Screams of terror and pain pierced the silent Hebron night. The screams were coming from the bedroom where Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, was preparing to retire for the night. Chaya Ra’anan, who was in the dining room, barely recognized the sound of her husband’s voice, whom in their thirty-five years of marriage, had never been heard to raise his voice. Seconds later, the rabbi, covered in blood, staggered out of the bedroom, while the terrorist, who held a long and bloody butcher knife in one hand, tried with the other hand to drag him back into the bedroom. Stunned, Chaya screamed while she instinctively tried to pull her husband out of the terrorist’s grasp. A tug-of-war ensued until finally the terrorist let go, not before hurdling the butcher knife at the mortally wounded rabbi and setting the trailer on fire. It was too late to save her husband. Chaya, being a nurse, knew from the gaping wound in her husband’s main artery that his condition was fatal. Seeing the flames around her it was now up to her to alert the six other families living in the neighboring inflammable trailers before they too went up in flames. Chaya threw open the door and shouted, “Fire! Fire!”
On August 20th, 1998, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan was murdered. Rabbi Shlomo, 66, and his wife Rebbetzin Chaya, 59, were one of the seven families living in the Tel Romeida, Jewish neighborhood in the heart of Hebron. In the seventeen years of its existence, permission had been steadfastly been turned down by the Israeli government to expand the neighborhood beyond the initial seven trailers.
Rav Shlomo was loved and admired by all who came in contact with him. “He was a gentle and modest man – a man of peace”, says his widow, Chaya Ra’anan. “He would greet everyone he saw on the street with a smile and a shalom. Even the Arabs here respected him. The Arab children used to run after him saying shalom, shalom. Though he was a great Talmid Chacham, he would relate to even the smallest child as an equal.”
Rav Shlomo was the only grandson of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha’Cohen Kook, the first Rabbi of the Land of Israel. Rabbi Kook had modest living quarters in one of the sections of the Rav Kook Yeshiva. Shlomo’s mother who was the only child of the Rabbi’s three children to have her own children, inherited the quarters and brought up her family there. Rav Shlomo’s father also served as the head of the Yeshiva. Shlomo spent most of his life within the walls of the yeshiva studying Torah. Besides learning at the Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo also worked at the Institute of Halacha Brura which is part of the yeshiva and publishes books.”
“I was twenty-one and Shlomo was twenty-eight when we married”, says Chaya. “Our wedding was a very special affair. It took place at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva’s courtyard. Prominent rabbis came from all over the country. All the beggars of Jerusalem were invited to partake in the festivities. The beggars sat alongside of the prominent rabbis.”
“In our circles, marriages are arranged through matchmakers. The first time I lay eyes on my husband was at the matchmaker’s house where a meeting had been set up between us. Though it wasn’t the Sabbath when we met, I felt like it was. Shlomo was a person of the Sabbath. His whole being was of sanctity and purity where he totally immersed himself in the learning of the Torah and the worship of God.
“Shortly before my arrival, Shlomo had eaten a meal at the matchmaker’s house and he was benching when I walked in. I was deeply impressed by the sincerity and depth of his prayer. The manner in which he prayed said a lot about him even before he saw me or said one word to me.
“I loved going to Shlomo’s house. There was an atmosphere of dignity there. I loved and admired Shlomo’s mother, who was Rabbi Kook’s daughter. She was an incredibly unassuming woman, asking nothing for herself, wearing only the most simple and modest of clothing, satisfied with the bare minimum. And yet she was imbued with this inner quality of nobility.
“Though at the time of our marriage, it had been twenty seven years since Rabbi Kook of blessed memory had passed away, it was not apparent in the household. His spirit was very much alive in the house. The Rabbi’s chair was at the head of the dining room table with a special rug beneath it. Nobody ever sat in it. The house, the kitchen and the yeshiva were all part of one unit. The yeshiva boys would walk in to the kitchen and help themselves to drinks and have a bite to eat. The kitchen was lovingly called ‘Cafe Ra’anan’.
“It was an ‘open house’ – the door was always open and people were always coming and going. They would help themselves to refreshments in the kitchen, even use the refrigerator. The door to the refrigerator was always broken as so many people were always opening and closing it. The essential quality of this house was that it was a house for the public. There was no feeling here that “a man’s house is his castle”. Anyone with something on his mind could just walk in and would gain a sympathetic ear to his woes. It was very much like a train station.
“Out of this house came also my mother-in-law’s brother, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who later became the Head of ‘Mercaz Ha’Rav’, Rabbi Kook’s yeshiva. The leaders of Gush Emunim, the settler’s movement came out of the Mercaz Ha’Rav yeshiva.
The Ra’anans are parents to two sons and a daughter who are married with families of their own. For twenty years they lived in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood adjacent to Mercaz haRav Yeshiva. Chaya worked as a nurse at the Hadassah Hospital. In 1992 the Ra’anan couple decided to move to the Tel Romeida neighborhood in Hebron. Tel Romeida was bought up by the Jewish community in Hebron over 180 years ago. During the period that Jordan conquered the land, no one lived here and the Arabs called it the ‘land of the Zionist enemy’.
Tel Romeida is also called ‘the Lands of Yishai’ – Yishai was King David’s father and he lived at Tel Romeida with his family. There have been archeological excavations at this site which prove that this exact location is the Hebron mentioned in the Bible. King David ruled here for his first seven years of monarchy before ruling in Jerusalem.
Rav Shlomo, having learned his entire life the philosophy of Rav Kook which emphasizes the Mitzvah of yishuv Ha’aretz – settling the land of Israel, was thrilled to be able to fulfill this great Mitzvah.
“We didn’t think in terms of that we were moving to a dangerous place”, says Chaya. “On the contrary. We felt like we were moving to Gan Eden. My husband was so happy here – he became twenty years younger.”
“The graves of Yishai and his mother Ruth are right above our trailer, which my husband fondly called ‘our palace’. When we first moved here we were euphoric of the idea that we were living in the exact place where Abraham, Issac, and Jacob dwelled as well as King David. Entire chapters from the Bible occurred right outside our window here. What an incredible privilege!”
“When people ask me what brought us to Hebron – a place surrounded by hostile Arabs with only fifty Jewish families living in their midst – I tell the story of my great Uncle Zalman”, says Rebbetzin Chaya.
“I grew up in a rabbinical family, which was the fifth generation in Israel. In the 19th century five brothers from my father’s family immigrated from Poland to Israel. Each brother had served as a rabbi in various villages in Poland. One of those brothers, Rabbi Zalman Baharan, was one of the initiators of the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem which was built in 1874. He was my guiding light. All the Jews at that time lived behind the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem. At 7:00 p.m. every night the gates to the walls would be locked for the night and opened again in the morning. A Jew going outside of the walls put himself at risk of getting mugged or murdered and the only place the Jews of Jerusalem felt any safety was within the confines of the walls. Any venture outside the confines of the walls was done in convoys. The Jewish community within the walls was overcrowded and sanitation conditions were poor.
“Rabbi Zalman decided to move with his wife and children and a small number of other families outside of the walls. The only other Jewish neighborhood that had done so previously was Mishkenot Shaananim in 1860.
“The new neighborhood was called Meah She’arim – one hundred gates, with the hope that the neighborhood would become one of a hundred new neighborhoods in Jerusalem. People warned my uncle against such a move, stating how they would be endangering their lives if they went ahead and moved out. Those days were much more dangerous than today. There was no Jewish state, Jewish policemen or Jewish army to protect you. Yet my great uncle took that first great step at considerable risk and his vision was fulfilled as we see today many Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
“Moving to Hebron, I had the same vision; that by moving here, despite the ‘so called danger’, we will have merited to be one of the first of many Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron.’
There is also a connection to Hebron from Chaya’s mother’s side; Her family were also residents of the Old City in Jerusalem. Her sister married a young yeshiva student from Lithuania whom together with a group of young scholars moved to Hebron to establish the Slobodka Yeshiva. They were living here in Hebron in 1929, the year of the great Jewish massacre. Chaya’s mother who was thirteen at the time, together with her seven year old sister came to Hebron to visit their married sister who had given birth to her first-born a month and a half previously. The weekend they came to visit was the weekend of the pogrom. Their sister’s husband was delayed in Jerusalem and was not able to make it back to Hebron in time for the Sabbath. Already at the onset of the Sabbath, word had gotten out that the Arabs were plotting against the Jewish community in Hebron. Chaya’s aunt’s next door neighbor was rabbi Salonim, chief rabbi of Hebron. Across from his house lived his son who was the owner of Hebron’s only bank, which was frequented by Jews and Arabs alike. This son was on very good relations with the Arabs in Hebron. The banker offered Chaya’s aunts and mother to come and hide at his house, as he was sure that the Arabs would not do him or anyone in his house any harm, because he was known and respected by the Arabs in Hebron. Chaya’s aunt, the ultimate Yiddishe Mama, declined the offer fearing that her infant would contact some disease staying in one room with so many people.”
“This weighty decision is what actually saved their lives and I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale if it wasn’t for that decision. After failing to persuade my aunt and her sisters to come and hide at his house, the banker then continued next door to his father where he implored him to seek refuge at his home. The rabbi said that he couldn’t just leave Leah (my aunt) and her sisters behind and if they were staying – then he too would stay behind. The rabbi invited my mother and her sisters and the infant to stay out the pogrom at his house and hide there. My aunt who was seven at the time (now she’s over seventy) was peering out the Rabbi’s window, and saw her playmate, the banker’s son, from the house across the street, run yelling to his father, saying; Abba! Abu Mussaf is coming here to kill you! And at that moment witnessed the murder of her playmate and his father, the banker.”
The banker who was so trusting of the Arabs’ friendship to the extent that he urged friends and neighbors to come hide at his house – was slaughtered with almost all his family and the people who came to hide at his house. The death toll from that house alone was 18. Only one baby survived, having fainted from the trauma and left for dead.
While hiding at the rabbi’s house, Chaya’s mother and aunt helped the rabbi move a huge closet against the door. Outside the door, the Arab landlord blocked the entrance to the house with his body not letting anyone in. He sustained injuries as a result but succeeded in preventing anyone to gain entrance into the house. This Arab risked his life to save the Jews inside because not long before the massacres, his son was gravely ill and a Jewish doctor was able to nurse him back to health. This made a great impression on the Arab and he vowed to do what he can not to let any harm come to the Jews.
The death toll of the Hebron massacre was 67 men women and children who were murdered by axes, butcher knives, rocks and other tools. Hundreds of severely wounded survived with mutilated bodies, limbs and other parts of their bodies brutally chopped off by axes, even babies and very young children were not spared. The survivors were left to live with the abhorrent memories of their spouses and children murdered before their eyes. There were many cases of rape of young girls straight out of Tora seminaries. One report was of a gang rape of a sixteen year old girl by thirteen Arabs witnessed by her little sister who was hiding under the bed. Another eyewitness reported of a young Jewish girl who was stripped naked to be raped and imploring her tormentors to kill her rather than desecrate her body. Her last wish as “honored”.
The Hebron Massacre brought to a close the end of thousands of years of consecutive Jewish habitation in the cities of the Fathers. The wounded and the dead were moved to Jerusalem and Jews were unable to set foot in Hebron until the liberation of the city in 1967.
Following the funeral of Rav Shlomo Ra’anan, Chaya spent a sleepless night wondering what she should do. How could she go back and live in the house where her husband was murdered. “What now?”, she asked herself. “What does God want from me, what is my role now? This is something a Jew needs to do every stage of his life,” says Chaya. “He must ask himself what is his role in life, why is he here in this world. The roles change as we go through different stages in life.”
Chaya kept thinking of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu’s words at the funeral – to ‘erect a yeshiva on Shlomo’s grave’. “Shlomo’s entire life was the learning of the Torah, says Chaya. He was known for his love of his fellow man and his gentle and modest ways. By personal example he exemplified what it is to be a rabbi: good qualities, honorable, modest and honest. When the terrorist so violently took my husband’s life, he sought to extinguish the light – the Torah has always been a parallel to light. When people asked me whether I wanted revenge, I answered that revenge will not bring my husband back to me. Only God can take revenge for what that terrorist did for murdering such a person as my husband. Even if they were to kill the terrorist a hundred times, it would not bring my husband back.”
Following that sleepless night, Chaya knew what she was going to do. During the first day of sitting shiva, she gathered around her the heads of the Jewish yishuv of Hebron and told them of her decision to build a Kollel out of the bedroom where her husband was murdered. Within less than a month the Kollel became a reality. It is a Kollel which prepares choice young men for the Rabbinate and is led by Chaya’s son-in-law, HaRav Yisrael Shlisel, who travels here daily two hours each way. Among the young men learning there is also Chaya’s son, Michael Ra’anan, who lives on Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim. The name of the Kollel is “Ohr Shlomo”.
“My revenge, in a sense, is by opening this kollel, says Chaya. “This whole house is my husband; the holy books lining the wall, many of them belonging to his holy grandfather. I wanted this house to continue breathing and living Torah just as if my husband were still alive. Where the terrorist sought to bring darkness, this Kollel has brought forth light. I had the room where my husband was murdered expanded, people donated books and my son-in law travels every day two hours in each direction to head the kollel here. These men study here everyday from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. No matter what is going on outside – they come. There is not a trailer here that is not riddled with bullets from the Arabs who continue to try and eliminate us. But the Torah protects us, and thank God, no one has been hurt.
“I derive much comfort from the sound of these men learning Torah all day. I feel like they are my sons and their voices serve to soothe my pain over the loss of my husband.”
This article was excerpted in the summer 2002 issue of Jewish Action