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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.
Haies, who runs the Rachel Children's Reclamation Foundation, said that as the major donor she felt as if the center were her home. She had hoped to hold granddaughter Malky's 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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