A Jewish community in Beit Lechem (Bethlehem)? If a group of idealists in Israel and America have their way, that dream will soon become a reality.
“Write down this date: ten years from today I want to invite you to come visit the Jewish city of Beit Lechem,” said Rabbi David Barhen, director of a yeshiva adjacent to Kever Rachel.
In 1995, Kever Rachel itself – the spiritual heart of Beit Lechem – was in danger of being lost to the Jewish people. In an effort to achieve peace, the Israeli government planned on giving the matriarch’s tomb to the Arabs as a sign of conciliation and compromise. When MK Rabbi Menachem Porush heard the news, he reportedly broke down in tears on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s shoulder, begging him to reconsider. “Reb Yitzhak, it’s Mame Rachel!” he pleaded.
Rabin gave in. Kever Rachel remained in Israel’s hands.
The tomb’s future, however, is far from secure, according to Cheskie Stern, a Flatbush businessman and the vice president of two corporations that own property adjacent to Kever Rachel. It’s all a matter of numbers, he said. “When the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel had a population of about 5.5 million and not a single Jew lived in Beit Lechem, so the government said, ‘Why not give it back?’ ”
The only way to ensure Kever Rachel remains under Jewish sovereignty, he said, is to create a large Jewish presence in Beit Lechem.
The first steps toward achieving that goal were taken about a decade and a half ago. As Stern tells the story, a wealthy Christian Arab who owned land next to Kever Rachel had a monopoly on selling cigarettes in the West Bank. As cigarette sales are a lucrative business in the Middle East, then-PA Chairman Yasir Arafat decided he wanted a chunk of the pie – the whole pie, in fact. So he appropriated the business, and six months later the Christian Arab businessman – bitter and angry – passed away.
His three sons inherited his Beit Lechem property. Under normal circumstances, they likely would have kept it, but due to Arafat’s treatment of their father they were willing to sell it to Jews. Ultimately, Evelyn Haies of Rachel’s Children Reclamation Foundation and a group of investors under the leadership of former tourism minister Benny Elon (with the help of Chaim Silberstein, president of Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech) acquired the property and, today, a two-story building with a yeshiva, kollel, and five Jewish families stands on the plot.
“This is the first permanent presence of Jews in Beit Lechem in 2,000 years,” said Sean Casper, a lawyer for Benny Elon’s group. Casper, whose grandfather, Bernard Moses Casper (1917-1988), served as chief rabbi of South Africa, said Beit Lechem remained free of Jews for so long because local Christians refused to let Jews settle in the area.
Currently, he said, approximately 35 students study Torah in the Beit Lechem yeshiva and kollel while he personally studies b’chavrusa with the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Eli Elkaslasi.
In addition to Torah study, Jewish family life is also returning in Beit Lechem. Within the past two years, Stern said, six babies have been born to Jewish Beit Lechem families – the first such births in almost a millennia.
“Rachel has cried enough,” Stern said. “Now it’s time to give her something to smile about.” He envisions increasing numbers of Jewish families moving into the area in the future. “Israel has six million people, and yet the best we can do is five families? It’s an insult. Where is our respect for our heritage?”
He even dreams of constructing a wedding hall in Beit Lechem. “Can you imagine if somebody could tell their kids in the future, ‘I got married in Kever Rachel’? It would be beautiful if a father could tell his children, ‘You know where your ima got married? She got married next to her ima.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, Savta Rachel.’ ” (Currently, smaller simchas, with seating for approximately 150, take place in the yeshiva’s lunchroom.)
Security, however, remains a serious obstacle to any dream of a flourishing Jewish presence in Beit Lechem. Recently all the windows (save one) of the two-story building adjacent to Kever Rachel had to be bricked up due to Arab snipers. Additionally, “in the past few months,” Stern said, “we had two homemade explosives which literally landed right in front of the door of the yeshiva. B’chasdei Hashem, nobody got hurt.”
The only solution, Stern said, is to demonstrate to the government how important the kever and all of Beit Lechem are to the Jewish people. “This is not communism. The government is a representation of the people, and we want to wake the people.”
With more funds and public support, he said, the area’s security wall could be made taller, which would allow more Jewish families to move to Beit Lechem.
Even an increase in Jewish traffic to the area is vital, Stern said. “The more traffic we create into the kever area, the harder it will be [to effect] any potential fantasy of giving it to the Palestinians.”
Ultimately, though, Stern and his fellow idealists want more than just to hold onto Beit Lechem. They want to make it flourish. As yeshiva director Rabbi Barhen put it, “We represent ‘v’shavu banim ligvulam’ [Your children will return to their land] – the promise Hashem made to Rachel.”
To help in the ongoing effort to establish a strong Jewish foothold in Beit Lechem – and/or to schedule a simcha in the yeshiva, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 516-725-9287. Donations can be made to Central Fund for Israel (earmarked for Bney Rachel) and sent to 980 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10018.