Hebron: The power of one

A look at the man who made it his mission to strengthen our connection with the City of our Fathers.

EALLAN HIRSHFIELD outside the Cave of the Patriarchs. (photo credit: Courtesy)
EALLAN HIRSHFIELD outside the Cave of the Patriarchs.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Even a single hour of teshuva and good deeds done in this world is more glorious than the entire world to come.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:22).
The word “teshuva” has numerous connotations. It can be translated as “repentance,” as in Aseret Y’Mai Teshuva, the 10 Days of Repentance; or it can mean “answer,” as in a rabbinic response to a halachic query. But in its most literal sense, it means “return.” The Jewish People, in a spiritual sense, are continually striving to return to God and to our original, pristine state of holiness. But for the last hundred or so years, we have also been privileged to return, in a physical sense, to the Land of our Fathers – Israel – including the City of the Fathers, Hebron.
Hebron, the second holiest city for Jews, after Jerusalem, has a rich but checkered history. It represents the first official purchase of real estate in Israel – long before the conquest under Joshua – when Abraham acquired the Cave of Machpela as a burial site for his wife Sara. It was in Hebron where King David was anointed by the elders and made his first capital, and it served as one of six cities of refuge in the biblical era.
The city changed hands numerous times, ruled by Edomites, Moslems, Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottoman Empire and the British, who occupied the city in 1917. There was a continuous Jewish presence there throughout the generations, although Jews were routinely denied entrance to the Cave of the Patriarchs – the oldest, continuously used building in the world – and were relegated to standing on the seventh step of the staircase leading to the structure. In 1929, the Jewish community of Hebron was brutally attacked by surrounding Arabs; 67 people were massacred in the cruelest of fashion, with many more injured. Finally, in 1948, Jordan took control of Hebron and banned Jews from living there, systematically removing all signs of a Jewish presence.
HOWEVER, LED by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Jews returned in 1968, after the Six Day War, and began to rebuild Jewish life in Hebron, family by family, Jewish-owned building by building. An agreement was made between Jews and Muslims to share the Machpela, which by tradition is the entrance to the Garden of Eden and the burial site of Adam and Eve, along with Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebecca, Leah and Jacob. And Jews from all over the world came once again to pray at the sacred spot.
One man has dedicated his life to Hebron’s resurgence. For the last 26 years, Eallan Hirshfield of Ra’anana has led groups of people from central Israel – both religious and secular – on monthly Rosh Hodesh trips to Hebron. In a few months, he will bring his 300th such group, making a total of more than 15,000 people who have visited the holy city at his initiative.
Hirshfield has a fascinating backstory. His maternal grandfather, an ardent Zionist, came from Lithuania to South Africa, and then headed for Kenya when it appeared that the Ugandan Initiative would create a Jewish homeland there (most of which would be on Kenyan land). His paternal grandfather – a founding father of the Negev’s Moshav Ruchama – pioneered the first well in Israel dug by Jews; now more than 100 years old, it still operates and brings water to the moshav’s fields.
Hirshfield’s father was a gunrunner, supplying weapons to the pre-state fledgling Jewish army, and helping to smuggle Jews into Palestine during the Holocaust. When a price was put on his head by the British, he fled to Kenya. Hirshfield was born there, and lived in Kenya until his bar mitzvah. He was then sent to England for school, making aliyah in 1979 with his wife Esther. Hirshfield has held a variety of jobs throughout his life – operating a chain of air conditioning shops, marketing his own invention of specialized earplugs and now serving as director of Driver, an enterprise that recommends reliable, affordable car repair throughout the country. But his great passion, for the last quarter century, has been connecting Jews to Hebron.
IT ALL began when Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Ohr Etzion yeshiva, was attacked while en route to Hebron to pray. His driver was killed and Rabbi Druckman seriously injured. In response, Hirshfield organized a group from Ra’anana to travel to Hebron to pray for the rabbi’s recovery. The success of that venture led to another, and then another and another trip, and has continued until this day. The excursions, always in a protected bus, are legendary and eclectic. I have gone on the trip numerous times, and stops along the way have included Rachel’s Tomb, Susiya, Kiryat Arba and the Oz V’Gaon recreational forest, recently dedicated to the “three boys” who were murdered by a Hebron terror cell. We have gone cherry picking in the fields near Hebron, and visited the burial site of Ruth the Moabite, where local schoolchildren read aloud the Book of Ruth just before Shavuot. On most occasions, food and gifts are lovingly distributed to the IDF soldiers who guard the area.
Hirshfield quietly and humbly organizes these trips, with no desire for fanfare or recognition.
“It’s important for people to know,” he says, “that Israel is not confined to Ra’anana, Tel Aviv, Herzliya or Hod Hasharon. Long before any of those places existed, there was Hebron, and every step you take there is a walk through Jewish history. We have come back to every centimeter of our ancient homeland, back to stay for good.”
As if to emphasize these very same sentiments, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett – himself a proud Ra’ananaite! – announced plans this week to create a new neighborhood in Hebron, on Jewish-owned land that was formerly a wholesale marketplace.
Too often in our cynical society, we throw up our hands in despair, moaning that the average person in Israel has no influence, no sway or say in shaping the future. But people like Hirshfield teach us, by example, how each and every one of us, if we take the initiative and exercise our own unique strengths and energy, can make a difference and transform the social and political landscape. It is the awesome phenomenon known as the Power of One.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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Eallan Hirshfield can be reached at [email protected] or (09) 774-6129; 052-779-1357.