Friday, April 16, 1999

Courage, Faith and Self-Sacrifice

Courage, Faith and Self-Sacrifice
Rosh Hodesh Iyar 5759
April 16, 1999

It was just after Pesach, 20 years ago. Two women, both instrumental in the return to Hebron eleven years earlier, now living in Kiryat Arba, sat down to talk. They pondered how to return to the city of Hebron itself.
By 1979 Kiryat Arba was an established community of thousands. Apartments, schools, playgrounds and small businesses abounded. But, when a small group of Jews returned to Hebron in 1968 their aim was not the establishment of a new Hebron suburb; their goal was to renew the ancient Jewish community in Hebron.
Miriam Levinger later spoke with her husband, Rav Moshe Levinger, mentioning an idea that had been broached: maybe women and children would be able to accomplish what the men were, as of yet, unable to do: to move back into the abandoned Beit Hadassah building in the heart of Hebron.
Hadassah building in the heart of Hebron.
Beit Hadassah was built in the late 1800s, originally a free medical clinic and guest house for Jews and Arabs alike. The one-story structure was too small to serve the many people taking advantage of the free services, and in the early 1900s a second floor was added. The clinic continued to operate under the auspices of the Hadassah women’s organization until the 1929 massacre, at which time all Jews were expelled from Hebron.
When a small group of families returned to Hebron in 1931, they lived in and around Beit Hadassah, utilizing the building as a school for the children. However, they too were expelled from Hebron by the British in 1936, following continued Arab aggression throughout Israel.
After the Six-day war and return to Hebron in 1967, Beit Hadassah was left vacant. Israeli soldiers sometimes stood guard from the roof of the building. In spite of various attempts to enter the building, Beit Hadassah was declared ‘off-limits’ and Jewish civilians were not allowed in.
Rav Levinger liked of his wife’s idea to have women and children secretly enter the premises. A chain of command was established, and a plan was developed. A few days later he asked Miriam if she was ready to go. Very quickly and very quietly a group of 10 women was organized. On the eve of the new month of Iyar, at three o’clock in the morning, the women, together with forty children, made the five-minute drive into downtown Hebron, arriving behind the main entrance to Beit Hadassah. A ladder was erected, leading into Beit Hadassah’s back windows. Again, very quickly, and very quietly, the women and children climbed into the empty downstairs room, whose floor was thick with dust and dirt. It was only then that Miriam Levinger understood why her husband had presented her with two brooms before leaving her Kiryat Arba home.
As the men made their way back to Kiryat Arba the women cleared some room on the floor for the mattresses they brought with them. Soon, everyone was asleep.
See pictures of the return to Hebron in 1979:
When they woke up the next morning, the children started singing, ‘v’Shavu banim l’gvulam’ - ‘the children have returned home.’ Surprised Israeli soldiers stationed on the roof came down to investigate and discovered the group. They had no idea what to do with them. Neither did anyone else, including the Israeli government, then led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin wasn’t really keen on having Jews again living in the heart of Hebron, but he was opposed to physically removing them from the site. So, after a short time a solution was found. Police and soldiers surrounded Beit Hadassah. No one new was allowed in, and anyone leaving would not be allowed to return. The intention was to starve the group out.
Menachem Begin was approached by Rav Levinger: “When Israel surrounded the Egyptian third army in Sinai, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Egyptians were allowed food, water and medical supplies. If this was permitted to our enemy, who had just attacked us and killed our soldiers, the least you can do is allow the same to the women and children in Hebron.” And so it was. For close to a year.
One day a little boy in Beit Hadassah had a toothache and was sent to the dentist in Kiryat Arba. When he returned to Hebron, the Israeli soldier at the gate refused to let him back in. The little boy started crying, “I want my Ema (mommy).” Finally, only after an almost cabinet-level decision, the little boy was allowed back in.
Due to the lack of any real sanitary facilities, there was an outbreak of hepatitis. One of the women, upon entering Beit Hadassah, was pregnant. Hepatitis and pregnancies do not mix well together. When her friends told her she should leave Beit Hadassah rather than risk contracting the disease she replied, “If I can’t come back, I will not leave.”
As her due date approached, again the other women tried to convince her to leave for hospital to give birth. The answer: "If I cannot come back here with my baby I will not leave. Miriam Levinger is a nurse. She will assist me and everything will be OK.”
Pressure on the Israeli government was tremendous. Finally she received a written permit stating that she could return following the birth. After reading the permit, however, she refused to take it. “Why not?” asked the astonished messenger. “Because it is written here that I can come back, but it doesn’t say that I can bring my baby with me.”
After a second permit was issued she left Hebron for hospital in Jerusalem, gave birth to a little girl, named her Hadassah, and returned to Beit Hadassah in Hebron. (Later, the women and children were allowed to leave the building and return, but no one else was allowed in, excepting special occasions.)
These women and children lived this way until a terrorist attack in early May of 1980, when six Jews were shot to death on a Friday night across the street from Beit Hadassah. Only then did the Israeli government allow the men to join their families, and then officially sanctioned a permanent Jewish presence in Hebron. A few years later the government rebuilt Beit Hadassah, adding two floors onto the original building. Today Beit Hadassah houses ten families, the Hebron Heritage Museum, including the 1929 memorial room, archives, a library, and a volunteer’s apartment.
This is how Hebron’s Jewish community, an ancient community decimated by the murderous massacre incited by Haj Amin el-Husseini in 1929, was reestablished. These ten women and forty children, true modern-day pioneers, literally gave a year of their lives in order to bring about the renewal of The Jewish Community of Hebron. Their courage, faith and self sacrifice brought us back to Hebron. It started today, exactly twenty years ago. And we all owe them an eternal debt of gratitude and appreciation.