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      Blessings from Hebron
      by David Wilder
      Personal Reflections on Hebron, Eretz Yisrael, Friends, Family and anything else that comes to mind.
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      David Wilder was born in New Jersey in the USA in 1954, and graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a BA in History and teacher certification in 1976. He spent 1974-75 in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University and returned to Israel upon graduation.

      For over eighteen years David Wilder has worked with the Jewish Community of Hebron. He is the English spokesman for the community, granting newspaper, television and radio interviews internationally. He initiated the Hebron internet project, including email lists of over 15,000 subscribers who receive regular news and commentaries from Hebron in English and Hebrew. David is responsible and continues to update the Hebron web sites, portraying various facets of Hebron, utilizing text, audio, video and pictures. He conducts tours of Hebron's Jewish Community and occasionally travels abroad, speaking at Hebron functions.

      David Wilder is married to Ora, a 'Sabra,' for 35 years. They lived in Kiryat Arba for 17 years and have resided at Beit Hadassah in Hebron for the past 15 years. They have seven children and many grandchildren.

      Links to sites David recommends:
      www.hebron.com (English)
      www.hebron.org.il (Hebrew)
      www.ohrshlomo.org (Hebrew)
      www.ohrshalom.net (Hebrew)
      (others to be added)

      Elul 7, 5770, 8/17/2010

      The Persian prince by Yossi Yehoshua, Reuven Weiss

      Nightmares about being shot by Revolutionary Guards no longer haunt him, but he still misses his mother's cooking. This is the amazing story of a young Jew who instead of joining Iranian army became outstanding IDF soldier who took part in Operation Cast Lead
      The Persian prince 
      by Yossi Yehoshua, Reuven Weiss
      Ynetnews: http://goo.gl/0jYU

      About three months ago, Major-General Sami Turgeman, commander of the Israel Defense Forces' ground forces, delivered a motivational speech to cadets at the Bahad 1 officer's training base in southern Israel.


      Turning to one of the cadets, Turgeman said, "Stand up, introduce yourself and tell us why you want to become an officer."


      The cadet's story left the general flabbergasted. A month later, when the course ended, Turgeman even awarded him the battalion's medal of excellence.


      Many details of Yosef's (not his real name) story remain confidential for security reasons and out of concern for his own personal safety. His family still lives in Iran, from which he immigrated to Israel to serve in the IDF.


      A short time after arriving in Israel, Yosef was already fighting in Gaza as part of Operation Cast Lead.


      Even as a child, Yosef felt out of place in Iran. "I was born to a religious Jewish family, and we lived in a Jewish community. You can live in Iran as a Jew, but not as a Zionist," he explains. "You have to be careful not to anger the extremists."


      Yosef went to school with Muslim children. "Following the revolution of 1979, the Iranian authorities banned studies in the Jewish community's school. Everyone had to enroll in Muslim schools. On Friday, our only day off, we studied at the Jewish school."


      Did you have any friends at the Muslim school?


      "I did, but we were not particularly close. For example, I did not visit their homes, because had I visited their homes and they would have offered me something to eat, I would not have been able to put anything in my mouth because of kashrut issues. There were other things that made me uncomfortable. For example, before meals (at school), the children would ask me 'why did you wash your hands (referring to the Jewish ritual of Netilat Yadayim)'? Some would not even sit next to me during the meals.


      "I asked my parents once, 'Why are we here? There is a Jewish state - the State of Israel'. After the revolution my parents understood it was time to leave Iran. But they did not know exactly when. I asked them, 'Why are we treated differently? Why do they want us to pray in Arabic? Why am I asked whether I plan on converting to Islam?' There were many mean children. Some of them attacked me and broke my finger. In another incident I was stabbed with a knife. When anti-Israel demonstrations were held in Iran, I could not leave the house. Even though our financial situation was good and we lacked nothing, I did not want to be there."

      Yosef shows off his Iranian passport (Photo: Gadi Kabalo)


      The synagogue was a refuge for Yosef and many of his friends. "It wasn't just a place to pray; it was like a youth center, where we met friends, studied and watched movies," he says. "The members of the community were very close – like family. Many of the children shared my feelings – they did not want to stay in Iran. We started first grade with dozens of children, and by 12th grade there were less than 10. The rest moved to the US and Israel."


      When he was 16, Yosef decided to try and leave Iran. He told no one of his plan. "I had some money saved up from my bar-mitzvah and from computer lessons I would give. I kept the money hidden in my shoes and packed a large bag containing all of my belongings. On Purim, it was customary for Jews to visit the gravesites of Esther and Mordechai in the city of Susa (or Shushan), so I told my parents I was going there," he says.


      "I asked a truck driver to smuggle me across the border. I took two flights to meet him, but I was a half-hour late and he drove away without me. It was also the Iranian New Year, so the border I had planned on crossing was closed for 13 days. I was forced to go back home."


      But the stark reality in Iran, including the arrest of 11 Jews on suspicions of "spying for Israel," increased his desire to come to the Land of Israel.


      "Some of them (the detained Jews) were my teachers. Innocent people. There is no way they were spies. They had no idea what a computer was. In Iran, killing people is like having a cup of coffee. Had they really been spies, they would have been executed, not released after a few years. When they were arrested, I began teaching in their stead. I taught Bible, Zionism and current Israeli events, which I linked to the Land of Israel of 2,000 years ago. I kept explaining to my students why it is important for Jews to live in Israel. I gave these lessons in secret, or else I would have been arrested immediately," he says.


      'Doing something for my country'

      Yosef's fears intensified as the end of his studies drew near. "At 18 everyone has to enlist in the Iranian army. Those who don’t enlist do not get a passport, are forbidden from getting married, cannot apply for a driver's license, cannot purchase a car or buy an apartment, nothing. For Jews the issue of enlistment is very difficult. Apart from the problem of kashrut, which of course is not kept in the army, no one wants to join an army that is an enemy of Israel. I dreamed of serving in the IDF."


      In an effort to dodge the draft, Yosef approached a man who promised him an exemption in exchange for money. "I paid him a $3,000 bribe. That's three million in Iranian currency. It's a huge gamble. Very frightening. I gave him money and all my personal information. I was afraid he would turn me in to the authorities, but he gave me the exemption certificate. I went to the Interior Ministry to apply for a passport. I was told that if the exemption certificate was authentic I would be given a passport, and if not I would be arrested. I sat at home, anticipating my arrest. Two weeks later I went to the post office – my passport was waiting for me there."


      Using a satellite dish, Yosef was able to follow the daily events in Israel on television. "When Gush Katif was evacuated, I could not understand what all the fighting was about. I saw Jews crying, and IDF soldiers. I did not understand why they were crying – why this evacuation was taking place. I would watch it every evening and go to bed sad."


      Yosef was also able to follow the Second Lebanon War on Israeli TV. "Iranian television saidHezbollah destroyed more than 1,000 Israeli tanks, but I heard that Israel did not use that many tanks and realized that the Iranian media outlets were lying," he says.


      According to Yosef, Iran is technologically advanced. "Iran gets the most modern things from Dubai. People tend to think that Iran is like Gaza, but this is far from the truth. I saw Gaza up close during Operation Cast Lead, and it is very different from Iran. I say this regretfully, because (Iran) is our enemy."


      Yosef managed to stay in touch with family and friends in Israel. "One of my relatives fled from Iran to Israel after the revolution. He would call once a year, and we would converse over the Internet. I would speak to friends who left Iran for Israel only on public phones because I was convinced Iranian intelligence wire-tapped phones in Jewish homes."


      Yosef says his friends in Israel contacted the Jewish Agency, which helped plan out his escape to Israel. "I bought a plane ticket to another Arab country, as though I were going on a trip. The most important thing was to keep everything secret. That was the most difficult part – not being able to say goodbye to my parents and friends. My parents assumed I would leave one day, but they were not prepared for it. I surprised them."


      "At the airport, the passport control officer looked at me with suspicion. 'Jew?' he asked. I answered 'yes'. 'Were you in the army?' I said I wasn't, and prepared to present the exemption certificate, but then he stamped the passport with a forcefulness that shook me."


      Jewish Agency representatives greeted Yosef upon his arrival at the Arab country. "I spent the night in a hotel, at the agency's expense, and we flew to Israel the following day."


      Are you in touch with your family in Iran?


      "They call me about once a month, from a public phone."


      Yosef initially lived in a Jerusalem absorption center. "All our lives we prayed that someday we would make it to the holy city. For me, living in Jerusalem was a dream come true. They gave me a room in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, a half-hour walk from the Western Wall. I would pray there every day."


      Yosef's first few days in Israel were accompanied by nightmares. "Every night I would dream that members of the (Iranian) Revolutionary Guard are chasing me and shooting me. When they shot me in the dream, I felt the bullets penetrate my body; I felt actual physical pain, which woke me up.


      "At some point I purchased a huge Israeli flag and hung it opposite my bed. When I would awake from the nightmares and see the flag, it calmed me down. I knew I was here in Israel and they could not hurt me," he recalls.


      At the IDF recruitment center in Jerusalem, Yosef asked to join the Paratroopers Brigade.


      Why paratroopers?


      "What do you mean? They captured the Western Wall."


      Operation Cast Lead was launched when Yosef completed company commanders' course. "I entered Gaza with the paratroopers. We were there for the duration of the operation. It was very interesting. I finally felt I was doing something for my country."


      The operation helped Yosef get rid of the nightmares. "During the first week I succeeded in killing them (Revolutionary Guards) in my dream, and since then I stopped having the nightmares."


      Following the IDF's withdrawal from Gaza, Brigadier-General Avichai Ronsky, who served as chief military rabbi at the time, helped Yosef get the security clearance required to attend officers' training course. Yosef is currently being trained to become a battalion communications officer. He emphasized that this is a "combat position."


      In the meantime, Yosef left the absorption center in Jerusalem and currently resides in Kiryat Arba. "We prayed at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and I felt I needed to live in the area. I saw a big Israeli flag and understood that I have to reinforce this site."


      What do you miss most?


      "Every lone soldier misses his mother's cooking."

      Av 25, 5770, 8/5/2010

      Welcome to Israel

      I’d already spent two years in Israel when I came back officially as an Oleh Hadash, a new Israeli immigrant. I remember it fairly well. January, 1978. Having finished university and done a stint on Kibbutz, the time had come to get serious.

      The plane landed sometime in the early evening. I was by myself, had no family here, but a few friends. They probably knew I was coming back, but waited for my call.

      Of course, coming over as an Israeli meant that I had to ‘go through the mill.’ Actually it wasn’t too bad. The normal filling in forms in the airport office of the ministry of immigration, and then waiting for the free ride to my choice of destination. I do recall raising my voice as the hours marched on, but was told, ‘savlanut, savlanut’ (which means patience). I didn’t have much choice. My Hebrew wasn’t non-existent, but certainly not good enough to express myself in any great detail.

      Finally, riding in some kind of truck, I made it to a dormitory in Talpiot, Jerusalem sometime after midnight. The gate was locked and it took some time until the building’s Russian guard finally heard the doorbell and let me in. The housemother showed me to my room, where my new roomate was rudely awakened in the early hours of the morning. Eventually he forgave me and is today a friend living in nearby Kiryat Arba.

      That was how it began. No bells or whistles, but an inner sense of pride - ‘Here I am, now I’m an Israeli.’ It was a good feeling.

      Yesterday I ‘made Aliyah’ all over again.

      We had friends who were coming over on the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight, bringing some 230 new Israelis to our homeland from North America. The Abrams family, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, were finally coming home.

      This flight over was far from their first. The family has been visiting Israel for at least one month every summer for over ten years. A few years ago they almost made it a permanent stay, but were held up at the last minute. The real hero of the family are not the parents, rather their oldest daughter, Elana, who decided that Atlantic City really wasn’t the place for a ‘good Jewish girl’ to go to high school. So a few years she left the US for Israel, on her own, to attend a women’s school in Bnei Brak. She came to visit us in Hebron every now and again; we tried to ease her way as much as we could. But in reality, her success was her own. A month ago she finished, Bagrut (graduation examinations) and all, and is planning, a year from now, to begin medical school here in Israel.

      Standard studies weren’t enough of a challenge, so Elana also volunteered with Magen David Adom, and rode around in ambulances in the middle of the night assisting people who needed help. When that wasn’t keeping her busy she starred on her school’s basketball team.

      In about a month Elana will begin her ‘Shnat Sherut,’ a year of volunteer work religious women undertake in place of army duty. She will be continuing her work with Magen David Adom and emergency aid, based in Kiryat Arba.
      And during her free time she’ll be helping her parents and siblings adjust to their new lives in Jerusalem.

      A month or so ago my daughter, who’s just a year older than Elana, received an invitation to greet the family at Ben Gurion airport upon arrival of the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight. The plane was supposed to land at about 7:30 AM, and invited guests had to be there by 6:45. That meant we’d have to leave the house at about 5:00. A little early for me. But at the last minute we decided to go.

      It didn’t take too long until the Terminal 1 hall was packed with others just like us, waiting to welcome the new Israelis. Having a press pass, I was able to wait only meters away from the shuttle buses transporting the people from the plane to the airport. About thirty Israeli soldiers in dress uniform lined the walkway, with live music creating an authentic holiday atmosphere. When the first bus pulled up they began playing ‘Hevenu Shalom Alechem’ with hundreds of people waving Israeli flags, singing and cheering. As the passengers stepped off the bus, they seemed to be stunned.

      There were young and old, singles and families of six and seven children. One group included a four generation family. Among the arrivals were eighty five youth who will be inducted into the army in a couple of weeks. From five months to ninty four years old, all coming to live in Israel. The expressions on these people’s faces left little need for words - they could not believe the reception they were receiving, as they took their first steps as Israelis.

      My friends were on one of the last shuttles arriving at the terminal. I’d been filming video and photos of the festivities, but when I saw Ken and the others step off the bus I couldn’t really control myself. I ran over to him, grabbed his hands and started dancing, around and around and around.

      Earlier in the morning I’d interviewed an NBN member, who told me that whenever he participated in these events, he had tears in his eyes. Well, he wasn’t the only one.

      Finally, with everyone in the hall, a beautiful ceremony commenced, which included a speech by President Shimon Peres and a performance by Israeli singer Rami Kleinstein. But the ‘stars of the show,’ as far as I’m concerned, were Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Mr. Tony Gelbart, who initiated Nefesh b’Nefesh less than a decade ago, and have, so far, brought over 25,000 new Israelis to Israel.

      Watching the event, I could only look back and remember my Aliyah experience over thirty years ago, put myself in these people’s shoes, and say to myself, “Welcome to Israel.”

      Photos and video at: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/Message.aspx/4309

      Av 17, 5770, 7/28/2010

      Consolation Eighty-One Years Later

      This is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die
      This past week I found Shabbat morning prayers at Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron to be particularly poignant.

      There were three separate minyons taking place simultaneously. To my left, in the hall memorializing Ya’akov and Leah a family from Jerusalem celebrated their son’s Bar Mitzvah.  The room isn’t very large, and it was packed from wall to wall. When the thirteen year old finished chanting the weekly Torah portion, festive singing filled the building, arousing joy even in the other, adjacent services. A piece of candy bounced off of my chair, outside that room and was quickly swiped by a child sitting nearby.

      To the right of the central courtyard was another group of people praying, according to the Sepharadi traditions. They were also in the midst of a celebration; A fresh chatan and kallah, bride and groom, were in attendance. The young couple had married only days before, in the Machpela garden courtyard, outside the magnificent monument above the caves of the Forefathers. There too familiar sounds of delight reverberated throughout the building.

      I sat in the courtyard, surrounded by festivity, but also lost in thought. As the Torah reading concluded, a familiar Hebron resident, Yossi Lebovitch, approached the podium, and taking the Torah scroll in his long arms, began reciting “El, Maleh Rachamim,” a special prayer repeated at the time of a yartzheit, the annual memorial of a relative’s passing.

      Yossi’s resounding voice rose above the joyous celebrations of the other groups as he prayed for the soul of his murdered son Elazar, killed eight years ago this week, on the eve of his twenty first birthday.  A soldier at the time of his death, Elazar was chauffeuring a newlywed couple, a close friend of his, to Hebron for the traditional Shabbat post-wedding party. A few kilometers outside of Hebron terrorists opened fire on his car, hitting and fatally wounding him.

      When Yossi Lebovitch finished the short memorial for his son, he continued, again repeating the ancient prayer, this time in memory of sixty seven Jews slaughtered in Hebron eighty-one years ago this week, in the summer of 1929. Men, women and children were tortured and massacred by their friends and neighbors. Three days later the survivors, some of whom were saved by Arabs, were expelled from the city, bringing about an end to a Jewish community  thousands of years old. A small group returned in 1931 but were evicted in the spring of 1936, being told that the Mufti, Haj Amin El Husseini, who led the 1929 riots, was again inciting against the Jews and their safety could no longer be guaranteed. From 1936 until 1967 Hebron remained Judenrein. 

      Every year, on the eighteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, people gather at the martyr’s plot in the ancient Jewish cemetery to mourn those killed decades ago.

      The weekly Haftorah reading, from the prophet Isaiah, on the Shabbat preceding this anniversary, begins with the words, “Nachamu Nachamu,” “consolation, consolation.”

      Where is our consolation?

      My wife and I hosted, this past Shabbat, close friends of ours who live in Kiryat Arba. We’ve known them for many years and have spent much time together in the past. But this time was extra special.

      Why so? My friend Shlomo is a Cohen, of the traditional ‘priestly caste.’ It is well known that Cohanim are forbidden from entering cemeteries, and for that reason Shlomo had never visited inside the building atop the caves of Machpela, despite his living in Kiryat Arba for about 25 years. However, lately, due to certain technical structural changes in the building, Rabbis have ruled that it is now permissible for Cohanim to enter this holy site. So, on Shabbat morning I escorted my friend, for the first time, into Ma’arat HaMachpela.

      I cannot fathom the feelings of a person accessing this sacred site for the first time, but I could visibly see his excitement and emotions. It was a very special moment. Later I asked him what he felt, worshiping for the first time inside Ma’arat HaMachpela. He responded, “I remember the first time I went to the Kotel – the Western Wall, and this was certainly no less than that. I remember then feeling, ‘we are here – Am Yisrael is here.’  And that is what I felt now, at Ma’arat HaMachpela. The Jewish people are here, really here.’

      That is our consolation. We are here. We are in Israel, we are in Hebron, we are at Ma’arat HaMachpela. We did not fade away and die, despite a two thousand year exile, despite the destruction of the primary symbols of our essence – the Temple, Jerusalem and Jewish independence in our land. We suffered exile after exile, torture and death at the hands of persecutors and crusaders,  but refused to give up. Culminating, of course, with the most horrific moment, that being the Holocaust, and the most uplifting moment, that being the creation of the State of Israel.

      This is not only solace; rather it is our response to the evil perpetrated against the Jewish people for thousands of years.  Standing next to the graves of the dozens of martyrs slaughtered in Hebron, eight y one years later, we can truthfully declare: we are your consolation, we have come home, the Jewish people are here, in Hebron.