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Saturday, 8 September 2007

Drawing bat mitzva girls to Rachel's Tomb

Drawing bat mitzva girls to Rachel's Tomb
By TOVAH LAZAROFF AND MICHAEL FREUND


Earlier this month, New Yorker Malky Grunwald, 12, held her bat mitzva
in a long, windowless hallway at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, after an
IDF prohibition kept her and dozens of guests from celebrating in the
Jewish-owned community center next door.
Tamar Klein, another 12-year-old from New York, was luckier. On Monday,
hers was the inaugural celebration at the balloon-festooned, spacious
World Bat Mitzva Center next to the tomb.
Organizers hope the new center will help Rachel's Tomb acquire the same
allure for girls coming of age as the Western Wall holds for boys.
"Tamar's was the first of what I hope will be thousands of bat mitzvas
taking place at Rachel's Tomb," said Chaim Silberstein from Beit El, who
heads the center and the Rachel Imeinu Foundation umbrella organization.
"We would like to make our building at Rachel's Tomb the ultimate venue
for a young Jewish woman," said Silberstein, a South African oleh. He
hoped it "would answer a very important need in the Jewish world."
Silberstein said he had organized the purchase of the 74-square-meter,
three-story structure adjacent to Rachel's Tomb, after watching
Palestinians destroy Joseph's Tomb in Ramallah in 2001.
He didn't want that to happen to Rachel's Tomb, which he said was
Judaism's third-holiest site, after the Temple Mount/Western Wall and
the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Legend has it that when the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, and
the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, God was so moved by Rachel's tears
from the grave that he promised her she would one day see the Jews return.
Jews, particularly women, have long made pilgrimages to the biblical
matriarch's tomb
Once, it was a picturesque place near an olive tree on the outskirts of
Bethlehem. Now, as Israel has carved out a safe passage to the tomb in a
city that is otherwise under control of the Palestinian Authority, the
site is surrounded by concrete barriers and watchtowers.
To preserve the tomb, Silberstein organized a group of donors, including
Grunwald's grandmother, Evelyn Haies, from Brooklyn, to buy the adjacent
structure from its Christian Arab owners.
Neither he nor Haies were daunted by the structure's location, behind
one wall and encircled by others at the very edge of the concrete
corridor that surrounds the tomb.
But they had to wait to embark upon a host of projects that included a
yeshiva, a museum and an educational center, Silberstein said.
For four years, the army used the building to house soldiers, while the
concrete walls were built around the tomb to protect both the structure
and visitors.
The building that now houses the center was only released back to the
Jewish owners in 2006, when the protective walls were completed and
responsibility for security was passed to the Border Police, Silberstein
said.
Since then, he has worked to obtain permits to open the center, a
process expected to be completed as soon as he constructs a protected
passageway to cover the 200-meter walk from the tomb to the house.
But people are already holding classes in the structure, and on Monday,
Klein celebrated her bat mitzva there.
She bought eight plane tickets for family members to fly from the United
States, decorated the function room and set out the food, only to have
the army deny entry to the busload of guests.
At first, the soldiers made the guests wait on the bus. They then let
them enter the tomb, but not the center.
"My grandmother got off the bus and started walking to her 'house' [as
she calls it] and a whole bunch of soldiers came and blocked the door,"
Malky said.
A compromise was reached in which the soldiers brought the food to the
tomb and everyone piled into a hallway.
"It felt like a bomb shelter with no incoming and outgoing air, but
everyone was a very great sport," said Grunwald's mother, Elissa.
Neither she nor her daughter were angry at the soldiers. "It was cool
that we had someone protecting us," Malky said, adding that she felt
privileged to have had her bat mitzva at Rachel's Tomb.
Malky said Rachel was a good role model. "I admire that she loved her
sister so much," she said.
Elissa Grunwald said she had brought Malky to the tomb for her first and
second birthdays. She herself was first taught about the tomb by her
mother. She would like to see Malky married there.
Haies said she had decided to get involved in preserving it after the
1993 Oslo Accords were signed, out of fear that the site would be lost
to Jews. "They wanted to give it away, and no one was doing anything,"
said Haies, who spends five months a year in Israel.
When she is here, she goes almost daily to the tomb, and this time
helped organize study classes in the communal building next door.
But it has been frustrating, she said, not knowing from day to day
whether she and the study groups would be able to enter.
One morning this week, she personally put an area commander on the phone
with a soldier guarding the tomb, to assure him that they had a permit
to go in.
Sitting in front of the tomb, one soldier explained to The Jerusalem
Post that in spite of the large boulders protecting the area, it was
still dangerous because Palestinians threw things over the walls.
Silberstein said this argument made no sense, given the open visitor
access to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron despite its being
surrounded by thousands of Palestinians.
But the IDF didn't stop the Klein family from holding Tamar's bat mitzva
there.
"I thought that for a bat mitzva girl, one of the most appropriate
places to enter that stage of life was as close as possible to the
grave, because Rachel epitomized what we believe a Jewish woman should
stand for," said David Klein.
"I learned about Rachel's Tomb in school and with my mother, and I
wanted to do it there," said Tamar.
She hadn't known what to expect and so was surprised at how pretty the
inside of the tomb was.
Among those in attendance was Rabbi Benny Eisner, who teaches at a local
Jerusalem yeshiva and who took part in the liberation of Rachel's Tomb
as a young IDF soldier in the 1967 Six Day War.
The bat mitzva "is the first of what I hope will be many more meaningful
and joyous celebrations at the compound," Silberstein said.

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