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Following UNESCO’s outrageous decision regarding the M’aras HaMachpeila, I went to meet the new shliach at the M’ara, R’ Yoni Ettia, along with his father, veteran shliach, R’ Victor. * Between putting t’fillin on with people, R’ Yoni told me fascinating stories of his shlichus in this exalted place of the Avos.

Photos by Shlomit HershkopThe U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, recently declared the old city of Chevron and the Cave of the Patriarchs as aPalestinianworld heritage site and also put them on a list of sites consideredin danger.” Twelve countries supported the decision, three opposed, and six abstained. “Palestiniandiplomats had urged UNESCO to fast-track Chevrons inclusion in the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, claiming the area was endangered by Israel.

The resolution completely ignores the connections Jews have to the place for thousands of years, and maintains that the old city and the M’aras HaMachpeila are in an area not under Israel’s control. In order to pass the resolution in the organization which numbers 21 member countries, there had to be a two-thirds majority.

This resolution is yet another UNESCO fantasy which ignores the deep Jewish connection with the Tomb of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the place which was purchased in full by Avrohom Avinu. It was reason enough to go to Chevron, to the M’aras HaMachpeila, and to meet with new shliach, R’ Yoni Ettia, and to hear about his outreach work there. I also met his father, R’ Victor, who is the senior shliach to Chevron and Kiryat Arba for over 30 years, and with R’ Danny Cohen, shliach in Chevron.

R’ Yoni looked tired. “It was a busy day,” he apologized. “Today, I put t’fillin on with the number of people I usually put on during an entire week. Seven units of soldiers came and t’fillin had to be put on with all of them.”

How do you manage to do that?

“You use all the pairs of t’fillin and pass them around and while doing so, you keep exchanging and arranging for everyone to get a chance. I was helped by some friends I have here, regulars in the Border Patrol, who learned how to help me.

“There is a Border Patrol agent who, if I’m not here, takes the initiative to put t’fillin on with people. He started getting involved with Chabad in Tel Aviv before he was drafted. When he came here for the first time, he said to me, ‘I’m a Chabadnik.’ That’s how he feels. I said, ‘That’s great! When I’m not at the t’fillin stand, please put t’fillin on with people.’ During high-pressure times, like today, he helps out. He knows the routine. Aside from him, there are a few other guys who help out with the t’fillin.”

You don’t have to work hard to get R’ Yoni talking. The emotional intensity of the place and its holiness break down walls and melt people’s hearts, “no less than at the Kosel,” he says. “People come here and their neshama connects.”

“A few days ago, a group of tourists came here from Indonesia, all decked out in red and green [the colors of the “Palestinian” flag]. I took the opportunity to give out material on the Seven Noachide Laws. At a certain point, their guide asked me to explain about t’fillin. Since the guide was an Israeli, I suggested he demonstrate putting on t’fillin. I spoke and he translated. When the tourists heard my suggestion, they urged him to roll up his sleeve and put on t’fillin.

“Apparently, the fellow was an Israeli who ended up in Indonesia, settled there, and married a local woman. He had not put on t’fillin since his bar mitzva. He stood there in the center and I put t’fillin on him and they all watched with great interest. I felt that this was the fulfillment of the verse, ‘and all the nations of the world will see that the name of G-d is called upon you.’ He put t’fillin on for the second time in his life, thanks to them.”

R’ Yoni had lots of stories to tell:

“One day, a group of gentile, Russian tourists came here. I asked if there were any Jews and they said that one of them was a half-Jew. I told them there is no such thing as a half-Jew; he’s either Jewish or not. The man said he is not Jewish but his mother is …

“He was a man in his fifties and of course we made him a bar mitzva to mark his putting t’fillin on for the first time in his life. He was so moved! A year later, I had already forgotten about it.

“One day, I was standing in the M’aras HaMachpeila and davening when I felt a tap on my back. It was that same man, who now told me that since he put t’fillin on for the first time, he began doing so every day and he had bought himself a pair of t’fillin. ‘I brought you two clients today who also want a bar mitzva.’ The two men came with a tourist group and it was very moving to have their double bar mitzva there in the M’ara.”

Does the aura of early history and the knowledge that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried here open tourists’ hearts?

“Of course. It opens the heart and the neshama not only for Jews, but also for thousands of gentile tourists who come here. They feel a close connection thanks to the fact that Adam and Chava are here. Most of the non-Jews who come here read the Bible and have heard of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They come in order to connect to the place.

“I remember that one time, a non-Jewish tourist from Australia told me that he came here to see that the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is real. ‘When I came here,’ he said, ‘and I saw their children coming to visit them, I realized this is not just a story. To me that is the ultimate testament to the truth of it.’

“The tourists are definitely looking for spiritual connection, but the tour guides tell them more about the history of the place or of the stones, without telling them about the spiritual aspect. I definitely emphasize this aspect and do the Seven Noachide Laws campaign. I explain to them what it says in the Zohar that the M’aras HaMachpeila is the gateway to the Garden of Eden, and prayers from all over the world go up to heaven from here.

“I tell them that this is the gateway to the Garden of Eden and Adam was created in the Garden of Eden. This was supposed to be the reality for all of us, of all of creation. It was only because of people’s sins that Hashem wiped out the world but gave people a new chance through Noah and his sons by giving them the Seven Noachide Laws, giving them seven mitzvos to preserve the world in proper fashion. I then speak convincingly to them about observing these laws which all the nations of the world are obligated to keep. I see how this greatly inspires them.”

Yoni’s father, Victor, joins us and is clearly proud of his son. 

“Yoni has a lot of knowledge and he gets people curious and interested. He knows how to communicate things nicely. He doesn’t just talk; he carries with him the heritage of his grandparents, R’ Boruch and Sarah Nachshon who were pioneers in the new Jewish settlement of Chevron. He also serves as the continuation of our shlichus in this holy place, the place where the shlichus we got from the Rebbe began.”

For R’ Yoni too, it is much more than a place with symbolic significance. Not only his father began his activities here, but his grandparents, R’ Boruch and Sarah Nachshon, fought for Jewish freedom at the M’aras HaMachpeila, and were moser nefesh so that the place would be open for Jews to pray.

“It is a tremendous z’chus to continue their shlichus here,” R’ Yoni says.

R’ Yoni, who deals with thousands of tourists who come to the M’aras HaMachpeila, has quite a challenge. When he wants to portray the extent of the challenge, he uses military imagery by way of analogy:

“I always wanted my shlichus not to be routine; I wanted to be involved in activities that were focused on ‘achieving contact,’ to sense the people up close and conquer territory. Groups come here and I have a minute or two to speak to them. Sometimes I need to rush before the tour guide recovers and reclaims the narrative. It’s a very limited amount of time and I must be brief and convey the Seven Noachide Laws and be interesting too. My opening sentences will establish the spiritual fate of all those people who are visiting. I must line up the target and know exactly what message I want to communicate. It focuses me and gives me much satisfaction.”


I stood with R’ Yoni and his father at the foot of the walls of the M’aras HaMachpeila that extend upward in ancient majesty. R’ Victor came to the city right after he married, following his in-laws, the Nachshons, pioneers of the Jewish settlement in Chevron.

In 5746, he started his shlichus in Kiryat Arba and Chevron. He started working with children, and through them reached their parents. In Chevron itself, his work focused on three places: Tel Romeida, Beit Hadassa, and the Avrohom Avinu neighborhood. He also worked in Kiryat Arba and Ramat Mamrei.

R’ Victor still remembers his first t’filla at the M’aras HaMachpeila:

“I said the first bracha, ‘Elokei Avrohom, Elokei Yitzchok, v’Elokei Yaakov,’ and suddenly it hit me. The holy Avos are right here. It gave me deep meaning and perspective on the connection between past and present.”

He began working with IDF soldiers who guarded the M’ara, and with those who served in Chevron and the area. He started shiurim and his outreach work continuously grew. 17 years ago, he brought shliach, R’ Danny Cohen to Chevron.

R’ Yoni began his shlichus at the M’aras HaMachpeila four years ago, albeit unofficially. He was an active young man who went to the M’ara twice a week, opened a stand, and put t’fillin on with soldiers standing there as well as with Jewish tourists.

R’ Yoni had a dream of starting a Chabad House on the Shvil Yisroel – the Israel National Trail which traverses the length of the country for tourists who like to hike. Thousands of people pass through every year.

“A few months ago, R’ Danny Cohen suggested that I establish the work I do here and become a formal shliach. I went to my mashpia who said to me, ‘Do you want to be a shliach for the sake of the Jewish people? Do you want to meet people? This is the best place to be, because all the prayers of the Jewish people pass through the M’aras HaMachpeila; here is where you can meet everyone.’”

R’ Yoni’s story is that he went off the derech and joined the army. He was a combat soldier and then became a commander. After the army, he left the country and went to Africa where he spent more than a year. It was only when he returned to Eretz Yisroel that he began his journey back to Torah and Chassidus.

“It was not a simple period in my life, but my mashpia made things clearer for me when he said that this too was for the good, as part of my life’s journey. ‘You went to the army so that in your outreach work now, you can talk to the soldiers and officers as one of them.’ He also said, ‘Your traveling to South Africa was so that you can speak fluent English. You now have a common language with the tens of thousands of tourists who come to the M’ara throughout the year. It was all directed from Above because you are needed in this role.’”

After R’ Victor brought R’ Danny Cohen to Chevron, the shlichus expanded and he brought additional shluchim to work with tourists and soldiers. As mentioned, R’ Danny recently asked R’ Yoni to formalize the outreach work at the M’aras HaMachpeila. “For a number of years he wanted a steady shliach at the M’ara,” says R’ Yoni.

“My father brought R’ Danny here and they became partners in the shlichus in every respect, and that is how R’ Danny treats me. He gave me the freedom to work at the M’ara, provided help and support, and complete cooperation with anything I need.”

I like seeing the serious-smiley look on his face that R’ Victor usually has. “R’ Danny joined me here 17 years ago and began reaching out to people in Chevron. I come here once in a while in order to meet with soldiers and raise their spirits. The programming includes the people of the old yishuv in Chevron as well as the new, i.e., the people living in Kiryat Arba. My brother-in-law, R’ Yossi Nachshon also works here, as do others. Boruch Hashem, everyone fargins one another and helps his fellow shluchim without jealousy and competition; on the contrary.”

Jewish Chevron is not large but it is definitely a central community. Tens of thousands of tourists, Jews and non-Jews, visit every year. R’ Mordechai Ellinger works with them. Hundreds of soldiers are usually posted here and R’ Itzik Neimark works with them. Then there is the Jewish settlement itself, the heart of which is the M’aras HaMachpeila.

Are there people who, if not for the holiness of the M’ara, would not put on t’fillin?

I’m sure that’s so. Just recently, a group of tourists came from Russia including an 82 year old Jew. Their tour guide translated for me and I convinced him to put on t’fillin for the first time in his life! It wasn’t easy for him. It took us 40 minutes just to say Shma.

How do you feel about these “bar mitzvahs” you make, i.e., putting t’fillin on with people for their first time?

It’s an enormous z’chus. During the months I have been here on a regular basis, I think we made about 30 of these bar mitzvahs! Putting t’fillin on a karkafta is a big thing.


R’ Victor is very proud of his son. “He doesn’t rest on his laurels,” he says. “He never makes do with what there is, and is always working to create something new as he does more and more.”

R’ Yoni: Not long ago, we opened a coffee corner here in the memory of Avrohom Yedidya Nachshon. He was the first child to be circumcised in post Six Day War Chevron, against all the warnings and protestations of the police and the government.

R’ Victor: Yoni was very connected to his grandfather, R’ Boruch Nachshon. That is one of the reasons that he opened the coffee corner in memory of his son, Avrohom Yedidya, who passed away at the age of four months, and my mother-in-law decided that he would be buried in the old cemetery in Chevron. Since those who were killed in the slaughter of 1929, no Jews had been buried there. She did so against all the threats of the then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and the Defense Minister Shimon Peres.

One of the new initiatives launched by Yoni is the weekly Melaveh Malka held every Motzaei Shabbos in the courtyard of the M’ara. “Every week, we bring Dovid HaMelech to the Avos,” he says with a smile. “Each person brings his Shabbos leftovers from home and we farbreng. This is a group of mekuravim, about thirty guys, who come to fortify themselves each week.”

These farbrengens actually began with a bonfire that R’ Yoni made in the courtyard of the M’ara this past year on Lag B’Omer, in honor of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. This was the result of a fascinating story of divine providence.

Unlike Petach Tikva, Rosh Pina or Haifa, in a place like Chevron that is highly sensitive and volatile, every activity needs to receive a permit from the authorities. One cannot just go and light a fire in the courtyard of the M’aras HaMachpeila. It is prohibited. Why? That’s the way it is! So, who do you turn to? That is actually part of the problem, as there are many bureaucracies involved in oversight of the area. R’ Yoni began looking into who he needed to approach to get the desired permit, and he was directed to the police. They sent him to the Civil Administration, who in turn sent him to the administrative arm of the Tomb, and so on.

“This year, Lag B’Omer was on a Motzaei Shabbos, and on Thursday afternoon my wife called me to ask if we were in fact making a bonfire, since we needed to organize accordingly. I had no idea what to say. I told her that there were no permits yet and to all appearances they would not be forthcoming. ‘We have no choice; we will follow the customs of our forefathers. Grandfather also did not inquire about the legalities when he held the first bris in the M’aras HaMachpeila. We will do and Hashem will help.’

“A few minutes later, a large group of high-ranking military commanders entered the M’ara, along with some people in civilian attire. They asked me, ‘Who here makes bar mitzvas?’ I responded that I would be glad to help to the extent possible. ‘Do you know how to put t’fillin on someone and read from the Torah?’ I answered in the affirmative. I sat with the boy in question and gave him a brief explanation about t’fillin, what to do and how to put them on. Then we took out a Seifer Torah and the boy had his first aliya to the Torah. Those present also put on t’fillin, after I gave them a brief explanation of the tying of the t’fillin opposite the heart and the mind, in order to connect them to the will of Hashem.

“At the end of the celebration, Brigadier General Tamir Yedai, head of the Home Front Command, came over and told me that he enjoyed my explanation about the t’fillin, and asked if there was anything that he could do to help. I told him that I don’t need anything, but I had planned to make a bonfire in honor of Rashbi in the courtyard and I don’t have any permits. Within seconds, I was approached by two officers that were there with him, and they told me, ‘Your request is certified as of now.’

“And so, on Motzaei Shabbos Lag B’Omer, we lit a bonfire and held a large and respectable farbrengen. When we saw that it worked out well, we began holding a Chassidic farbrengen every Motzaei Shabbos in the garden area. Generally, the participants number in the tens, but when there are guests in town, the numbers reach to the hundreds.”


As mentioned, R’ Yoni has come a long way. In the joint conversation with his father, they spoke candidly:

“During the years that I was off the derech, it was very painful for my father. I saw that it hurt him even though he didn’t preach at me.”

R’ Victor looked at his son with his unique look (those who know, know) and nodded.

“Yoni in fact ‘took me to school.’ He was in a somewhat downward mode, but he is a very sensitive bachur, and the trait of truth always burned in him. On the one hand, he loves freedom; he was searching. On the other hand, he is very sensitive and strong when it comes to truth. Today, boruch Hashem, all his energy is devoted to his shlichus work as well as amazingly sensitive work with youth on the fringes.”

It seems there is no better place for such a serious, honest discussion between father and son than where children come to tap into the merit of the “Fathers.” 

R’ Yoni: Being the oldest, my father saw me as the one who would take upon himself to carry forth the shlichus. It was hard for him to see me thus, and I could see it on him. Now I’m at a point where I can say thank-you for everything I went through, “I thank you Hashem for having been angry with me.”

R’ Victor: I have a lot of nachas from him. He is full of positive energy.

R’ Yoni: I am continuing not just my father’s shlichus, but my grandfather’s shlichus too. I’ve taken things into my hands until the Rebbe is revealed and our Avos rise with the Resurrection of the Dead.

When I hear you talk about your work, I hear that you have a lot of satisfaction from what you do and by the fact that you are a shliach here, of all places.

“Definitely. Like I said, I looked for a long time to find my place of shlichus in the world. I made many trips in my life and I always searched for something that would channel what the trips gave me. And I’ve found it.”

In conclusion?

R’ Victor hugs his son, shakes his hand, and exudes appreciation. “I get positive regards from you all the time. It’s definitely a lot of nachas. I wish you an abundance of blessing, that you continue to sow spirituality and reap gashmius, because it’s not easy to acquire gashmius. And Hashem should give you lots of gashmius so you can make spirituality out of it. You are making a big kiddush Hashem here, and as you know, Chazal say a father is jealous of everyone but his son.”

R’ Yoni: Thank you Abba! I am happy to stand alongside you here in this context and to think together about how to carry out our shlichus in the best possible way.

This place is a holy place. Our prayers go through here. It is the entrance to Gan Eden. The Rebbe wrote to my grandfather that by learning Chassidus, you can conquer Chevron and all of Eretz Yisroel. I invite Anash to come here and visit, farbreng, daven and learn Chassidus, and conquer the place. Visits of Anash strengthen us, the shluchim, strengthen the settlement and all other good things. We invite everyone to come.


R’ Yoni Ettia, as mentioned, is continuing the chain of his father’s work as well as that of his grandfather, who displayed mesirus nefesh for the Cave of the Patriarchs. However, there are times that the family connections extend even further out, as in the following story that he tells:

During Operation Protective Edge, my younger brother Yishai was serving in the IDF. He was among the first Golani soldiers to enter Gaza. Even before that, I had written him a letter about how he has to remember that he is in essence the Rebbe’s shliach to the Golani Brigade, and that he should grab everybody there and get them to put on t’fillin.

Moments before they entered Gaza, he ran among the armored carriers and the other military vehicles, going from soldier to soldier and putting t’fillin on with them. His commanding officer admitted to him that he had never put on t’fillin. Yishai said to him, “If that is the case, now is the time; do it now.” And so, he put t’fillin on there for the first time in his life, a few minutes before entering into Gaza.

Three years passed since then. A few months ago I was manning the t’fillin stand in the M’ara, when a group of soldiers came from a non-religious military academy. At some point, I saw that one of their instructors was pointing at me and saying to someone, “That is Ettia.” The guy then approached me and asked, “Are you Ettia’s brother?”

“Which Ettia do you mean? We are nine brothers,” I said.

He didn’t remember the first name, and just said, “I am from Golani.”

“Then you must mean my brother Yishai.”

“Right,” he agreed, and told me, “Your brother came over to me a few minutes before we entered Gaza and asked me to put on t’fillin. At first I refused, but he pleaded with me and I agreed. I was supposed to be in the first armored carrier to enter Gaza, but in the meantime another group of carriers proceeded ahead of me under the command of a different officer. They were met by a hail of fire, and the lead carrier was sighted immediately and whoever was inside was killed.” That is the story that the officer told me with great emotion.

So I said to him, “Now that you have come here to the M’aras HaMachpeila, won’t you put on t’fillin?” To which he answered, “Only because you are Yishai’s brother, I will put on t’fillin.” So the first time that he put on t’fillin in his life was with my brother Yishai, and the second time was with me…”


Since we joined the shlichus in the holy city of Chevron, there has been much development. One would have to be blind not to see the tremendous development of the Chabad activities in Chevron.

Over the years, the need was felt to have a permanent presence at the M’aras HaMachpeila, a need which has only grown as the city of Chevron has become a draw for more and more people who come here to offer their prayers near those whose resting place is in Chevron.

The IDF has also been bringing more soldiers than in the past, and there are also tens of thousands of tourists who come to the M’aras HaMachpeila from all over the world.

When a Jew who does not observe Torah and mitzvos comes here, he has no idea about taking a siddur or a T’hillim and praying. Many of them do not understand the holiness of the place and how to behave here. As a result, there have been many who came, did a three minute circuit of the place and left… Others made do with just some archaeological descriptions…

Painfully, the holiness of the place did not make enough of an impression on many of the visitors, since there was nobody to explain to them the significance of the place.

That was the reason that I asked and conscripted R’ Yoni Ettia to be the shliach to the M’aras HaMachpeila. R’ Yoni mans the t’fillin stand (certainly a great thing fifty years since the t’fillin campaign was launched), and already in the first months of his work, we see that his hands are full. He does not suffice with just putting t’fillin on people, but he also explains the significance of the place to the Jews (and non-Jews) who come to visit.

I know R’ Yoni since he is a little kid and he is very suited for the position. He knows how to speak to the not-yet religious, he is a real social being, and he has brought a lot of positive energy to his work in preparing the place to greet Moshiach, when those who rest here will rise up.

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