Coming to Kever Rachel one cannot help but recall the traditional domed structure that once stood as a humble memorial to the greatest of women. Unfortunately a fortress like edifice of towering large concrete slabs has now replaced that familiar picture. It was here, at this holy site, that I first met Evelyn Haies, an American mother, grandmother, and globetrotter.
Evelyn spends the better part of each year in Israel working to improve the site. In fact, as soon as we met she invited me to attend a shiur she had arranged in the adjacent previously-owned Arab home.
But first I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what possessed an American mother of five, and grandmother, to leave her family in the U.S. to come to Israel and devote so much time to Kever Rachel.
In lieu of answering, she beckoned, smiling broadly. I followed her into the adjacent structure (the only other building in the complex) where she pointed to a bullet hole in the glass of the window on the second floor. “Arab sniper fire,” she explains.
“I bought this house a number of years ago, in an attempt to increase awareness of the importance of this site, to encourage people to visit, and to learn more about Rachel herself.” She points out the pictures her granddaughter had drawn to hang on the wall.
In a large room on the first floor there is a learning session in progress. A group of avreichim are poring over their sefarim.
In an entirely separate room a shiur for women is about to take place.
“And so what’s a grandmother like you doing here?” I asked, still wondering what it was that first triggered her interest.
And Evelyn, who for years has worked as literature teacher and has published a very popular songbook, took the plunge the year the Twins Towers came down.
“I was part of a group of women from Brooklyn who were looking for ways to help Klal Yisrael, especially our brethren in Israel. We wanted to prove our connection to the land and to our people. We met monthly and I recall one meeting in which we decided to adopt a sister city. Ariel was on our list, as were other cities. And then I had this sudden drive to adopt Kever Rachel. I took the floor and threw my suggestion out to the ladies.
“They loved it and agreed immediately.
“The year was 1995 when the die was cast; thus began my personal lifelong connection with Rachel Imeinu.
“So while I had had this brainwave I wasn’t quite sure how to actualize it. Together we decided that the first way to proceed was to raise public awareness of who Rachel actually was, and her relevance today. To do this we wanted people to research all the relevant sources in Tanach. Thus began the Rachel’s Children Reclamation Foundation.
“We began with the children first, going around to the Jewish girl schools in Brooklyn and advertising a writing competition on the subject of Rachel Imeinu. The best compositions would receive cash prizes.
“The contest was a massive hit. My mailbox was jammed with hundreds of stories; the creativity was simple astonishing and the feedback overwhelming. Teachers and principals offered their thanks and the girls themselves appreciated their new awareness and connection to Rachel.”
Later that year, Evelyn received an excited phone call from a woman who had decided that in honor of her granddaughter’s bas mitzvah the two of them were going to go to Israel and visit the holy sites, especially Kever Rachel.
Evelyn thought that this was a great idea and decided that she too would do the same.
“But I wanted to do more and more and I didn’t know what or how. So I bought a lottery ticket,” Evelyn laughs heartily. “And guess what? I won!”
Evelyn was the lucky winner of $26,000, which she used to finance the writing of a Sefer Torah for the Kever Rachel complex.
The day Evelyn approached a sofer and commissioned him to write the Sefer Torah was one of the most exciting ever. And when it was finally completed her excitement knew no bounds.
The Sefer Torah merited a double “send off” – one in Brooklyn and another in Israel. The U.S. one was scheduled for a rainy day during the week of Parshas Lech Lecha. Amazingly the rain held off while the dancing and singing crowds escorted the Torah to the shul; the minute it was indoors the rain fell once again. Evelyn’s eyes light up at the memory.
“The singing, the dancing, the euphoria, everyone knew this sefer Torah was headed for Israel and the joy was simply contagious.”
Evelyn shows me the photographs. You see the smiling crowds and the rav with the Torah and her husband next to him, each picture a memory unto itself.
Since that day Evelyn arranges a special dinner each Parshas Lech Lecha in memory of the extra special day in her life.
After the event one of the attendees approached Evelyn and told her that he had his own personal connection with Rachel Imeinu:
“I come from a family who for seven generations has held the keys to Kever Rachel” he began, a note of pride in his voice. With that he offered to donate to the festivities. He too wanted a share in this wondrous event.
The Hachanasas Sefer Torah at Kever Rachel was no less moving, perhaps even more so. On duty soldiers, rabbanim and politicians all took part in the event.
Since that day Evelyn has done all she can to improve Kever Rachel. Many recall the days when getting there was incredibly difficult. There was no organized transportation and so Evelyn petitioned Egged to arrange for regular daily buses. And when the Intifada began and people were afraid to come, it was Evelyn who organized and paid for buses to ferry people to and fro.
Evelyn works hard, very hard.
“When in Israel, I literally work round the clock ensuring that people continue coming on a regular basis, that they have easy access to the site and that there are regular shiurim taking place. And even when I get back to the U.S. I don’t stop for a minute. There are funds to raise and arrangement to made, it’s non-stop.”
Here Evelyn stops talking and takes a minute to remember Sarah Blaustien from Efrat. Sarah was a regular attendee of the shuirim at Kever Rachel and had become Evelyn’s dear friend. One morning after returning from Kever Rachel and heading back out to go to the Kotel she was shot at by a group of Arabs. She and another female passenger were killed.
“Every year on her yahrzeit we learn and say tehillim in her memory. My plan is to, one day, dedicate a room in her memory as well.”
I take note for even though I’ve only known Evelyn for a couple of hours I realize that if she sets her mind to doing something, no doubt, that something, is sure to happen. Someday, somehow, in the future there will be a Sarah Blaustein room…of that I am certain.
Evelyn is somber “we’d become really close, I still miss her…”
But Sarah’s murder hasn’t stopped Evelyn or even slowed her down. She’s gone out of her way to take care of the soldiers on guard, sending them treats as well as Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. In addition she’s organized and paid for numerous brisim and sheva brachos that have taken place at the site.
“The real breakthrough took place eleven years ago,” and out comes the photo album, “I was approached and offered the house adjacent to Kever Rachel. It is the one and only other structure in the complex and the Arab who owned it wanted to sell out.
“They knew me and they knew that I was an inseparable part of the place. But the price they were asking was $375,000 – a small fortune – and I had no idea how to raise the kind of money. Nevertheless, in my heart of hearts I knew that going ahead with the deal was the right thing to do. I knew that Hashem would take of the details.”
And she was right.
“I had bought stock a number of months prior to the offer and it had jumped in value by 1000%. I sold it and divided the money. Some of the money went to my children, the rest towards buying the house. Other factions helped make up the deficit.”
Evelyn received the key and went about making improvements – as she had done in all other areas.
She had mezuzos affixed, air conditioner units installed and appliances such as a microwave oven and a refrigerator put in.
The place soon became a hive of activity.
There were shuirim for men, shiurim for women and weekend retreats for yeshiva bachurim.
However, this joy has been very short lived. It is now overshadowed, by the usual…internal strife.
Evelyn is saddened. “Instead of focusing my energy on all those who need my help I’m busy with lawyers and legal fees. I know this is just a test…but it hurts…” and I see her lips tremble ever so slightly.
Of late there is a debate over who has control of the house.
“Thankfully, I have all the documents, and copies of all the checks attesting to the fact that I am the rightful owner of this house. I also discovered that behind my back those contesting my ownership of the house tried to resell it!”
They were asking for an astronomical price.
Gently sidestepping the issue, the politics, and the arguments I wished her well and expressed the hope that for all our sakes the truth be established quickly and painlessly.
Then I asked her about her dream for the future.
“I want the house that I bought to be used as a home for all of Klal Yisrael, because after all we are all one people and all connected to Rachel. It should be a place where Jewish history is taught, and Rachel is remembered. And most importantly it should be the building blocks towards bringing the geula.”
Last, but not least, I want to know how her family feels about a wife, mother, and grandmother who had dedicated most of her life to Rachel Imeinu.
“My husband, children and grandchildren have been overwhelming supportive. They understand my drive, and this is perhaps the best place to thank them, because without their support I would never have succeeded.
And so we say goodbye with a prayer on our lips that G-d finally wipe away Rachel’s tears so that we can all come home…this time for good!
Translated by Chavi Ehrentreu.
About the Author: Sarah Pachter lives in Israel and writes for a number of publications. She is the author of the book "Supermom? (Who? Me?)"
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