews who returned to Hebron after the 1929 Massacre were driven out by the British.

They stayed there for a whole year, whereupon a terrorist attack emboldened the Israeli government to let Jewish life begin again in HebronThe women pioneers brought minimal supplies. They climbed a ladder and entered Beit Hadassah through a second floor window. There was no running water or electricity. In the morning, when the children began to sing, IDF soldiers discovered them and ordered them to leave, but they refused. The soldiers called their superiors and a cabinet meeting was held with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who ordered that no supplies be given to the women and children. Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Miriam's husband, went to Jerusalem and argued that even during the Yom Kippur War, when the IDF surrounded an enemy army, they allowed life-sustaining supplies to be given to the opposing forces. PM Begin then assented that supplies be brought to the women and children. They could leave Beit Hadassah, but would not be allowed to return, and so the women continued living there under siege.

Several months later, Sarah Nachshon wrote to the Rebbe to ask if they should stay in Beit Hadassah, considering the difficult living conditions and the fact that no progress had been made toward reestablishing Jewish residency in Hebron. On his mother's yartzeit, the 6th of Tishrei, the Rebbe said at a public farbrengen (gathering) that only G‑d could answer Sarah's question. The Rebbe couldn't instruct them to live under such conditions, but he was certain that just as G‑d had granted the wish of Tzelafchad's daughters to receive their father's inheritance and settle in the land (Numbers 27:1-8), He would grant their desire to live in Hebron.

After some months, the women were allowed to come and go from Beit Hadassah. They stayed there for a whole year, whereupon a terrorist attack emboldened the Israeli government to let Jewish life begin again in Hebron. In May 1980, yeshiva boys were coming from Friday night prayers at Ma'arat HaMachpela to make kiddush for the women at Beit Hadassah. Just outside the building, they were attacked by terrorists; six boys were killed, seventeen injured. The Israeli government then granted the women and children in Beit Hadassah freedom of movement and allowed their husbands to join them. They also permitted Jews to move into Beit Schneerson and other Jewish properties at that time. Beit Hadassah was renovated at a cost of $1.5 million, thanks to a public fundraising effort. Today, Jews live in apartments there, the synagogue is functional, and it contains a museum and memorial for the 67 Jews from Hebron who perished in the Massacre of 1929.

Hebron is a place that inspires people, makes them proud to be Jewish, and helps them feel more connected to their Judaism when they go home, says Danny. The community continues thousands of years after Abraham, in difficult circumstances, and, "still, people are walking around happy and feeling a great sense of mission, knowing how important it is to be there… I always tell people that if you come to Israel and don't see Hebron, it's like eating an ice cream without the cherry."

Tel Rumeida, a Unique Hebron Neighborhood

Continuing our tour, we walked through Tel Rumeida, a Jewish neighborhood, till we reached an orderly arrangement of unearthed stones. This was an excavation of the ancient palace of King David, Esti explained. King David was anointed in Hebron and ruled there for seven years before becoming king over the entire Jewish nation. The burial site of Ruth was nearby, but Esti wouldn't take us there, because that area was considered dangerous. Near the excavation, we saw a giant coffee urn standing on a shelf attached to a house. The urn was riddled with bullet holes. Esti said that the Hebron Jewish community used this urn to provide hot drinks for their Shabbat guests. One Sunday, before they cleaned up after Shabbat, the urn was still outside, when an Arab terrorist down the road shot 30 times. Thank G‑d, none of the bullets hit any Jews—they all struck the coffee urn—so the community calls the urn "Nes Café," after Nescafé coffee. ("Nes" is the Hebrew word for "miracle.") As we stood by the urn, we heard the Arab muezzin calling Muslims to prayer over loudspeakers, and it was eerie to realize we were surrounded by them, but just couldn't see them sequestered in their homes.

Visiting Ma'arat Hamachpela, Cave of the Patriarchs

Inside Me'arat Hamachpela
Inside Me'arat Hamachpela

We soon got on the bus to Ma'arat Hamachpela, the cave where our patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. We parked on the street and got out of the bus. We lifted our eyes and saw the holy Ma'arat HaMachpela, which the Torah records as the actual site that Abraham bought to bury his dear wife Sarah. In the Torah, G‑d promised Abraham that his children would inherit the Land of Israel (Lech Lecha 17:8), and Hebron is part of Biblical Israel. One of Maimonides' 13 Principals of Faith states that: "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the moshiach, and though he may tarry, I await him every day." Peace will then reign in the whole world because everyone will be able to perceive G‑dliness, the prophets declare.

What a privilege to finally reach this place!Our group passed through the gates that were guarded by young IDF soldiers, boys and girls, bearing machine guns, who searched through our bags. I entered the enormous building with awe, knowing that our holy forefathers and foremothers were there. King Herod built the base and walls of the structure above the cave in the time of the Second Temple in 3730/30 BCE. Beginning in the 13th century, Jews were not allowed to enter the cave, and those who ventured beyond the 7th step were executed. What a privilege to finally reach this place!

The interior was arranged with rooms for each of the patriarchs and matriarchs. In each one, I tried to connect with that particular soul. As I prayed for my needs, I felt the tears being pulled from my eyes. This site and the Kotel, the Western Wall, are the holiest places in the world, where the spiritual and material meet, and prayers are lifted straight to heaven—not lifted high in physical terms, but borne from one dimension to the other. If not from these places, from where on earth would our prayers be answered? And tomorrow we would go to the Kotel, to Jerusalem, where G‑d's Presence dwells—all of us together.

For more info, exciting news and pictures, visit the Chabad Hebron website.