November 5 The memorial candles spell out the name of the beloved hero of the Jewish people. Young girls bend down to mutter a few words as they kindle the lights. Someone strums a guitar nearby and busload after busload of people arrive in waves to pay their respects.
Rabin Square in Tel Aviv? Yes but that's not the only place where somber memorials took place tonight. The scene above takes place at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, a few minutes drive from the center of Jerusalem.
Tonight and tomorrow is the traditionally observed yahrtzeit, anniversary of the death, for Rachel, a matriarch of the Jewish people. Today, despite three years of a deadly war and the ravaging of several Jewish holy sites, the throngs returned to let mother Rachel know she is not forgotten.
Three years ago, the scene was very different. Rachel's Tomb had been closed to Jewish prayers since Rosh Hashanah the start of the war. The constant barrage of Arab violence at the fortified ancient site caused the IDF to prevent access to Jews. An IDF closure order approved by Prime Minister Ehud Barak followed the destruction of Joseph's Tomb as well as the 6th century Shalom al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho. Jews praying at the Western Wall had been stoned.
The pattern became clear. The Palestine Authority first tried to discredit Jewish claims to the holy sites, then moved in to physically attack them, either destroying them completely, or generating enough violence that Jews are prevented from coming close to the place.
In the case of Joseph's Tomb in Shechem they were successful because there was no permanent Jewish presence surrounding the area.
At Rachel's resting place, the action of a few determined people ensured that the same thing would not happen. Three years ago, after the few weeks of closure, a group of 30 women and their babies took things into their own hands nd walked into Kever Rachel from the Gilo Junction. Their intention was to stay until the yahrtzeit to ensure that the site would remain open to all who wanted to mark the anniversary of Rachel's death. They were forcibly evacuated that afternoon with the promise that bulletproof buses from the Junction would be allowed later that day.
To this day, those bulletproof buses are the only way Jews are allowed into Rachel's Tomb. Every morning dozens of worshipers arrive by Egged bus at the site to spend a few moments with the spirit of one of the mothers of the Jewish people. Thanks to IDF protection, the strong stand of those women and the efforts of dedicated people like Evelyn Haies in New York who founded and presides over the Rachel's Children Reclamation Foundation, the numbers of people visiting have risen dramatically and violence has eased lately.
Still, it's clear that without a protective Jewish presence in the area, Rachel's Tomb could meet the same fate as Joseph's.
Tonight, in conjunction with the yahrtzeit, another example of Jewish action was consecrated. Mezuzas were affixed to a property directly to the south of Kever Rachel. The house was purchased and renovated, laying the groundwork for an eventual Jewish neighborhood. At the moment, the three story building has been renovated and houses an army unit on one floor, a kollel on the next, and a self contained apartment at the top. Bulletproof windows have been installed and the house has been physically linked to Kever Rachel by a cement block wall and roof.
A small group gathered to watch as Minister of Tourism Rabbi Benny Elon put up the first mezuzza. He noted that it's the first Jewish building in Bethlehem in thousands of years. The IDF commander stationed there for the past several weeks looked on, together with the attorney for the project and the contractor responsible for the renovations. Former Knesset member Chanan Porat strode in to join several of the young men who had worked behind the scenes to bring the project to fruition. A few American supporters managed to witness the scene. Standing out amongst the crocheted kippot was the dignified looking Rabbi Rabinovich, rabbi of the Western Wall and other holy sites, clad in black coat and black hat.
The contractor, a tall, dark, casually dressed man in a beige T shirt told the most interesting tale of the evening. He recounted how he had opened the door for the first time from Rachel's Tomb into the area of the new property before he built the protective wall linking the two buildings. "I'll never forget the whoosh of the wind that blew into my face," he said. "I could feel the spirit of holiness blowing through..."