The past few weeks have been an extremely emotional period for Jews as memorials remembered those who gave their lives as martyrs in the Holocaust and as heroes in the war that led to the creation of a Jewish state. Much of this emotion took place on Har Hazeitim, the 3,000-year-old cemetery that has often been referred to as the “International Cemetery of the Jewish People.”
Jeff Daube, a well-known Jewish leader and one of the leaders of the International Committee for Har Hazeitim (ICHH), said that as a participant in many of the events, “I felt as if the mountain should also be renamed Har Hazikaron. There are so many memories of and life lessons to be learned from, not only the A-list of military figures buried there like Rav Shlomo Goren zt”l or Chief of Staff General Ephraim Maklef z”l, but from some of the lesser-known names as well.”
One extremely emotional memorial was for pre- and post-1948 fallen defenders. Some of these martyrs were orphaned Holocaust survivors who were asked to defend Jerusalem and the Yishuv despite the overwhelming odds. Their unequivocal response was very similar to the B’nai Yisrael’s na’aseh v’nishma response when accepting the Torah even before they knew what it contained.
One example was the gravesite of Nechama Zaltovsky-Hacohen o”h, a nurse at nearby Hadassah Hospital who was reputed to be the first to fall after the November 29, 1947, Partition Plan was passed at the U.N. just hours before. She was with her husband and family for Shabbat but declared unhesitatingly, “I belong to the Haganah in the Old City. Riots may break out in Jerusalem. I’d better go back to my post” and on her way back, Nechama was felled by a bullet. Then there was the gravesite of Meir Avizedek Rakovsky z”l who fell in 1970. While a lowly Nahal Brigade private, Meir in his 23 short years best exemplified the tradition of Torah im Derech Eretz. After immersing himself in Halacha and Torah study at Hebron Yeshiva Gedola, Meir also studied philosophy, poetry, history, and classical music. As a member of the “Bnai Torah” movement, Meir authored many articles and lectured to observant and non-observant young people alike. On the verge of release from the army when he fell, he was about to marry his fiancé while continuing his Torah and university studies — a true role model for our young people regardless of backgrounds.
There was a musical commemoration of the fallen at Yad Avshalom, deep in the Kidron Valley and at the foot of Har Hazeitim. The contrasts there were stunning. On one side Har Hazeitim, on the other Har Habayit towering above; a monument associated with a wayward son of David Hamelech in front of the crowd while singing mournful songs in memory of our the most noble and courageous sons and daughters of Israel. These contrasts inform and animate the ICHH.
The next morning following the evening commencement of memorial services was the always moving IDF memorial for the fallen graves and visits at the graves of such heroes as Moshe Rosnak z”l, the commander who was ordered to surrender the Jewish Quarter to the Jordanians and Nissim Gini z”l who at barely 10 years old was the youngest Israeli soldier killed in combat. They were a small sample of the over 24,000 of our kedoshim who sacrificed their lives for the Jewish state. The keynote speech was delivered by Minister Rabbi Yoav Ben Tzur, a former chairman of the Knesset Caucus on Har Hazeitim. Arguably one of ICHH’s greatest supporters in the Knesset, Minister Ben Tzur made the degree of our indebtedness to the fallen crystal clear.
The final tribute, sponsored by Yisrael Goldberg and Keren Aviya, was for Moshe Barzani z”l and Meir Feinstein z”l, two martyr/heroes who rather than give the British mandatory forces the satisfaction of seeing them hanging from the gallows took their own lives in an act of selfless courage so profound that Prime Minister Menachem Begin z”l insisted on being buried next to them on Har Hazeitim.
The ICHH was established in 2010 by two brothers, Menachem and Abe Lubinsky of New York, who organized the committee following a devastating report of vandalism and destruction by the Israeli Comptroller, the late Micha Lindenstrauss. The committee subsequently arranged for the installation of a network of 176 surveillance cameras, an underground monitoring station, a police substation, increased Border Patrol units, gating, sanitation services and upgrades to the infrastructure. The improved security has resulted in a sharp decrease in vandalism and a dramatic increase in visitors from less than 200 a day to as many as 2000, with tens of thousands visiting on the yahrzeits of important sages buried there.