Stroking the stone archway, Eliyahu Eidenov's face glows with satisfaction. "I did this all myself," says the stonemason, pointing at the ceiling and walls that he personally designed.

Giving us a tour of the room he designed, Eidenov relates that the Hebron, Israel, building was purchased by the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneerson, of righteous memory – known as the Rebbe Rashab – in 1909. Known as Beit Romano, it was built by Chaim Yisroel Romano, a businessman from Constantinople in the mid 1870s.

A few years later, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber sent a group of students from the Russian town of Lubavitch to learn in the building, thus establishing the Chabad yeshivah of Torat Emet. The complex of apartments and halls was in addition to other properties that belonged to the Chabad community in Hebron.

Following the Arab riots in the city in 1929 – which happened only a few days after a visit to the city by the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory and resulted in the murder of several students and teachers of Torat Emet – the surviving Jews of Hebron fled. The remaining Torat Emet teachers and students moved to Jerusalem.

The building was returned to Chabad-Lubavitch, its legal owners, in 1981. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in turn transferred use of the property to the Jewish community. Today, Yeshivat Shevi Chevron uses part of Beit Romano. The Israel Defense Force and the police use the rest.

Rabbi Danny Cohen, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Hebron, worked together with the building's current occupants to establish a library there in memory of the Rebbe Rashab. Located on Beit Romano's first floor, the Heichal HaRashab library contains writings by all of the leaders of Lubavitch, including its namesake.

Eidenov, who designed the library, helped rebuild other Chabad properties in the city, including the famous Beit Knesset Avraham Avinu synagogue that the Second Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Dovber, of righteous memory – known as the Mittler Rebbe – purchased.

Moscow's Stonemason

Eliyahu Eidenov at work in his studio (Photo: Ezra Landau)
Eliyahu Eidenov at work in his studio (Photo: Ezra Landau)
Born in Moscow during the height of Communism, Eidenov says that the only reminder of his Jewish identity growing up was the taunts of other schoolkids, who called him derogatorily a zhid.

He counts as his first authentic exposure to Judaism a meeting with a Lubavitch refusenik, who asked him if he wanted to put on tefillin. The man gave Eidenov some Jewish books, thus beginning a lifelong journey. Some time later, he chose to be circumcised in secret and began to pray daily.

"An emissary came one day from New York and told us that the Rebbe wants us to build a mikvah in the Marina Roshtza synagogue," says Eidenov, who was shocked at such a possibility during Soviet rule.

The Rebbe directed that the construction should begin as soon as possible, according to Eidenov; he and Sasha Lukatzki, who was one of the leaders in the Jewish underground in Moscow, personally took on the mission.

Lukatzki went across the street to where construction workers were building a complex for the Russian Interior Ministry and asked two workers there if they wanted to earn some additional money.

"They came at 2 a.m. and they dug a deep hole by the morning," relates Eidenov. "They did not take out any of the dirt from the synagogue, as they did not want bring any attention to the digging."

Eidenov was later recruited to work on the mikvah, his first contracting job. "That was the first time I did stone work," he says.

It turned out that the mikvah's construction took place when the Russian government was on its summer vacation. After authorities realized what had taken place, they filled the mikvah with dirt and placed tiles over the top.

"They wrote to the Rebbe in New York asking what they should do," Eidenov says of the Jewish underground. "The Rebbe's response was that they should explain what the significance of a mikvah is as a religious ritual, and that it is not a political symbol."

Half a year later, government inspectors came and dug the mikvah anew themselves. The tiles used to seal it up eventually were used to build a podium in the synagogue for holding a Torah scroll during services.

Eidenov, though, moved on from Moscow and settled in Israel in 1991, doing odd jobs to get by until he was called on to renovate the synagogue of Menuchah Rochel, daughter of the Mittler Rebbe and known as the matriarch of the Chabad community in Hebron.

Since then, the stonemason has filled his resume with renovation projects throughout the city. He says that when Cohen asked him to build the library it "was a very emotional experience."

Says Eidenov: "I felt like I was bringing the place back to the way it was before the 1929 pogrom."