Late Motzei Yom Kippur, deep mourning spread through the Religious Zionist community in Israel when news came that Rabbanit Miriam Levinger of Hevron – wife of Rav Moshe Levinger, zt”l – had passed away at the age of 83, leaving behind 11 children and 50 grandchildren.
Because of the corona crisis, only the Levinger family was allowed to attend the funeral in Hevron, but record numbers of viewers listened to the eulogies over the Internet.
Often called the “Mother of the Settlement Movement,” Rabbanit Levinger joined her husband for Pesach in the Hevron Park Hotel in 1968, which led to the establishment of Kiryat Arba. A decade later, in 1979, she led a group of women and children into the then abandoned Beit Hadassah Clinic, remaining there illegally until the Israeli government agreed that Jews could settle, not only in Kiryat Arba, but in the City of the Patriarchs as well.
To honor her memory, I asked some people who knew Rabbanit Levinger to relate personal recollections.
Mrs. Cherna Moskowitz, a long-time supporter of the Jewish settlement in Hevron along with her late husband, Dr. Irving Moskowitz, said, “What can I say about this extraordinary woman? She is the inspiration for every Jew who loves Hebron and the Jewish Nation.”
Rav Shlomo Aviner, who took part in the first Pesach Seder in Hevron (cooked by Rabbanit Levinger and other pioneer women) since the murderous Arab pogrom of 1929, told The Jewish Press:
“She was an extremely modest woman and yet a stalwart activist for Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael. She was a woman filled with a towering ideology, a woman of principle who refused all compromise, a person of unwavering truth, which is the noblest of traits, a woman of great stature, not in holding herself above other women, chas v’shalom, but in being an inspiration for women and for men alike.”
Meir Indor, who worked side by side with Rav Levinger said, “If you told the Rabbanit that she was the ‘First Lady of the Settlement Movement,’ she would have laughed and modestly replied, ‘Sure. I brought the first Jewish refrigerator to Hevron.’
“The Levinger home was always filled with guests, and Miriam always had warm soup ready to serve in the winter, and refreshing drinks in the summer. In the literally hundreds of conversations I had with her over the years, there was never any small talk. She could joke about the many crazy and frustrating experiences they had during their years of hardship and struggle, but the conversation was always about the things that we needed to do to pull the heavy and recalcitrant wagon of Israel’s redemption forward.
“But she didn’t rely on talk – she acted. Just as righteous women redeemed Am Yisrael from Mitzrayim, Miriam Levinger and the group of women who squatted for a year in Beit Hadassah, redeemed Hevron.”
Edo Levinger, a theater director and nephew of Rabbanit Levinger, told The Jewish Press, “One trait of Aunt Miriam was her joy of life and enthusiasm, even in her later years. Telling one of her many stories, she often broke out in laughter. Even in trying times, during difficult and frustrating events and political turmoil, she was able to laugh at the ironies and absurdities of the situation.
“She followed after Uncle Moshe through fire and water. She said that just as she did the laundry and raised the children when they lived in the settlement of Nechalim, she could do the same in Hevron when HaRav Levinger decided to move there.
“In our conversations, she always referred to him as HaRav Moshe, or HaRav Levinger, not as ‘your uncle.’ Her respect for him was as large as the Torah. She told me with a laugh of recalling how she would accompany him to ‘a short five-minute meeting,’ and end up waiting for hours, trusting that her husband was engaged in some important matter for Am Yisrael.
“I remember how she didn’t complain when he conducted a one-man hunger strike for months, living in a small tent across the street from the terrorist-filled refugee camp Dehaishe, protesting the lack of army protection on the former road to Hevron. The opposite – her soul was bound up with the soul of Eretz Yisrael. She existed for Eretz Yisrael.
“Yet, whenever I visited, she would always spend time on the phone with a few of the children, listening to their problems, offering advice and encouragement, always with granite faith in Hashem, and always asking about the grandchildren, remembering each of their names….
“Often, she would speak to groups of Jewish students from America who were brought on visits to Hevron, and with her happy expression and twinkling eyes, she would tell them that if they really wanted to live a meaningful Jewish life, they should move to Israel and become a part of the dream of 2,000 years.
“While with Uncle Moshe, I allowed myself to express opinions far less adamant than his about the importance of the settlement movement, with Aunt Miriam I was afraid lest she counter with a passionate Zionist harangue. She didn’t keep her feelings inside, but rather let you know what she believed without mincing of words.
“But even during arguments with me over politics or Judaism, she would always put more cake and fruit on the kitchen table and warmly invite me to visit again soon.
“‘Once, when we lived in Nechalim before the Six-Day War,’ she told me, ‘HaRav Levinger gave a long lecture about the obligation to settle all of Judea and Samaria to a busload of visitors. In the middle, one of the woman said to a friend, ‘Is he meshugah? What nonsensical fantasy is he talking about?’ I laughed and told her, ‘That meshugah is my husband.’”
An old friend from New York related, “Miriam made aliyah in 1956. She came to Bnei Akiva at age 15, at our Ken Mizracha branch in the East Bronx, and immediately became an ardent member. She was the youngest of six children. Her father was a chazzan and wrote music for chazzanim. He was a true free spirit and Miriam inherited that characteristic from him.
“At Hunter High School in Manhattan, a public school for girl students with high IQs, she was one of the few observant Jews. Before eating the sandwich she brought from home, she would go to do netilat yadayim. She wasn’t embarrassed to be a religious Jew in front of the other girls. Unlike many other members of Bnei Akiva, she made aliyah straight out of high school rather than studying in New York, even though she had no relatives in Israel.”
Rabbanit Libby Kahane (wife of Rav Meir Kahane, Hy”d) remembers, “Miriam registered to study nursing at the old Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, which had a dorm, when she arrived in Israel. The studies were in Hebrew, and she was just learning the language, but she was determined to work hard to pass the written tests, and she did.”
Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish community of Hevron, told The Jewish Press, “Rabbanit Levinger was a towering flame of love and miserut nefesh for Eretz Yisrael who taught the nation through her words and her deeds the exalted value of our Homeland and the City of our Forefathers, without compromise or fear.
“She was a role model for all of us in Hevron, both as a devoted mother and wife, and as a round-the-clock servant of the nation, whether in standing up against the government of Israel in leading the march back to Hevron or as a nurse, in leaving her home in the middle of the night to treat a sick child.
“She dreamed of a renewed Hevron which would be visited each year by tens of thousands of Jews, where children could play freely in the streets and in the ancient field by the Maharat HaMachpelah, and she was blessed, through her efforts, and through the efforts of all those whom she inspired, to see her dream come true.”
Another neighbor in Hevron, Baruch Marzel, told The Jewish Press, “The last time I saw her was a week ago outside the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. She was sitting in a wheelchair. I told her that it didn’t fit her personality to sit in a wheelchair, but rather that she should be up on her feet and running. She replied that her head was still running, but that her legs were engaged in a sit-down protest.
“In better times, up to a few months ago, every Erev Shabbat and Shabbat morning, she would make the steep and difficult climb up the hill to pray at the Tomb of Yishai, the father of David HaMelech, often alone, walking slowly, one strained step at a time. She did it to strengthen the Jewish presence there.
“I asked her if she wasn’t afraid of terrorists, of which quite a number live in the area, walking down the poorly lit hill at night? She laughed happily like a young girl, the way she often laughed, and withdrew a can of insect spray, out of her purse, K-2000. ‘I have this,’ she said.
“The Rabbanit was a true woman of valor…. Generally, she effaced herself completely in her relationship with Rav Moshe, but one time when I was at their home arguing with him about how to allocate the donations we received to develop the Jewish settlement of Hevron, she expressed her opinion. ‘Baruch is right,’ she said.
“HaRav Levinger felt that all monies should be used to bring more families to Hevron. I believed that we first had to concentrate on bringing thousands of visitors to the Maharat HaMachpelah, as a magnet to attract Jews to move to Hevron, and as the tactic to bring Tzahal to increase security in the area, and to persuade the government to lessen their objections to expanding the yishuv. At the end of a long and heated discussion, the Rav accepted her opinion with a gracious grin.”
Shoshana Silbert told The Jewish Press, “My husband, z”l, was group leader in the Bnei Akiva branch in the Bronx where Miriam had her epiphany that she belonged in Eretz Yisrael. He used to spend many Shabbatot with the Beinhorn family [Miriam’s maiden name]. Her father was a great chazzan who stubbornly refused to do any kind of regular work on Shabbat, which wasn’t always easy back in those days in New York.
“After Miriam arrived in Israel, she used to come to our house in Kfar Haroeh for Shabbat. She really had no family in the country. This was before the Six-Day War. One week, she asked if she could come with someone she was dating, and of course we approved. The friend was Rav Moshe Levinger. That Motzei Shabbat after Havdalah, Moshe picked up the glass of wine and said with a wide grin, “Lechayim – we are now engaged.”
“They both immediately called their parents, and even though it is a long way from Hollywood, they lived happily ever after – maybe not exactly like in the movies, but in the middle of all of the drama, struggle, self-sacrifice, tragedy, protests, arrests, world headlines, and terror, their love and respect for one another never faltered.”
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When I First Met the Rabbanit
I met Rabbanit Levinger almost 40 years ago on my first visit to Hevron as a guest for Shabbat at the Levinger home. Previously that year, while working for the Israel Aliyah Center in Manhattan, I had met Rav Levinger and written a few public-relations articles about his visit to America on behalf of his “Mitzvah Elef Project” to bring Jewish families on Aliyah to Judea and Samaria.
When I got off the bus in Hevron, a friendly Jewish settler led me to the Levinger home in the rubbles of the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, long before its modern renovation. HaRav Moshe was wearing a large tallit katan, polishing his shoes, sitting on the stone steps leading to the second-story flat. At the time, I was a budding baal t’shuva, barely acquainted with Orthodox Jewish life in New York, and to my very American eyes, he looked like a Biblical prophet.
Smiling broadly and rising to give me a powerful bear hug, he apologized for having to finish polishing his shoes in honor of Shabbat. Calling to one of his sons in his hoarse, throaty voice, he said, “Ephraim, come greet Kenny Fishman, the baal t’shuva from Hollywood. Ask Ema to give him some cake and show him to his room.”
Rabbanit Levinger was in the kitchen preparing chulent. She stopped her work and greeted me with great joy. She wore an apron, and her head was completely swathed in a white covering, making her look like a nurse. “Kenny Fishman!” she said in a clear Bronx English. “Welcome. Baruch Haba. Sit down. Have some cake and some juice. We’ve heard all about you. Thank you for helping with ‘Mivtah Elef.’ We have to bring all the Jews we can to Israel, bezrat Hashem, as fast as we can.”
Two things stood out in my mind – my surprise in discovering that the wife of the famous Rabbi Levinger was from New York, and the way she made me feel special, even though I hardly knew the Alef-Bet, while she was a modern Jewish heroine. It felt as if she were my “bubbie” from Brooklyn, transported to a ramshackle, Fred Flimstone-like dwelling in the midst of enemy Arab territory in Hevron. A photo on the wall showed what the yard of the former, pre-1929 Jewish building had looked like before the Levinger’s moved in – Arabs had used it for a sheep pen.
“My husband told me how you left Hollywood,” she said. “Baruch Hashem, Baruch Hashem. Give thanks to the L-rd. My family is still in New York. Rachmonis. Rachmonis. You have to use your talent to write and tell all the Jews in America about the beauty of Eretz Yisrael. You have to tell them what they are missing. Keep a diary. You can stay here with us in Hevron as long as you like.”