The Levingers Lead the Way Back to Hevron
By Tzvi Fishman
“My husband told me to pack enough clothes for two weeks,” Rabbanit Miriam Levinger told me for an article in the Jewish Press. “Along with our refrigerator and stove.”
“Where are we going?” Rabbanit Levinger asked him.
“Hevron,” he said.
“Tomorrow night starts Pesach,” she reminded him.
“That’s where we are spending the holiday,” he informed her.
Rabbinit Levinger, of blessed memory, says she obeyed his request without further question. While she wasn’t a part of the actual planning, her husband had driven her to Hevron two weeks earlier to survey the Park Hotel where they would be staying. The following morning, a truck arrived at the Nechalim moshav near Petach Tikva where Rabbi Moshe Levinger, of blessed memory, served as the religious community’s Rabbi. His Bronx-born wife herded their four young children into the vehicle, while helpers loaded their suitcases, refrigerator, and stove onto the tender. Her husband sat by the driver. “We stopped again and again on the way,” she relates, “to pick up other young families and yeshiva students who my husband had invited for the holiday. A good many of them weren’t religious – good Jews like the pioneer chalutzim of old with a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael.”
The year was 1968, only a year after Hevron was recaptured by the IDF during the Six Day War. “White flags of surrender still hung from many of the windows in the city,” Rabbinit Levinger recalls. “It was all very thrilling. Everyone had the feeling that we were taking part in a great moment of Jewish history. Seeing the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and knowing this was where everything began, was a high point of my life. When we reached the Park Hotel, which my husband had rented out for the duration of the holiday, a group of women were already at work koshering in kitchen. Others were setting up the ornate dining room which had leather sofas fit for the wealthy sheiks who visited the hotel from Arabia. I started to help with the cooking. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t have time. The Seder was only a few hours away and I trusted that my husband knew what he was doing.”
Rabbi Levinger knew what he was doing, but he didn’t know how the adventure was going to end. After Israel’s great victory, with the recapture of Jerusalem and the heartland of Biblical Israel, many people spoke about the need to resettle the ancient cities and hillsides of Judea and Samaria where the kings and prophets of Israel had dwelled, but no one knew how to go about it. The first settlement had started a few months before in Kfar Etzion, where Arabs had massacred 157 Jews during Israel’s War of Independence, razing the agricultural village to the ground. Leading the return was a young student at the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Hanan Porat, of blessed memory, who had lived in Kfar Etzion as a child. After helping Porat establish a pioneer group on the site, Rabbi Levinger decided that Hevron, the City of the Nation’s Forefathers, and the initial capital of King David, had to be next.
“My husband went to the Minister of Transportation at the time, Yigal Alon, who was a friend, to ask for his advice on how to obtain the Government’s permission. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol didn’t know what to do with all of the reclaimed territory that had fallen into our hands upon Israel’s victory in the war, and the Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, was prepared to return it all to the Arabs in exchange for a genuine commitment to peace. Alon told my husband that when it came to settling the Land of Israel, first you establish the facts on the ground and then you inform the authorities, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who also showed up for the Seder in Hevron, told the Jewish Press that a fellow student at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva asked him if he wanted to learn for time at a yeshiva in Hevron. “I asked the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, what he thought of the idea, and he said, why not? I didn’t know at the time that Rabbi Levinger had consulted with Rabbi Kook from the beginning. The plan was to stay in the hotel after the Pesach holiday and thus initiate the renewed Jewish settlement of Hevron since its forced evacuation in 1929, after the Arabs slaughtered 67 men, women, and children, and wounded a hundred more, completely erasing the Jewish community which had continued in the city almost uninterrupted for almost 2000 years.”
“Students from Hebrew University were also a part of the gathering,” Miriam Levinger, now the mother of twelve grown children, remembers. “Two of them stood guard on the roof of the hotel – Ehud Olmert and Dan Meridor, long before they changed their political ideologies and stripes. Years later, I happened to meet another one of the Hebrew University students who shared the Seder with us – Gideon Ezra, the Minister of Internal Security and a former head of the Shabak. When I asked him why he joined us in Hevron that very first Pesach, he said the Shabak had sent him. Some things don’t seem to change. Baruch Hashem, we have scores of Jewish families living in Hevron today, and, no doubt, no small number of Shabaknikim among them.”
Elyakim HaEtzni, a longtime attorney who has represented the settlement movement ever since their return to Hevron, and a former Knesset member of the Techiya Party, notes that many secular Israelis took part in the Park Hotel Seder. “I wasn’t the only fellow who didn’t wear a kippah. Months before, just after the Six Day War, I had met Rabbi Levinger at a meeting for activists who wanted to see Jews begin to settle the areas conquered in the war. I lived in Ramat Gan at the time and the encounter with Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s students was an ideological revolution for me. I thought I was a devout proponent of Greater Eretz Yisrael Movement, but these energetic fellows had some kind of unworldly spirit and faith that didn’t understand the word no. For them, nothing was impossible. I was totally swept up in their whirlwind. I’ve never been one to cover my head with a kippah, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by a sea of kippot and tzitzit. I’m still not religious in the same way as they are, but I live in Kiriat Arba, and wouldn’t move if you paid me.”
What were your reactions when you arrived at the hotel?
“I came with my late wife and mother, and our four young children. Accustomed to the secular culture of Tel Aviv, we felt like we had stepped into a movie about some other planet. Young families showed up lugging refrigerators and all of their belongings as if they had really come home. Their sense of confidence was staggering. They were possessed by an inner light which I had never seen before. The Arab owner of the establishment was just as amazed as I was. He thought he had rented all of the rooms in the hotel from a group of tourists from Switzerland, and here come these tziztit-wearing Gush Emunim types, carrying refrigerators and stoves, and hammering mezuzahs on doorposts as if the building belonged to them.”
What do you remember about the Seder itself?
“The joy was amazing. Rabbi Haim Drukman conducted the Seder and led the reading from the Haggadah. The glow on people’s faces seemed brighter than the chandeliers. I’m sure the entire neighborhood could hear our singing. In the middle of the meal, we received word that two army patrol jeeps had arrived. I thought that was the end of our great scheme, but Rabbi Levinger went outside to greet them, and he invited the soldiers to join the festivities. At three-o’clock, after the Seder ended, we all danced in the street, settlers and soldiers together. With the dark buildings of Hevron all around us, and the full moon lighting up our celebration, we all shared the feeling that this holy night was history in the making.”
It is true the Pesach Night is considered a night of watching when Hashem guards over the Jewish people, but didn’t you feel vulnerable surrounded by a city filled with Arabs?
“Yes and no. In those days, the Arabs were afraid of us. In the Six Day War, we conquered Hevron without having to fire a shot. Still, it wasn’t a secret that knife-wielding Arabs still attacked Jews. But they didn’t have the arrogance that they have toward us today, now that the leftist media, and leftist peace groups, and the Supreme Court, and the Jewish Division of the Shabak watch every move we make. In the morning, when we danced through the streets wearing tallit on the way to Maharat HaMachpela to pray, the Arabs hurried to get out of our way.”
After the week of Pesach, what happened?
“My husband informed me that until we were evicted from the hotel, it was going to be our new home,” Rabbinit Levinger recounted. “I first I thought the idea of livings amongst the Arabs was crazy, but during the holiday I got used to it. Back at our moshav, people were starting to build big houses and talk about driveways for their cars and comfortable salons alongside their dining rooms. In moving to Israel from America, I always longed for the idealism of the original pioneers who built the country. Here was the perfect chance I realized. Moshe said that just like the motto of our soldiers was ‘Kedima!’ – ‘forward!’ – we had to keep going forward in settling Judea and Samaria.”
Rabbi Eliezer Waldman also was present at the history-making Seder. Born in Petach Tikva, his family moved to America when he was three. After studying at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University, Rabbi Waldman returned to Israel to study at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. In 1972, he founded the Kiriat Arba Nir Yeshiva with Rabbi Levinger, and after a long career as Rosh Yeshiva, now serves as its President. Elyakim HaEtzni recalls an old-fashion “Wild West Bank” showdown, which the determined Jewish settlers won, once again without shooting a gun.
“To my recollection, during Chol HaMoed,” HaEtzni told the Jewish Press, “the mayor of Hevron stopped by to see what all the celebration was about. At our initial meeting at his home, he had been very cordial, but now Jews from all over the country flocked to the hotel day and night to express their joy and support for our efforts, and the local Arab leadership began to worry about the sudden surge of Israelis in the town. He made it clear that they expected us to leave after our vacation was over. Smiling, and in his soft-spoken manner, Rabbi Waldman told him that we would be staying in the city with his blessings or not. ‘After all,’ the young Torah scholar said, ‘We lived in Hevron before you did.’”
Miriam Levinger recalls that it didn’t take long for the word to spread about the settlers In Hevron, and several critical articles appeared in the leading newspapers, all of them the voice boxes of the Left. “I think a part of their anger against us, both then and today, stems from the fact that we took over the pioneer spirit which led them to build the country in the early days of the Yishuv, but which they abandoned for office jobs and the good life in Tel Aviv.”
How long were you in the hotel?
“A few weeks. With growing pressure from the Arabs and leftist media, the Government didn’t know what to do. They came up with a plan to move us to a building in the compound of the Army Authority in Hevron. I think they figured that after a while we all would pack up our bags and return to our homes, but we held our ground until the Government agreed to build the settlement of Kiriat Arba up the hill from Hevron. Still, my husband and others stubbornly refused to abandon the city of our patriarchs and matriarchs, and with the help of the Rabonu Shel Olam, we are still here today in Hevron, along with scores of other families.”
Seeing how new settlements have been established all over the country in wake of that first Seder Night in Hevron, your husband must have felt immense satisfaction.
“In the last years of my husband’s life, he said that while we succeeded in building new yishuvim throughout Judea and Samaria, the Golan, and Gush Katif, we have not succeeded in explaining the loftiness of the settlement enterprise, not to the nations of the world, not to a large segment of the Jewish People, and not to many of the settlers themselves. That’s why we lost the battle to save the settlements in Gush Katif. My husband said that if the buildings in New York City reach lofty heights, they are miniscule compared to the buildings of the Land of Israel, which are ladders reaching up to Heaven. He came to the conclusion that explaining the importance of the settlements to the security of the country was not a deep enough strategy, because many people in Israel and abroad believe our security can be insured by giving up the settlements for peace. Therefore, Rabbi Levinger said, we have to strive harder to teach people the Divine importance of the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, for the betterment of all of the world, in its being the vessel that houses Hashem’s blessing on Earth.”
“Little by little,” Rabbi Shlomo Aviner adds. “The song ‘Dayenu’ in the Pesach Haggadah teaches us to be thankful for what we have. Of course Eretz Yisrael is not complete without the Beit HaMikdash. And of course the miracle at the Red Sea would be far less significant if we had not received the Torah. By saying, ‘Dayenu,’ we don’t mean that we don’t need each subsequent step in our Redemption, but that we are grateful in the meantime for all that Hashem has given us. So too with the settlement movement and Medinat Yisrael. Of course we want more and more settlements, and we yearn for the Beit HaMikdash, but on Seder Night we say, ‘Dayenu,’ very thankful for what Hashem has granted us up till now.”