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Aug142015

POWER OF ATTORNEY FROM THE REBBE

Rabbi Moshe Levinger, known as the “Father of the Jewish Settlement in Chevron,” recently passed away at the age of 80 after an illness.  R’ Levinger was one of the leaders of the Jewish settlement movement in Yehuda-Shomron and who became well known due to his great efforts and pioneering work when it came to where Jews live in Eretz Yisroel. 

R’ Levinger was born in Yerushalayim in 1935 to parents who came from Germany.  He learned in Yeshivas Kfar HaRoeh and in Yeshivas Merkaz HaRav.  He fought for the historic rights of the Jewish people in Chevron and was arrested several times for this.

Surely, much will be written about him in various forums; in this article we will focus on his work on behalf of redeeming Chabad property in the Chevron area as well as his relationship with the Rebbe.

PESACH NIGHT

Pesach night, 5728/1968, was a fateful night for the Jewish settlement in Chevron.  It is when the Jewish settlement in the City of our Fathers began.  The first Jewish settlers in Chevron after the Six Day War were a group of rabbanim and personalities led by R’ Moshe Levinger and lawyer, Elyakim HaEtzni (who swore he would go live there on the day the city was liberated by the IDF).

Of all the suggestions made to further the idea of settling in the city, the decision was made to rent the Park Hotel which was situated in the heart of Chevron (today, the hotel is under the exclusive control of the Palestinian Authority), ostensibly, just for Pesach.  The group presented itself to the hotel owner as tourists from Switzerland, but HaEtzni later said that the manager of the hotel told him that when representatives of the group arrived at his house to take the key, he was sure they had come to kill him.  “They remembered what happened in 1929 (the massacre of Jews in Chevron) and were sure we would pay them back.  But of course, we did not touch innocent people.”

When everything was ready for the trip, the organizers of the group asked General Uzi Narkiss, who was the Command General of the Central Region, for weapons for their defense.  Narkiss, who was not pleased (to say the least) by the visit of this group to his office, told them that the government decided not to interfere with them but not to help them either.  Furthermore, he personally did not want to be involved and said, “Do as you please.”  After a lengthy conversation with him, he unwillingly wrote a letter to the police commander in Chevron in which he asked “to give them some rifles.”

R’ Chaim Drukman led the seder.  Around 100 people sat around the large table, including R’ Eliezer Waldman (later rosh yeshiva of Nir in Kiryat Arba), the writer Moshe Shamir (one of the leaders of Eretz Yisroel HaShleima movement), Shmuel Katz (who was a member of the leadership of Etzel and a member of the first Knesset), and of course, R’ Levinger and Elyakim HaEtzni and their families.

Afterward, the entire group went out to the streets of Chevron on its way to the Meoras HaMachpeila.  All along the way they saw Arab homes.  Nobody, except for this group, was out at this hour.  Here and there, window shutters opened and an Arab peeked out, his eyebrows raised and a look of astonishment on his face at this unusual sight.  On their way, they danced and sang, “Ki M’Chevron Teitzei Torah.”  Without weapons, without a military escort.

What was the reaction of the Arabs? “Although Chevron today and then too, was hostile,” said HaEtzni, “at that time, the Arabs weren’t hostile but astonished.  They were sure they’d be killed.  The mayor, Jabari, wanted to cooperate with us.  He welcomed us with pomp and ceremony.  I also know that he offered the government to renovate the Avrohom Avinu shul with the expenses divided - half on the government and half on the Chevron municipality, but the government declined the offer.

“There was a goat pen on the spot where the Avrohom Avinu shul had been and we found an Arab drying sheep dung on the holy earth where the shul had been for years. When we protested the defilement of this sacred land, he pulled out a document written in Hebrew by the government which allowed him to maintain his goat pen on the shul property!”

It was three weeks later, when the Israeli newspapers began their incitement against the “group of settlers who intended on pushing the Arabs out of Chevron,” that the leaders of the group were called to Jabari’s office.  On his desk were Israeli newspaper clippings with Arab translations.  Jabari told them that in a telegram to Moshe Dayan he let him know he was not responsible for the safety of the settlers.

Dayan responded in a telegram that the Jews settling in Chevron was legal and that he did not ask that Jabari guarantee the safety of the settlers.  “Their security,” wrote Dayan, “is solely the responsibility of Tzahal.”

SHARON ASKS THE REBBE FOR SUPPORT

This was the situation in Chevron about a year after IDF forces captured it.  In the summer of 5728, Knesset member Ariel (Arik) Sharon asked the Rebbe to send Chabad Chassidim to settle in the liberated territories.  Sharon, who was aware of the tremendous power of Chabad, met with the Rebbe after the Six Day War and asked the Rebbe to use that power for massive settlement of the liberated territories, in the hopes that this power would change the thinking of those in government who planned on completely refusing Jewish settlement in the liberated areas.

Following his yechidus with the Rebbe, Sharon wrote a letter to the Rebbe in which he asked him to issue a Kol Korei (proclamation) to make aliya and settle Chevron.

The Rebbe responded in a very detailed letter in which he made the position of Lubavitch clear; the idea, in and of itself, to settle the liberated areas, was a good one.  But at the same time, Lubavitch could not allow itself to issue a Kol Korei for settlement, not even in Chevron where Lubavitch had deep roots, and could not organize mass aliya of Chabad Chassidim, in an official way.

The Rebbe said that the reason for his refusal was that even settlement on a large scale would not change the approach of the government toward Jewish settlement, and the settlers would not be given the proper security backup.  The Rebbe asked, to illustrate his point, what did Sharon think the reaction of the Israeli army would be in the case of an argument between a Jewish child and an Arab child? Who would the Israeli police side with, especially if the mayor would arouse worldwide public opinion against the Israeli provocation?

Despite the Rebbe’s unwillingness to call for massive Chabad settlement in Chevron, he inquired as to the possibility of reestablishing the yeshiva Toras Emes in Chevron.

The Rebbe greatly desired to perpetuate the Chabad foothold in Chevron, in the same buildings where Yeshivas Toras Emes had been in the past, which had been founded by the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe Rayatz, and about which the Rebbe Rayatz had said he has an emotional connection toward them.

We know hardly anything about the Rebbe’s first plan to start the yeshiva right after the Six Day War.  The only evidence we have of such a plan can be found in that letter to Sharon where it says, “Despite what was said previously, the possibility of founding a yeshiva etc. was looked into and researched, and the answer I was given was it was preferable for me to look into a yeshiva in Yerushalayim than in Chevron.”

Despite the hostile attitude on the part of the government to the settlement plan, and despite all the reasons given in the letter, from which the conclusion appears to be that the timing was not right, the Rebbe was interested in having a Chabad yeshiva in Chevron, but the Israeli government did not agree under any circumstances.

REDEMPTION OF BEIT SCHNEERSOHN

R’ Moshe Levinger worked tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish settlement and did all he could so that once again the sounds of children would be heard next to the graves of the Avos.

As part of his attempts at renewing the Jewish settlement in Chevron, R’ Levinger wrote to the Rebbe and asked him to encourage the settlers in Chevron, to intervene on behalf of the Jewish settlement in Chevron, and perhaps even to send his Chassidim to settle in the City of our Fathers.

In response to his letter, the Rebbe wrote (1969) that although there was no doubt as to the necessity to settle Chevron, especially for Chabad Chassidim whose leaders throughout the generations had supported the Jewish settlement there, still, since the Israeli government was ready to bestow Chevron to the Arabs, and it was an open miracle that prevented this from happening, therefore, in accordance with Chazal’s injunction “Do not rely on a miracle,” the Rebbe could not accede to his request.  The Rebbe emphasized, “It is not the goyim I am afraid of, G-d forbid … but the views of our mistaken Jewish brethren who are granted free choice.”  The Rebbe ended with, “My intention is not at all to weaken you, and those with you, in your views and matters.”

Throughout the years that passed since the liberation of Chevron, Jews yearned to return and renew the Jewish settlement on destroyed Jewish sites.  This desire came from the understanding that we ought not make peace with the atrocities that occurred in 1929, and no victory should be awarded to terrorists by perpetuating the situation in which Jews, who lived in the city for thousands of years and who had been expelled from it, could not exercise their right to return and rebuild it.

For this purpose, a team was put together whose job it was to redeem Jewish property from the Arab squatters who lived on Jewish property since the pogrom of 1929.

Among the former Jewish properties in Chevron, Chabad properties took a place of honor. In the first stage they spoke about Beit Schneersohn.  Beit Schneersohn is located about ten meters south of Beit Hadassah.  The building was built by Chabad Chassidim and it served as a meeting place, beis midrash, hostel, and as living quarters.  Beit Schneersohn was where Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel (Schneersohn) Slonim lived.  She was the mother of the Chabad settlers in Chevron and was known for her righteousness and fine qualities.  She was admired by all the residents of Chevron.  The Slonims lived in this building throughout the years.

R’ Levinger, who greatly desired redeeming the building from the Arabs, faced a dead end.  He could not start his attempts at redeeming the land as long as he did not have legal powers of representation from the owners - Kollel Chabad.

When he spoke to those at the offices of Kollel Chabad in Eretz Yisroel, he was told that although they would like to help him, without the approval of the president of the kollel, i.e. the Rebbe, they could not grant him legal status.

R’ Levinger asked the Rebbe to tell Kollel Chabad to give him power of attorney for Beit Schneersohn.  Upon repeated requests by R’ Levinger, the Rebbe told the heads of Kollel Chabad, in a phone conversation on 19 Kislev 5738, to speak to a Lubavitcher rav about the matter.

It was decided to speak to the rav of B’nei Brak, R’ Yaakov Landau.  R’ Landau, who it seems knew R’ Levinger, said he thought R’ Levinger should be given the legal ability to redeem Beit Schneersohn, since he was experienced in redeeming property in Chevron. (The Rebbe’s instruction was received late at night and the heads of the kollel understood from the wording that the Rebbe wanted the matter to be concluded quickly.  This is why they were at R’ Landau’s house at five in the morning.  News of the decision to give him power of attorney reached R’ Levinger at six in the morning.)

Immediately after he was given the legal power, R’ Levinger began working quickly.  He spoke to the Arab owners and asked them to clear out of the building in exchange for suitable financial compensation.  Although he could have started legal proceedings against them and prove his legal ownership of the building, he preferred to redeem the property without the media commotion which was likely to occur with a legal battle.

However, despite the financial offer, the occupants refused to vacate.  People from the “Peace Now” movement, who knew the intentions of the Chevron settlers, promised the Arabs huge sums of money if they did not sell the building.  It was only after the personal intervention of the head of the Land Authority in Chevron that the Arabs agreed to sell them the building.

After they signed the contract of sale and left the building, they noticed the car belonging to the senior lawyer for “Peace Now” who had come to block the sale.  They had gotten it done just in time.

The building was renovated and rebuilt.  Today, another two floors have been added, and attached to the northern facade is a new building called “Beit HaShisha.”  On the back of Beit Schneersohn was built another building called “Beit Fink” for the donors.  Six large families live in Beit Schneersohn today and there is a daycare center on the ground floor.

REDEEMING BEIT ROMANO

While Beit Schneersohn was undergoing renovations, R’ Levinger began making inquiries into Beit Romano, which was constructed in 1879 by Avraham (Haim) Romano, a wealthy Jew from Turkey, as a home for the elderly of the Turkish community.  This property was considered the largest Jewish property in the Chevron area and covered nearly 5000 square meters.

In those days, a large Arab school was located in Beit Romano.  Arab stores were built on part of the property and the central bus station of Arab Chevron was located on a large part of it.  R’ Levinger wanted to redeem the land and put up a yeshiva building, but he was told that without clear approval from the Rebbe, Kollel Chabad would not give him power of attorney for the property. 

Actually, even the government higher-ups insisted on the Rebbe’s consent.  In one of his meetings with then Prime Minister Begin, the topic came up and Begin said he wanted to know what the Lubavitcher Rebbe had to say and only after hearing the Rebbe’s opinion would he decide on his position.  The Secretary of State Aryeh Naor expressed similar sentiments.

R’ Levinger saw that his only recourse was to go to the Rebbe, tell him his plans and ask for his approval.  “The Rebbe,” said R’ Levinger, “like the Rebbe Rashab in his time, who we know raised money from all over Russia over a period of a year and a half in order to buy Beit Romano, was much in favor of getting the building back.

“When we came to Chevron, we found all the maps and documents for the building and on all of them it said that the property belonged to ‘Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok’ who inherited it from his father.  After the First World War, when Lubavitchers left the building, the Rebbe Rayatz sent letters to various authorities, ‘to give me back my property and building in Chevron.’  The Rebbe Rayatz was very upset that it had passed into Arab hands.”

It was the end of Adar II 5741.  R’ Levinger was sure that after the Rebbe’s medical emergency of Simchas Torah 5738 it would be hard for him to get a private audience with the Rebbe, but he decided to try.  He left all the pre-Pesach work and went to the Rebbe.  Upon arriving, he asked the secretaries to arrange an appointment for him.  They told him that under the circumstances there was no way he would be allowed in any time soon.

It was a Wednesday, 26 Adar II 5741, when the phone rang at the home of R’ Levinger’s host.  On the line was the Rebbe’s secretary, R’ Groner.

“The Rebbe asked that you come and see him after Mincha.”

R’ Levinger hurried over to 770 and after Mincha had yechidus.  The yechidus lasted an hour and a half in the course of which the Rebbe discussed with him all the angles of the settling of Yesha in general and Chevron in particular.  The Rebbe asked about every detail and encouraged him to continue his work.

“When I visited the Rebbe, I was able to present all these facts to him for over forty minutes! The Rebbe encouraged me and spoke in praise of settlements.  As far as Beit Romano, the Rebbe told me in his Ashkenazic Hebrew, ‘Take our building like you took Beit Hadassah and the Avrohom Avinu shul, it’s an important matter.’ These words of the Rebbe still echo in my ears.  When he spoke to me about the settlement movement he said that he supports it, ‘especially in Chevron.’

“The Rebbe was very interested in knowing how my teacher R’ Tzvi Yehuda Kook was doing, but at least two thirds of our conversation was about Chevron; and my purpose in going to the Rebbe was Chevron.”

According to R’ Levinger, the Rebbe spoke to him about many matters regarding which secrecy, even many years later, was appropriate.  The Rebbe asked him not to reveal these matters.  For this reason, he did not say much about that yechidus.

When he began to speak to the Rebbe about Beit Romano, the Rebbe’s face turned grave.  He outlined his plans by which he would redeem the building from the Arabs and open a yeshiva there.  The Rebbe listened, inquired about every detail, and finally agreed to grant the legal authority to act in his name to redeem the largest Chabad property.

It should be stressed that this was only a power of attorney which gave R’ Levinger the authority to act on behalf of the Rebbe, but did not give him rights over the property, which remained Chabad’s.

R’ Levinger went on to relate:

“At the end of our conversation I asked the Rebbe, ‘Perhaps the Rebbe will come and visit us for Shavuos in Chevron?’ The Rebbe responded with a smile, ‘Why don’t you ask me about Pesach?’ [since it was a few days before Pesach].”

When he left the Rebbe’s office, he refused to discuss the yechidus except for one thing.  He said that he asked the Rebbe, “What shall I tell those waiting outside?” The Rebbe said to say that he had received a bracha for success in his work.

R’ Levinger returned to Eretz Yisroel and with the power of attorney that he had been given began working on redeeming the property.  The Arabs at Beit Romano were more receptive and ready to leave in exchange for a huge amount of money.  Their only problem was where to move the hundreds of schoolchildren.

In the meantime, several serious attacks took place, such as the stabbing of a yeshiva student, Kapolsky, near Beit Romano, which forced the Israeli government to take steps against the Arabs of Chevron.  As part of their security measures, the Defense Ministry confiscated the entire property (except for the row of stores the Arabs built after 1929) for security purposes.  The army had an obvious interest in confiscating the property – its location in the center of the city was an enormous strategic advantage and they decided to use it.  As for what to do with the Arab students, they gave the Chevron municipality additional classrooms in other schools in the city.

The entire process was coordinated between R’ Levinger and the Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, who planned on setting up a military camp on the site and giving the building, at a later point, to the Jewish settlers so they could open a yeshiva, which was R’ Levinger’s original plan.

YESHIVAS SHAVEI CHEVRON IN BEIT ROMANO

Yeshivas Shavei Chevron opened in Elul 5742 in Beit Romano.  Once again, the sound of Torah could be heard in the place where Toras Emes used to be.  The yeshiva was opened with ten students and thanks to the blessing of the owners, the Nesi’ei Chabad, the yeshiva grew and today there are 250 bachurim and young men learning there.

As the yeshiva grew, it became urgent to expand the building.  In addition, the condition of the existing building was not satisfactory and they decided to renovate the entire building and to add a floor. 

In 5751, the plans were approved by the Housing Minister, Ariel Sharon, who promised to give two million shekels to renovate the yeshiva.  As renovations began, they discovered an ancient subterranean structure.  The below ground level floor was also renovated in coordination with expert archaeologists and today the yeshiva’s storage rooms and other rooms are down there.

In the summer of 5752, with the rise of a Leftist government to power, the government announced that it would not honor the agreements the previous government had signed, and the money the yeshiva was supposed to get was frozen.  The yeshiva took the government to court and was able to get the money, but this amount was not enough to complete the renovations (the high cost of renovations was due to the fact that great efforts were made to preserve the original building which raised the cost by a significant amount).

So as to preserve the original facade of the building, they did not tear it down but renovated it.  During the course of renovations, the building was suddenly split in half.  The engineers, who were rushed to the location, surrounded the entire structure with iron poles which were attached with huge screws.  Over a period of weeks, the screws were tightened each day, as much as possible, until the building was reunited once again.

There were years that R’ Yossel Gutnick helped them financially until the building was renovated and ready for use.

From letters of the Rebbe to R’ Levinger and Sharon, as well as the Rebbe’s attitude toward plans for renewing the Chabad settlement in Chevron, we see that the Rebbe very much desired that the liberated territories be populated, Chevron in particular.  But as a “man of halacha,” the Rebbe did not tell his Chassidim to make aliya and settle in Chevron because we have a principle “we do not rely on a miracle.”

A DOLLAR FOR RAV LEVINGER

On 4 Iyar 5750, Mr. Yechiel Leiter of Chevron went with a group of people, who arranged a dinner on behalf of R’ Levinger’s work in Chevron, to the Rebbe.  Leiter said to the Rebbe, “R’ Levinger and the entire community in Chevron send regards to the Rebbe.  Two weeks ago, we received a permit from the prime minister to build Beit Schneersohn and Beit Romano.  We waited for six years for this permit.  We would like to present the Rebbe with “the contract of the Meoras HaMachpeila” (drawn up by an artist in Chevron).

This was the discussion that ensued as written in a diary of one of the T’mimim in Beit Chayeinu which was a publication at that time:

Rebbe: Please leave a photocopy for me.

Leiter: We want to leave the original contract with the Rebbe.

Rebbe: Thank you very much, much success, good news.

Leiter: I would like to ask for a bracha from the Rebbe for the dinner we are making here in the US. 

The Rebbe gave him a dollar for “success abroad,” another dollar “to succeed in Eretz Yisroel,” and a third dollar, “for success in the City of our Fathers.”

Then the Rebbe gave a fourth dollar and said, “This is for R’ Levinger, he should stand strong and may Hashem grant him success, especially regarding the Machpeila about which it says in s’farim that all prayers ascend through Chevron.”

Leiter introduced the people who were helping him with the dinner.

Rebbe: Tell them that all prayers, yours (pointing at him) and mine (pointing at himself) and theirs (pointing at them) go up through Chevron.

Someone who helped with the dinner said to the Rebbe that he was recently in Chevron and had visited Beit Romano and Beit Schneersohn and there were 120 children sitting and learning all the time, there were no stores etc. where they could hang around.

Rebbe (smiling): If only the same was so in New York… Don’t just tell me; tell those who have stores here.

Then the Rebbe blessed them and said: We should meet soon in Chevron with Moshiach Tzidkeinu. 

WARM RELATIONSHIP WITH THE SHLUCHIM IN CHEVRON

Throughout the years, R’ Levinger had a warm relationship with the Lubavitcher residents of Chevron as well as the shluchim to the city.  R’ Danny Cohen, shliach in Chevron, tells of the longstanding, warm relationship R’ Levinger had with Chabad:

“He was always happy to tell of his long private audience with the Rebbe in 5741 in which the Rebbe encouraged him to continue here and to make use of Chabad property which was either abandoned or in Arab hands.

“R’ Levinger attended nearly every Chabad event in Chevron and always spoke positively of Chabad. He also attended and spoke at the Moshiach seudos that we make every year at the Meoras HaMachpeila.”

***

With the passing of R’ Levinger on Shabbos, Parshas B’Chukosai, the Jewish settlement in Chevron lost its patron who cared so much and stood up for the right of every Jew to the City of our Fathers.

His son, Malachi, director of the Kiryat Arba city council, said, “The loss is great and parting is painful, but the passing of my father on the eve of Yom Yerushalayim and Yom Chevron symbolizes the great spirit and love that beat within him for all of Eretz Yisroel.  His vision is our vision and his great spirit will continue to beat in the hearts of us all to continue building the nation and the land.”

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