“My husband told me to pack enough clothes for two weeks,” Rabbanit Miriam Levinger told The Jewish Press. “Along with our refrigerator and stove.”
“Where are we going?” I asked him.
“Hevron,” he said.
“Tomorrow night is Pesach,” I reminded him.
“That’s where we’re spending the holiday,” he replied.
Rabbanit Levinger says she asked no further questions. While she hadn’t participated in the planning, her husband had driven her to Hevron two weeks earlier to survey the Park Hotel where they would be staying. The following morning, a truck arrived at the Nechalim moshav near Petach Tikva where Rabbi Moshe Levinger, z”l, served as the religious community’s rabbi.
His Bronx-born wife herded their four young children into the vehicle while helpers loaded their suitcases, refrigerator, and stove onto the tender. “We stopped again and again on the way,” she relates, “to pick up other young families and yeshiva students whom my husband had invited for the holiday. A good many of them weren’t religious – good Jews like the pioneer chalutzim of old with a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael.”
The year was 1968, only a year after Hevron was recaptured by the IDF during the Six-Day War. “White flags of surrender still hung from many of the windows in the city,” Rabbanit Levinger recalls. “It was all very thrilling. Everyone had the feeling that we were taking part in a great moment of Jewish history. Seeing the Tomb of the Patriarchs and knowing this was where everything began was a high point of my life.
“When we reached the Park Hotel, which my husband had rented out for the duration of the holiday, a group of women were already at work kashering the kitchen. Others were setting up the ornate dining room which had leather sofas fit for the wealthy sheiks who visited the hotel from Arabia. I started to help with the cooking. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t have time. The Seder was only a few hours away and I trusted that my husband knew what he was doing.”
Rabbi Levinger, indeed, knew what he was doing, but he didn’t know how the adventure would end. After Israel’s great victory, many people spoke about the need to resettle the ancient cities and hillsides of Judea and Samaria where the kings and prophets of Israel had dwelled, but no one knew how to go about doing it.
The first settlement was founded a few months before in Kfar Etzion, where Arabs had massacred 157 Jews during Israel’s War of Independence, razing the agricultural village to the ground. Leading the return was a young student at the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Hanan Porat, z”l, who had lived in Kfar Etzion as a child.
After helping Porat establish a pioneer group at the site, Rabbi Levinger decided Hevron – the city of our forefathers and the initial capital of King David – would be next.
“My husband went to the Minister of Transportation at the time, Yigal Alon, who was a friend, to ask for his advice on how to obtain the government’s permission. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol didn’t know what to do with all of the territory that had fallen into our hands and the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, was prepared to return it all to the Arabs in exchange for a genuine commitment to peace.
“Alon told my husband that when it came to settling the Land of Israel, first you establish facts on the ground and then you inform the authorities. And that’s exactly what we did.”
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who also showed up for the Seder in Hevron, told The Jewish Press that a fellow student at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva asked him if he wanted to learn for a while at a yeshiva in Hevron. “I asked the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, what he thought of the idea, and he said: Why not? I didn’t know at the time that Rabbi Levinger had consulted with Rabbi Kook from the beginning.
“Students from Hebrew University were also a part of the gathering,” Miriam Levinger, now the mother of 12 grown children, remembers. “Two of them stood guard on the roof of the hotel – Ehud Olmert and Dan Meridor – long before they changed their political ideologies and stripes.
“Years later, I happened to meet another one of the Hebrew University students who shared the Seder with us – Gideon Ezra, the Minister of Internal Security and a former head of the Shabak. When I asked him why he joined us in Hevron that very first Pesach, he said the Shabak had sent him. Some things don’t seem to change. Baruch Hashem, we have scores of Jewish families living in Hevron today, and, no doubt, no small number of Shabaknikim among them.”
Elyakim HaEtzni, a longtime attorney who has represented the settlement movement for 50 years and a former Knesset member of the Techiya Party, recalls that many secular Israelis took part in the Park Hotel Seder.
“I wasn’t the only fellow who didn’t wear a kippah,” he said. “Months before, just after the Six-Day War, I had met Rabbi Levinger at a meeting for activists who wanted to see Jews begin to settle the areas conquered in the war. Meeting Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s students was an ideological revolution for me. I thought I was a devout proponent of Greater Eretz Yisrael Movement, but these energetic fellows had some kind of unworldly spirit and faith that didn’t understand the word ‘No.’ For them, nothing was impossible.
“I was totally swept up in their whirlwind. I’ve never been one to cover my head with a kippah, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by a sea of kippot and tzitzit. I’m still not religious in the same way as they are, but I live in Kiryat Arba and wouldn’t move if you paid me.”
He said going to Hevron that Pesach in 1968 was like stepping “into a movie about some other planet.” He said, “[The participants’] sense of confidence was staggering. They were possessed by an inner light that I had never seen before. The Arab owner of the establishment was just as amazed as I was. He thought he had rented all of the rooms in the hotel to a group of tourists from Switzerland, and here come these tziztit-wearing Gush Emunim types carrying refrigerators and stoves and hammering mezuzahs on doorposts as if the building belonged to them.”
After the Seder, which was led by Rabbi Haim Drukman, everyone danced in the streets, HaEtzni recalled. Asked if they felt scared in a city filled with Arabs, HaEtzni replied, “Yes and no. In those days, the Arabs were afraid of us. In the Six-Day War, we conquered Hevron without having to fire a shot. It wasn’t a secret that knife-wielding Arabs still attacked Jews, but they didn’t have the arrogance they have toward us today. In the morning, when we danced through the streets on the way to Maharat HaMachpela to pray, the Arabs hurried to get out of our way.”
What happened after Pesach?
“My husband informed me that until we were evicted from the hotel, it was going to be our new home,” Rabbanit Levinger said. “At first I thought the idea of living amongst the Arabs was crazy, but during the holiday I got used to it. Back at our moshav, people were starting to build big houses and talk about driveways for their cars and comfortable salons alongside their dining rooms. In moving to Israel from America, I always longed for the idealism of the original pioneers who built the country. Here was the perfect chance, I realized.”
Rabbi Eliezer Waldman was also present at the history-making Seder. Born in Petach Tikva, his family moved to America when he was three. After studying at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University, Rabbi Waldman returned to Israel to study at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. In 1972, he founded the Kiryat Arba Nir Yeshiva with Rabbi Levinger, and, after a long career as rosh yeshiva, now serves as its president.
“To my recollection, during Chol HaMoed,” HaEtzni told The Jewish Press, “the mayor of Hevron stopped by to see what all the celebration was about. At our initial meeting at his home, he had been very cordial, but now Jews from all over the country flocked to the hotel day and night to express their joy and support for our efforts, and the local Arab leadership began to worry. He made it clear that they expected us to leave after our vacation was over. Smiling, and in his soft-spoken manner, Rabbi Waldman told him that we would be staying in the city with his blessings or not. ‘After all,’ the young Torah scholar said, ‘we lived in Hevron before you did.’”
The pioneers wound up staying in the hotel for several weeks.
“With growing pressure from the Arabs and leftist media, the government didn’t know what to do,” Levinger recalls. “They came up with a plan to move us to a building in the compound of the Army Authority in Hevron. I think they figured that after a while we all would pack up our bags and return to our homes, but we held our ground until the government agreed to build the settlement of Kiryat Arba up the hill from Hevron.
“Still, my husband and others stubbornly refused to abandon the city of our patriarchs and matriarchs, and with the help of the Ribbono Shel Olam, we are still here today in Hevron along with scores of other families.”