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First Bat Mitzvah Held At Rachel’s Tomb Complex

Nearly 100 people from Israel and the U.S. gathered at Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb) on the outskirts of Bethlehem earlier this month for what is being described as the first ever Bat Mitzvah celebration held in the kever and the recently acquired adjacent building. The celebration was organized by the Rachel Imeinu Foundation (www.rachelimeinu.org), which aims to strengthen the Jewish presence in and around the complex housing the tomb, revered as the traditional burial site of the Biblical Matriarch Rachel.

Festive music and dancing greeted Tamar Klein, 12, as she marked her passage into adulthood. While she gave a short drashah, her proud parents, Penina and David Klein of Cedarhurst, New York, and other invited guests, looked on.

The Bat Mitzvah festivities took place in the building known as Beit Bnei Rachel, which lies immediately adjacent to the structure housing the tomb, both of which are enclosed within a loop in the separation wall constructed by Israel.

Tamar and her parents signed up with the Rachel Imeinu Foundation’s Bat Mitzvah program months ago, and planned it in coordination with the president of the Rachel Imeinu Foundation, Chaim Silberstein. The preparation for the big event took place under the guidance of the Israeli Bat Mitzvah coordinator, Tsipi Egert, both by phone and email, enabling the family to arrange the event, from the comfort of its own home, down to the smallest detail.

 
Tamar Klein and guests celebrate her Bat Mitzvah at Rachel’s Tomb.
 

The Bat Mitzvah girl was sent worksheets, relating to Rachel Imeinu, which she learned with her mother on a weekly basis. Other components of the Bat Mitzvah program included a chesed project, a unique scrapbook, treasure hunt, volunteering for Israeli soldiers, and arts and crafts connected to Kever Rachel. Catering was supplied by the Beit Orot Yeshiva, also a part owner of the complex.

“This is an historic event,” said Silberstein. “It is the first time that a full-fledged Bat Mitzvah celebration, including catering, music, photographers and dancing, took place in the center adjoining the tomb.”

“Our goal is to establish a World Bat Mitzvah Center in the building that will provide young Jewish women with a special venue to celebrate their Bat Mitzvahs, just as young Jewish men mark their Bar Mitzvahs at the Western Wall.”

The site, designated to be the Rachel Imeinu Educational Campus, consists of one acre of land and a 9,000 square-foot building. It was purchased from its Arab owners several years ago by a consortium of Jews, who felt very strongly about securing Kever Rachel, the success of which revolved around bringing a permanent Jewish presence to the area.

By expanding the site of the Tomb (which is surrounded on three sides by a Muslim cemetery) and building educational and ultimately residential facilities, it is hoped that Rachel’s Tomb will not befall the fate of Rachel’s son Yosef’s Tomb in Shechem, which was deserted by the IDF in late 2000 and destroyed by Muslims soon thereafter.

The IDF had occupied Beit Bnei Rachel for four years until the security barrier/separation wall was constructed surrounding Kever Rachel and the new property. After the wall was completed in August 2006, the IDF handed over security responsibility to the Israeli Border Police who agreed to return the building to its owners. This process has been going on for the past year, with the Police determining security measures in the compound, making visiting the area safer than ever.

The process has been very challenging both during the acquisition itself (whose details are confidential) and post acquisition, due to the bureaucratic, security and political obstacles concerning Judaism’s third holiest site.
 
 
Recent aerial of Kever Rachel, the security fence and Beit Bnei Rachel.
 

For example, just weeks ago, Malky Grunwald, granddaughter of one of the major donors toward the acquisition, Evelyn Haies of Brooklyn, planned to have her Bat Mitzvah in the building her grandmother helped purchase. The very day before the planned simcha, the new chief of Jerusalem police, Aaron Franko decided to place a restriction on access to the building as he wanted to “learn the situation” before implementing his predecessor’s permit.

Nevertheless, the Bat Mitzvah celebration still continued in the kever itself with the proud grandmother surrounded by her family and friends. Malky had celebrated her first birthday at Kever Rachel, so it was very appropriate to have her Bat Mitzvah there too.

Now that the complex is accessible by regular buses (since August 1, the IDF dropped the bullet- proof requirement, although private vehicles are still not allowed into the complex) the number of visitors is on the rise, so much so that Egged is sending in double-buses, which are full on almost every trip. The added security, coupled with the completion of the Rachel Imeinu Educational Center (which will include the World Bat Mitzvah Center, a museum, visitors center and learning institutions), will encourage even greater numbers of Jewish girls and women (and of course, men), to visit  Kever Rachel. The building is expected to undergo a full makeover to a beautiful and modern educational and simcha facility.

This is expected to attract a wide spectrum of Jewish visitors, including those who do not normally have Kever Rachel included in their touring itinerary. Through experiencing a meaningful Bat Mitzvah, or visiting the center and museum, they will strengthen their ties to their country and heritage.

The Rachel Imeinu Foundation is accepting reservations for Bat Mitzvahs, even though the new building has not been completed. “Because of the high demand from both Israel and the Diaspora, we will still have events in the building as long as construction constraints permit. If not, we have alternate venues available for the festive meal, while the ceremony is still held at the kever. Tamar Klein’s Bat Mitzvah was a great step toward adulthood for her, and a large leap toward the blossoming and expansion of Rachel’s Tomb for Am Yisrael,” Silberstein said.

“This,” he added, “is the first of what I hope will be many more meaningful and joyous celebrations at the compound.”

For more information, to take a tour to Kever Rachel, or to arrange for a Bat Mitzvah celebration at Rachel’s Tomb, log on to www.rachelimeinu.org or contact chaim@rachelimeinu.org.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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