It was for many their first visit to Har Hazeisim, Judaism’s holiest and oldest cemetery and a mountain that had served the Kohanim during the days of the Bais Hamikdash. 150 participants in the 16th Annual Yarchei Kallah of Agudath Israel of America visited some of the gravesites of leading Gedolei Hatorah. The tour of Hare Hazeisim was sponsored by the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeisim, founded by Avrohom and Menachem Lubinsky.
Arriving in three busses the visit began from the observation point atop Har Hazeisim, near the Seven Arches Hotel and the Police sub-station that opened in 2012 thanks to the efforts of the ICPHH. The participants saw firsthand the accomplishments of the ICPHH since being founded in 2010, including the 136 surveillance cameras and the improvements in the infra-structure such as the walkways. Prior to embarking on the tour, the participants heard several brief greetings from Menachem Lubinsky, MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, Malcolm Hoenlein, the Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a member of the ICPHH Executive Committee. Also present was Rabbi Yossi Deutsch, the First Deputy Mayor of Yerushalayim.
The tour began with a fantastic panoramic view of Yerushalaim and Har Habayis. It continued to the Kevarim of the Boyaner, Nadvorner and Viznitzer Rebbes. In Chelkat Haneviim of the Perushim, the group stopped by the kevarim of Reb Elya Svei, Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, Rebbetzin Shain, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter fun Slabodka and Rav Yitzchok Hutner.
As the tour wound its way down from the top, several of the participants managed to locate the graves sites of grandparents and other relatives who are interred there amongst the 150,000 Jews. It was incredible scene as the large delegation stopped at the exact site of the parah adumah. Standing atop of the wall guide Meir Eisenman pointed to the “straight line” to the makom hamikdash, a references as to where the avodah of the parah adumah was done. Nearby was an excavation site of a mikvah, a clear indication that it was the spot where the kohanim did their avodah. Yet another point of interest was an excavation site that showed the early method of burial in cave-like catacombs.
Mr. Eisenman who lives just across the street in Maale Hazeitim along with 119 other families emphasized how much more secure the area had become since the ICPHH began its historic efforts on Har Hazeisim. MK Eichler stressed the importance of Jews visiting Har Hazeisim in large numbers without fear. Deputy Mayor Deutsch said that the sight of so many Jews visiting Har Hazeisim at one time was heartrending. “It was historic to see so many Jews there,” he said. Mr. Hoenlein said tghat the Arabs are working feverishly “to deny us our pasty.” He added: “They know fully well that to deny us our past is to also deny us our future.”
The Jews who had come from more than a dozen states and from as far away as Melbourne, Australia also saw some of the areas with destroyed graves, many from the era of the Jordanian occupation (1948-1967). An estimated 45,000 graves were destroyed to build a hotel, roads, and even the town of Silwan. Although the government had restpred some 20,000 graves, 23,000 remain in ruins. The ICPHH is planning a massive campaign to restore the remaining graves and to erect a wall with the names of those buried underneath the hotel and roads.
The significance of Har Hazeisim could be clearly seen on an incredibly clear day where the Eastern part of the Bais Hamilkdash was in clear view. Mr. Lubinsky pointed out that the Rambam considers the area today “as holy as the Mokom Hamikdash itself.”
As if to emphasize the importance of the visit, the Israeli police and Border Police provided unprecedented security with a strong force in full battle gear for the Yarchei Kallah participants who despite their desire to return to the incredible shiurim became emotionally attached to the holy mountain. “I could not imagine that I would feel so emotionally charged,” said one of the visitors as he looked out at the thousands of graves, some dating back almost three millennia. He pointed to Yad Avshalom and the burial site of three nevi’im Chagai, Zecharia and Malachi as well as Chulda Haneviya.
To further secure the Eastern section of Har Hazeisim, which includes the Chelkas of the Taimanim, Ger, Polen, and Afghanistan, the ICPHH has successfully convinced the Israeli government to build a wall and gating around those sections. Installation is due to commence in the next few weeks. To encourage visitors to Har Hazeisim, the ICPHH is planning a joint effort with the Israeli Government to build an Education Center that will include a shul.
For the tour participants, after looking from a distance at the kevarim of Rav Shmuel Salant and Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, there was a brief stop at the kever of Rav Gershon Kitover. Perhaps the high point came on the last stop of the tour, the tzion of the saintly Orach Chaim, the most visited site on Har Hazeisim. Many poured their hearts out for a personal yeshua and for klal yisroel. After all they were on a site where it is said that techiyas hameisim will take place. As they rushed back to the busses to hear the magnificent shiur of Harav Nissan Kaplan, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, they could not help but feel elevated by their experience of this unprecedented visit to Har Hazeisim, thanks to the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeisim.