Beit Hadassah: Women and Children Winning the War for Jewish Return to the City of the Patriarchs

“And Avram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Chevron; and he built a mizbayach there to Hashem.” Genesis 13:18 (The Israel Bible™)

A powerful ceremony took place in Beit Shalom in Hebron on Tuesday evening, commemorating how 40 years ago, a small group of women and children paved the way for the restoration of the Jewish community in Hebron. The event was well-attended but the story behind the gathering is truly remarkable.

Jews have lived in Hebron since Abraham purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs but in 1929, Arabs, driven by false rumors that Jews were planning to seize control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, perpetrated a violent pogrom, killing 67 Jews and wounding 70 more. Homes were pillaged and synagogues ransacked. Brtish mandate authorities evacuated the remaining 435 Jews soon after the Arab violence. any returned in 1931, but almost all were evacuated at the outbreak of the 1936–39 Arab revolt in Palestine. In 1948, the city was occupied by Jordan and Jews were forbidden from entering their second holiest city.

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Even after Israel conquered the city in the 1967 Six-Day War, Jews were reluctant to settle in the largest Arab city in Judea and Samaria due to its history of Arab violence.  In Passover 1968, some Jews led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented the Arab-owned Park Hotel for Passover Seder. After the holiday, they remained in the hotel, eventually moving into the IDF military compound. This group established Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron.

There was still no real Jewish community of Hebron. Abraham Franco wanted to change this.  His grandfather, Chief Rabbi Haim Rahamim Yosef Franco, founded the Chesed L’Avraham Hospital in 1893. Despite serving both Arabs and Jews, the hospital had been the focus of some of the worst Arab violence in 1929. Abraham gave the deed to the property to a group of Jews who wanted to resettle Hebron but due to the hostile conditions and lukewarm support from the Israeli government, Hebron remained empty of Jews.

Finally, in June of 1979, a group of ten women and 40 children led by Rabbi Levinger’s wife, Miriam, entered the building in secret in the middle of the night. They camped out in Beit Hadassah. They remained in difficult conditions, surrounded by Arabs and isolated, for one year, essentially under siege. No one was allowed to enter the building and anyone who left the building was prevented by the IDF from returning. Food was smuggled in.

Government debates were held over whether a pregnant woman who left for treatment would be allowed to return. A teacher was refused access to her students inside the building.

Men from the yeshiva in Kiryat Arba would come to pray and sing outside Beit Hadassah on Friday nights to encourage the women. One Friday night in 1980, Palestinian terrorists attacked the praying men with guns and hand grenades, killing six. After the attack, the Israeli government issued zoning permits to make residency in Beit Hadassah permanent.

One of the terrorists, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, was arrested and convicted but later released in a prisoner exchange deal. He was elected mayor of the Palestinian Authority-controlled side of Hebron in 2017.

Eventually, their husbands joined them. In 1980 Beit Hadassah, along with the Hason and Castel family homes, were rebuilt and the new families were able to have a sense of normalcy.

The renovated Beit Hadassah was inaugurated in 1986 and an adjacent residential structure was completed in 1999, called Beit HaShisha, in memory of the six people killed in the ambush.

Today, about 30 Jewish families live in these buildings which now include a synagogue, museum, playground, and guesthouse areas. About 1,000 Israelis live in the Hebron’s old quarter. The Israeli military controls about 20percent of Hebron to protect the settlers, with the rest of the city under control of the Palestinian Authority.

About 7,500 Jews live in the suburb of Kiryat Arba. Another 7,000 Israelis live in the dozen communities that dot the Hebron Hills Regional Council.