We met with the director of the Center for the Development of Holy Sites in Eretz Yisroel, as well as with the anonymous donor who contributed several million dollars for the development and renovation of the site. And then, with remarkable timing, we encountered a group of rioting Arab youths from the nearby refugee camp, who pelted us with stones.
“Arab Youths Throw Stones at Kever Rochel.” We read these headlines from time to time – not infrequently – but this time, as we find it happening directly in front of our eyes, we can only marvel at the timing of our visit. As we emerge from the kever, the burial site of our matriarch, an armored vehicle belonging to the Border Guard (the division of Israel’s police force responsible for preserving order at Kever Rochel) screeches to a stop beside us. A group of policemen leap out of the car, quickly donning protective vests, and scramble toward the nearby wall, where they open a door.
Rav Yosef Schvinger, the director of the Center for the Development of Holy Sites in Eretz Yisroel, who has been our host until that point, is not overly concerned. “Let’s go back inside,” he suggests. “In another second, there will be an odor of gas.” His experience has told him that the police are about to use a gas grenade. Shachar Feuerman, the director of Kever Rochel on behalf of the Center for the Development of Holy Sites, is joking around with some of the police officers. Not only does he know them all, as well as their commanders, by name, but he is even acquainted with their families. Everyone crowds into the doorway, watching to see what is happening. We are accompanied by a modest man who, we have just discovered, is the donor responsible for the improvements at the kever.
I ask Rav Schvinger to explain what is happening.
“It’s very simple,” he replies. “Beyond Kever Rochel, there is a refugee camp named Al Aida. Sometimes, youths – or even adults – from the camp come and throw stones at the walls surrounding this compound and at the road leading up to it. When the stones hit the metal gates, it makes a frightening sound, but they can’t hurt us.”
And when they start throwing stones, the police are alerted and run to catch them?
“No, not at all. The police are already waiting for them. You see those towers that rise up into the sky? In each one of them, a policeman is sitting and keeping watch in every direction. The Arabs do not understand how it is that, whenever they come up to the walls, the police are ready and waiting for them. Sometimes, the police even come from the direction of their village, and then the Arabs have nowhere to run.”
On our way back to Yerushalayim, he will show me the detention rooms where the rioters are kept on the occasions when they are arrested.
A bus arrives just then, dropping off its passengers next to the door that the police officers opened to intercept the rioters. One policeman, wearing a yarmulka, asks the arriving visitors – and us, as well – not to remain there. Despite all their efforts, he tells us, the Arabs might still throw stones. But neither this policeman nor any of his colleagues seem particularly perturbed.
A PLACE WHERE TEARS RUN TOGETHER
It is an incredible ending to an even more incredible visit with the people of Kever Rochel: the director of the Center for the Development of Holy Sites, his subordinates, and one of the donors – perhaps even the single greatest donor – who contributed to the development of the site. Rav Schvinger told us explicitly that it is to this man’s credit that Kever Rochel has experienced such a surge of visitors over the past five years – a surge that has reached its peak over the past two years.
According to the official statistics, Kever Rochel is one of the three sites in the country visited by the largest number of visitors. The others are the Kosel Hamaarovi, of course, and the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. Every year, on the 11th of Cheshvan, the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu, tens of thousands of people visit the site. The number of visitors on that day exceeds 150,000, and according to some estimates, even more than 200,000 people flock to the kever. Accommodating all those visitors is a major logistical feat, considering the circumstances. Rav Schwinger is in charge of the project, and he has experienced great success every year. The facts speak for themselves: Kever Rochel does not suffer from the same chaos that prevails at Meron every year on Lag Ba’omer. The difference is because in Meron, there are a number of different bodies responsible for coordinating the event. As the old saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. At Kever Rochel, meanwhile, Rabbi Schvinger makes all the decisions – and the system works.
Other significant dates for Kever Rochel is the Shabbos that has just passed, when Parshas Vayishlach is read. That is the parshah that describes the petirah of Rochel Imeinu and her burial at the roadside. In just two weeks, we will read Parshas Vayechi, where Rashi relates that Yaakov Avinu told his son Yosef, before his own passing, that he had buried Rochel there not by choice, but rather in response to a Divine command. In Parshas Vayeitzei, the Torah relates that Yaakov wept when he first met Rochel. Rashi explains that he foresaw that they would not be buried together in the Meoras Hamachpeilah.
And then there are the visitors who come all year long. There are those who come with broken hearts and embittered souls, and there are those who come bursting with joy and celebrating happy occasions. People come here to thank Hashem for their successes, and they come to cry out to Him for salvation. A person standing watch at the entrance to the tziyun would encounter a veritable cross-section of the Jewish nation every day, as Jews of every stripe pass through these doors, bringing their joys and their sorrows with them. One could stand here for hours, simply watching as the people come and go. Inside, they all shed tears, either in joy or in sorrow – and all those tears blend together and rise up to Heaven as one.
And Rochel Imeinu, of course, cries along with them.
THE RESTORATION OF THE DOME
Anyone who last visited Kever Rochel ten years ago would not recognize the place today. Let us begin with the door: The entrance has been moved to several dozen meters from its prior location. Previously, the entrance to the building opened into a long hallway leading to the tziyun, but now things have changed, and the entrance takes visitors directly to the tziyun itself. The corridor still exists, but now one must pass through the tziyun to reach it. At the end of the corridor is a refreshment area where coffee, cold water, and food are constantly available. Immediately past this area is the large hall that serves as a bais medrash. This bais medrash, an imposing and stately room, is a new addition to the site.
Rav Schvinger explains the underlying rationale for the changes: “Until now, the visitors coming and going would disturb the concentration of the avreichim, who were learning or reciting Tehillim, and the avreichim, in turn, disturbed those who came to daven. Now, the bais medrash is there to serve the avreichim as they learn or recite Tehillim, so that they do not sit in front of the tziyun itself, and visitors enter and exit through the new doorway, so that they do not disturb the avreichim.” He adds that he is glad that the majority of the organizations operating at the site cooperated with him on the effort – hinting, of course, that some are not pleased with the new situation.
Parenthetically, Rav Schvinger’s mention of “the avreichim reciting Tehillim” is a reference to a kollel operating at the site. There are two kollelim at Kever Rochel: one whose members engage in Torah study and one whose members recite Tehillim on behalf of donors.
The room of the tziyun itself is pleasant and inviting. The entrance is elegant and respectable, featuring new bookcases, polished floor tiles, and glass panels offering a view of the underground rooms. The women’s side has been completely redone. The area has been expanded, and it has glass cabinets containing various items on display, along with new benches and bookcases.
We enter the building, and Rav Schvinger shows us the massive dome atop the tziyun. The ceiling, he explains, had been on the verge of collapse, and tens of thousands of dollars were invested to reinforce it. An imposing chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
We leave the tziyun and discover that just as a bais medrash was built at the location of the previous men’s entrance, a large hall has also been erected where the women’s entrance used to be. Rav Schwinger explains that this room may serve as a lecture hall for visitors in the future.
But our tour is not yet complete. We are now brought to see the mikvah. There has always been a mikvah here, but its previous lack of upkeep made it almost impossible to use. Today, though, the beautiful, newly refurbished mikvah meets the highest standards of halachah and hygiene.
I ask Rav Schvinger to tell me how he raised the funds for the massive renovation and he laughs. Pointing to our reticent companion, who has barely uttered a word throughout our exchange, he says, “It all comes from him.”
IT ALL BEGAN WITH A STRIKE
The donor has no interest in receiving accolades for his philanthropic activities. He feels that he is merely repaying Rochel Imeinu for her kindness to her descendants, and no one owes him any gratitude for that. All that interests him, he says, is for his own burial place to be here as well, after the age of 120. I cannot tell if this comment is made seriously or in jest.
“It all began six years ago,” he tells me. “My wife and I were here, and we were embarrassed by the crowding, the lack of order, the jostling, and especially the foul odor in the air.”
His visit had taken place in the middle of August, on one of the hottest days in the year, and it happened to coincide with a sanitation workers’ strike. He stood there, surrounded by mounds of refuse that filled the air with an awful stench, and he felt ashamed – not for himself, but for Rochel Imeinu. At that moment, he resolved to give whatever he could for the restoration of the site. But it is doubtful whether even he foresaw that this was to be the beginning of a long association with Rochel Imeinu and her burial site, and that one donation would lead to another to the point of the current revolution at the site, one that has not yet ended.
I learn about another subject in which the donor and Rav Schvinger both take interest: the funds collected by other organizations operating around Kever Rochel. “Let me make myself clear,” the donor tells me. “I salute every demonstration of Yiddishkeit, every collection of tzedakah for the poor, and every avreich who learns Torah.” But this is actually the reason for his criticism, if it can be called that. It pains him that money is being collected for the things that he completely sponsored. The donor is well aware that a certain organization has solicited funds by claiming that they spent a massive amount to refurbish the mikvah. “They can’t possibly make this claim,” he says, “since I paid for the entire cost of the renovation.” Again, he stresses that he is in favor of raising funds, but the money should be used to recruit additional avreichim.
“Or let them give us some of their proceeds,” Rav Schvinger adds.
Both Rav Schvinger and the man who has donated millions of dollars for the development of Kever Rochel are in favor of the continued Torah study at the site. “But the upkeep of the site of Kever Rochel costs us hundreds of thousands of shekels each year,” Rav Schvinger concludes. “No one helps us in this, and that is definitely painful.”
It is no wonder that both he and the donor feel bad when they hear people innocently commenting that they donated money for renovations at the site, or for the construction of a bais medrash, or the restoration of the mikvah.
THE TWO SIFREI TORAH
Another surprise awaits us before we conclude our visit. At the entrance to the tziyun, we meet an American friend of mine. He was on his way to the airport to return to New York, and I ask him why he chose to go out of the way to come here. He responds, “Rav Moshe Shapiro told me that this is the place to come to make requests of Hashem.”
After Minchah and Tehillim, we are invited to the large hall next to the women’s entrance for drinks. While we are there, the reticent donor has more stories to share. He tells me about two Sifrei Torah that he plans to bring to Kever Rochel soon. I have already seen the ornate aronos kodesh at the tziyunÂ¸ and now I understand their purpose. The Sifrei Torah, which he purchased at a recent auction, are valuable antiques that an irreligious group planned to buy. Our friend hastened to bid for them in order to preempt the other buyers. As a result of his purchase, not only have the Sifrei Torah been rescued, but they will also now take up residence in the place that is most dear to him – Kever Rochel.
He also describes how he met with one of the government ministers of the Palestinian Authority to discuss Kever Rochel. While they were speaking, he relates, the minister was impressed with his command of the Hebrew language and asked where he had picked it up. After answering the question, our friend asked the Arab minister, “And what about you? How did you become so fluent in Hebrew?”
Without the slightest trace of embarrassment, the minister replied bluntly, “I spent six years in an Israeli prison.”
My friend quickly makes his way to the airport. Rav Schvinger and I leave together to make our way to Givat Shaul. The donor, meanwhile, remains at Kever Rochel in anonymity; this is where he finds the greatest serenity. Nobody there knows that he is one who has made this place possible, and that’s just the way he prefers it. He will leave eventually, but probably not before midnight. And he will certainly be back again before long. The Mama Rochel beckons.