Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Consolation Eighty-One Years Later

Av 17, 5770, 7/28/2010
Consolation Eighty-One Years Later

This is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die
This past week I found Shabbat morning prayers at Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron to be particularly poignant.

There were three separate minyons taking place simultaneously. To my left, in the hall memorializing Ya’akov and Leah a family from Jerusalem celebrated their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The room isn’t very large, and it was packed from wall to wall. When the thirteen year old finished chanting the weekly Torah portion, festive singing filled the building, arousing joy even in the other, adjacent services. A piece of candy bounced off of my chair, outside that room and was quickly swiped by a child sitting nearby.

To the right of the central courtyard was another group of people praying, according to the Sepharadi traditions. They were also in the midst of a celebration; A fresh chatan and kallah, bride and groom, were in attendance. The young couple had married only days before, in the Machpela garden courtyard, outside the magnificent monument above the caves of the Forefathers. There too familiar sounds of delight reverberated throughout the building.

I sat in the courtyard, surrounded by festivity, but also lost in thought. As the Torah reading concluded, a familiar Hebron resident, Yossi Lebovitch, approached the podium, and taking the Torah scroll in his long arms, began reciting “El, Maleh Rachamim,” a special prayer repeated at the time of a yartzheit, the annual memorial of a relative’s passing.

Yossi’s resounding voice rose above the joyous celebrations of the other groups as he prayed for the soul of his murdered son Elazar, killed eight years ago this week, on the eve of his twenty first birthday. A soldier at the time of his death, Elazar was chauffeuring a newlywed couple, a close friend of his, to Hebron for the traditional Shabbat post-wedding party. A few kilometers outside of Hebron terrorists opened fire on his car, hitting and fatally wounding him.

When Yossi Lebovitch finished the short memorial for his son, he continued, again repeating the ancient prayer, this time in memory of sixty seven Jews slaughtered in Hebron eighty-one years ago this week, in the summer of 1929. Men, women and children were tortured and massacred by their friends and neighbors. Three days later the survivors, some of whom were saved by Arabs, were expelled from the city, bringing about an end to a Jewish community thousands of years old. A small group returned in 1931 but were evicted in the spring of 1936, being told that the Mufti, Haj Amin El Husseini, who led the 1929 riots, was again inciting against the Jews and their safety could no longer be guaranteed. From 1936 until 1967 Hebron remained Judenrein.

Every year, on the eighteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, people gather at the martyr’s plot in the ancient Jewish cemetery to mourn those killed decades ago.

The weekly Haftorah reading, from the prophet Isaiah, on the Shabbat preceding this anniversary, begins with the words, “Nachamu Nachamu,” “consolation, consolation.”

Where is our consolation?

My wife and I hosted, this past Shabbat, close friends of ours who live in Kiryat Arba. We’ve known them for many years and have spent much time together in the past. But this time was extra special.

Why so? My friend Shlomo is a Cohen, of the traditional ‘priestly caste.’ It is well known that Cohanim are forbidden from entering cemeteries, and for that reason Shlomo had never visited inside the building atop the caves of Machpela, despite his living in Kiryat Arba for about 25 years. However, lately, due to certain technical structural changes in the building, Rabbis have ruled that it is now permissible for Cohanim to enter this holy site. So, on Shabbat morning I escorted my friend, for the first time, into Ma’arat HaMachpela.

I cannot fathom the feelings of a person accessing this sacred site for the first time, but I could visibly see his excitement and emotions. It was a very special moment. Later I asked him what he felt, worshiping for the first time inside Ma’arat HaMachpela. He responded, “I remember the first time I went to the Kotel – the Western Wall, and this was certainly no less than that. I remember then feeling, ‘we are here – Am Yisrael is here.’ And that is what I felt now, at Ma’arat HaMachpela. The Jewish people are here, really here.’

That is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die, despite a two thousand year exile, despite the destruction of the primary symbols of our essence – the Temple, Jerusalem and Jewish independence in our land. We suffered exile after exile, torture and death at the hands of persecutors and crusaders, but refused to give up. Culminating, of course, with the most horrific moment, that being the Holocaust, and the most uplifting moment, that being the creation of the State of Israel.

This is not only solace; rather it is our response to the evil perpetrated against the Jewish people for thousands of years. Standing next to the graves of the dozens of martyrs slaughtered in Hebron, eight y one years later, we can truthfully declare: we are your consolation, we have come home, the Jewish people are here, in Hebron.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Av: Remember, never forget, Gush Katif - Five years ago - Blessings from Hebron - Blogs - Israel National News

Av: Remember, never forget, Gush Katif - Five years ago

Tammuz 29, 5770, 7/11/2010

Tonight begins the new month of Av, and with it, the next nine days of mourning, remembering the destruction of the two Temples, the Beit HaMikdash.
It's not easy to mourn, to feel deep sadness for events that occured thousands of years ago. We never experienced the sanctity of the Mikdash, and, as a result, really don't know what we're missing. That makes mourning it difficult.
However, our G-d has ways of helping us, whatever the situation might be. We might not be able to comprehend the magnitude of that loss, so HaShem gave us other events, not necessarily as great as the burning of the Mikdash, but serious enough to leave us with, at least, a minor impression of what really happened then.
And so it was, that five years ago, we experienced a Churban, a destruction, an expulsion. Not implemented by the Greeks or the Romans or any foreign power; rather by our own people; an act voted on in the Knesset, initiated by the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, approved by the national Supreme Court and carried out by Jewish soldiers and police.
This afternoon, during an interview, I said that the Jewish people waited 2,000 years to again have an army, Jews in uniform, able to defend themselves in the face of all danger. Yes, for Jewish warriors we waited, but not for those Jewish warriors to turn against their own people.
This churban, this tragedy, may not have been of the same magnitude of the destruction of the Temples, but the impression that it made, the amputation of a limb of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, an operation performed without any anesthetic, has left an open, bleeding, festering wound, which leaves us with, perhaps, a mild idea of what happened to the Jewish people two thousand years ago.
It assists us to mourn, as we will for the next nine day, culminating with the Tisha b'Av fast.
Just as we remember the destruction that happened thousands of years ago, so too must we remember that which occurred five years ago. I cry when I see photos of the destruction, but my heart breaks when I view Gush Katif, the Garden of Eden of the south, as it was, before the destruction.
The following seven minute movie is composed of 160 pictures that I photographed in Gush Katif, mostly of ordinary, everyday life, excepting the last few.
I wish I could say enjoy, but I'm sorry, I cannot. But I can hope and pray that we will learn from our errors, that we will never, ever, with our own two hands, perpetrate such a crime as was committed five years ago, and that our mourning should be transformed into joyous celebrations, as we witness the rebuilding of Gush Katif, Jerusalem, the Mikdash and all Eretz Yisrael, as fast as is humanly possible.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Hebron Triple-header

Tammuz 24, 5770, 7/6/2010

A Hebron Triple-header

Yesterday was a triple-header. Three very different games.

Sometime in the afternoon I discovered an item on the internet which, on one hand sent shivers down my spine, yet on the other hand seemed quite fitting for the days and weeks of mourning approaching the 9th of Av. The internet item sent me to an article in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. There I read about the former commander of the Judean region, Col. Udi Ben-Mocha, who concluded his two year stint in Hebron a couple of months ago.
Commander of the Hebron Brigade is considered to be a very prestigious job, and also very stressing. It is also one of the key positions needed in order to achieve major advancement in the IDF. For example, two of the leading candidates to replace the present Chief of Staff of the IDF are former Hebron commanders.

It is quite normal for commanders, following the completion of their duty in Hebron, to be given a year of study at some important university outside of Israel. Ben-Mocha chose to spend his year, with his family, in London. According to the news accounts, his bags were packed and they were ready to take off. Except that at the last moment the IDF’s top brass decided to put the brakes on the colonel’s plans, and cancelled them. Why? Because they feared that following Colonel Ben-Mocha’s arrival in Great Britain he would be arrested and charged with war crimes.

What a disgrace! The ‘mighty’ state of Israel, and a leading officer in the IDF have to ‘fear’ left-wing, Arab activists, who might file charges leading to arrest, trial and G-d forbid, imprisonment in a foreign country. It’s a good thing that David lived 3,000 years ago and not today, for if he had his battle with Goliath occurred at now, well, it probably never would have happened. Israelite commanders would never have allowed him to enter battle, fearing the international repercussions if he happened to be victorious. It wouldn’t have made any difference that his victory saved the kingdom; rather, the international arrest warrant issued via Interpol would have taken precedence.
This guy, former naval commando, could be convicted for one reason only: According to British courts, an Israeli officer is, by definition, a war criminal. But then, I guess he’s in good company. MK Tzippy Livni and former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon also had to cancel trips for the identical reason. The big question is, when will Israel put a stop to such humiliation, by, for example, threatening to arrest various English diplomats and businessmen in Israel, should our representatives there be put in the dock.

Well, that was the first event of my triple-header. The second was much happier and pleasant.

A few weeks ago, during one of my tours, a young man approached me, introduced himself as one of the group leaders and told me that in a couple of weeks he was bringing a Birthright group into Hebron – would I be interested in meeting them?

Would I be interested in meeting them? Birthright? Taglit? I looked at him as if he’d just arrived from the moon. Why such enthusiasm? Simple. Birthright’s been around now for a long time, and they’d yet to send a group into the city of the Forefathers.

But wait, what is Birthright – Taglit. Maybe some of you are unaware. The program was initiated about 15 years ago, and originally funded by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, along with the Jewish Agency. The idea of the program was simple: get Jewish kids to Israel. Well over 200,000 people from over 50 countries have already participated. Just about all costs are covered.

The program has two names: Birthright, which is fairly self-explanatory. The Jewish people’s birthright is Israel. Nothing could be clearer.

What is then, Taglit? Taglit is the Hebrew expression used, but it does not literally mean birthright or roots. Rather, it means revelation. In Hebrew, l’galot, means to reveal – hence Taglit is revelation. And what a revelation it is. People who barely knew they were Jewish leave Israel after 10 days to two weeks with an added neshama – a new soul, (as it is written, a person who walks 2 meters in Eretz Yisrael is bestowed with a new soul (neshama, in Hebrew). And this new soul, much purer and holy than that that preceded it, leaves a real mark.

And even without being so spiritual, seeing Israel, feeling Jerusalem, experiencing the Jewish homeland, walking Eretz Yisrael, it’s a real eye-opener. I know. I remember. I went through it to. Not on ‘birthright’ – but it makes no difference. Israel has an effect on people. I never intended on living in Israel, being ‘religious,’ on marrying an Israeli and living in a place like Hebron. But here I am, 35 years later. Probably not all these kids with come back, but, you never know.
The group I had yesterday really was a first – the first time an ‘official’ birthright mission has come into Hebron. The kids were all from Australia, we didn’t have a lot of time, and they visited only Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but they were sure impressed and I’m sure it was a couple of hours they’ll never forget. Not because of me – rather because of the impression that Hebron, and such a magnificent and significant site as Machpela leaves on a person. I was ecstatic that birthright finally made its way to its own real birthright, and certainly hope this will lead to continued visits, allowing others to reveal the inner essence of their beings, here with Abraham and Sarah.

Their visit made my day. I spoke with some of the people on the group, saw the sparkle in their eyes, the radiance of youth soaking up a heritage they never knew existed. It was a wonderful time, and I really look forward to meeting other such groups.

So, that was my second part of our triple header.
Part three

After evening prayers I attended a short memorial program in Kiryat Arba for Rav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l, the former Chief Rabbi who passed away a month ago. Rav Eliyahu was truly a holy man, a spiritual giant who walked among us. That’s important, because he didn’t walk above us, he walked with us.
Stories about this righteous man have floated around for years, but since he died, they’ve multiplied. This past Shabbat his son, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu wrote how his father prevented a couple from divorcing because of some stupidity. In order to make a point, the Rabbi had his secretary throw rotten fruit at him! But it worked. The couple lived happily ever after.

At the event last night four people spoke, including Hebron’s Noam Arnon. Noam told briefly about the Rabbi’s attachment to Hebron and his undivided assistance, whenever it was needed, at any time of the day or night. Rav Eliyahu frequented Hebron, participating in numerous public events, but also worked behind the scenes, assuring continued progress in all phases of Hebron’s communal life.

The first event was downright maddening.
The second was overtly uplifting.
And the third, profound.

So was yesterday’s triple-header in Hebron.

Today was quiet. We had only one guest – the Rebbe from Alexander – a Hasidic leader who is related to Menucha Rachel Slonim, granddaughter of the founder of Chabad, who is buried here in Hebron. 
And who knows what tomorrow will bring!
With blessings from Hebron.