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Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, z”l, Forward-Thinking Man of Wisdom, Compassion and Peace

Much has been written about the Jewish community in Kiryat Arba and Hebron, but I would like to share three personal memories of Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, of blessed memory, who was among the founders of the renewed Jewish community in the city of our forefathers, who passed away on December 18.

When I was new in Israel, in the late spring of 1968, a friend of mine from Cleveland, Chana (Porath) Idels, volunteered to help a group of young Jewish couples and singles who had moved into the Park Hotel on Pesach that year, in Hebron. She invited me to spend an evening there. I did, and many years later, when I told people who lived in Kiryat Arba or Hebron, “I was in the Park Hotel,” it was the equivalent of saying to an American, “I came over on the Mayflower.”

Shortly after that, the fledgling Jewish community moved to a British-built Tegart fort known as the Government House (which housed Jordanian security forces before the Six-Day War), overlooking the city, and immediately opened a beit midrash, a pre-school and a school for the lower grades. While I was a student in Jerusalem in the coming years, it became my home away from home on Shabbat and during vacations, when I would help in the communal kitchen and with the children, who in that close atmosphere, were also almost “communal.”

When some of us would get a ride back to Jerusalem on Sundays in the community’s small pickup truck, which had “Mitnahalei Hevron” (“The Settlers of Hebron”) written on the front of it, people in the streets of downtown Jerusalem cheered when we jumped out and sometimes came over to talk to us. They were expressing joy that, 39 years after the horrific 1929 massacre of the Jews of Hebron at the hands of their Arab neighbors, the Jews had returned.

One of the rabbis who was at the forefront of creating the renewed Jewish community in Hebron was Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, along with his wife, Ruth. They were like a mirror image to Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his wife, Miriam, the couple who had, with the Waldman’s and others, spearheaded the resettlement of the city. Rabbi Levinger, an Israeli, married an American. Rabbi Waldman, though born in Israel, had grown up in America, and married an Israeli. When they were single, Eliezer had introduced Miriam to Moshe, and later, Moshe introduced Ruth to Eliezer; thus, their lives were intertwined.

What characterized Rabbi Waldman was his gentle demeanor and quiet smile, his scholarship and his dedication to educating the youth. He had been a devoted student of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, son of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva. A teacher of his, who eventually became his colleague and his havruta until his death, is Rabbi Chaim Drukman, rosh yeshiva of Ohr Etzion Yeshiva. My friend Chana and I first encountered Rav Chaim and Rav Eliezer when we spent our first—very spiritual—Yom Kippur at Ohr Etzion in 1967.

Here are my three personal stories about Rabbi Waldman.

In the late ’60s and early ‘70s, when air travel was less common, there was a custom among many people to recite Hagomel—a blessing of gratitude—after returning to Israel from abroad. (Some still do so.) The Hagomel blessing is: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the world, who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness.” To which the congregation responds: “May He who rewarded you with all goodness reward you with all goodness forever.” (Translations from My Jewish Learning.) The blessing is also said by a woman after childbirth, and after one has survived an accident or recovered from serious illness. The blessing is said before a minyan and is therefore usually said in the synagogue.

After having traveled to America for the summer of 1968, I spent my first Shabbat back in Israel with the Hebron Jewish community. I asked Rabbi Waldman about saying Hagomel in shul Shabbat morning. He said I could, but that I should know that I could also recite Hagomel in front of 10 women.

Today that probably seems obvious, at least in Modern Orthodox circles, but the year was 1968, decades before women were holding their own readings of Megillat Esther, and before Orthodox women were being ordained as rabbis or as spiritual leaders of congregations. But to Rabbi Waldman, it was straightforward halacha. So that became my custom.

My second story is that one Shabbat in Kiryat Arba, I saw Rabbi Waldman standing next to an ambulance. I asked him if everything was OK. He said that yes, he was on ambulance duty, and they were about to take a woman to the hospital to give birth. My face may have registered surprise, as there were plenty of younger people around who could do it, rather than one of the community’s leading rabbis. He offered, “I always ask for ambulance duty on Shabbat, because I know the halachot well of what is permitted to do on Shabbat for pikuach nefesh and how it should be done.”

My third story took place at a demonstration in Paris Square in Jerusalem, in the ’70s. I don’t remember the exact year or what the demonstration was about—and I saw Rabbi Waldman there. Having grown up in America, with the indelible rule of “one person one vote,” I asked him, regarding the issue of Judea and Samaria and the Arab population, who could not vote, “What IS the solution?” (Inside the 1949 armistice lines, sometimes referred to as the “green line,” Israeli Arabs, and those in East Jerusalem and the Druze in the Golan Heights, who have accepted Israeli citizenship, can vote.)

He replied (I’m paraphrasing; it was a long time ago), “Anyone who wants to live in peace with us and be loyal to the State of Israel should receive Israeli citizenship and be allowed to vote.”

Rabbi Waldman was one of the founders of the Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba in 1972. It is a hesder yeshiva, in which the students also do army service, dedicating themselves to both the study of Torah and the safety of am Yisrael.

Before going to the Park Hotel for Pesach in 1968, Rabbi Waldman related, in a film made for his 80th birthday called “Rav Valdman – 80 – Biography,” how he went with a delegation to meet with Yigal Alon, minister of labor for the ruling Alignment party, and asked him how to get permission from the government to hold a Pesach seder in Hebron. Alon, who had an illustrious military career, including as commander of the Palmach in 1945 and later as the one who led operations liberating the Galil and the Negev, reportedly said, “First you create facts on the ground, then the permission will follow.”

Rabbi Waldman was not naive or apolitical. He was a founder of Gush Emunim in 1974. He was a member of Geula Cohen’s Tehiya party in the Knesset between 1984 and 1990. While in the Knesset, he was a member of the Special Committee on Addictions, Drugs and the Challenges Facing Young Israelis, and on the Immigration and Absorption Committee. More recently, he asked the Women in Green to act to prevent the establishment of an American consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and he encouraged the Sovereignty movement. He believed that Jews should live anywhere they want to in the Land of Israel.

In an interview at the Oz Ve’Gaon nature reserve in Gush Etzion, Rabbi Waldman said that the vision of Israeli sovereignty over the whole land isn’t just an issue affecting am Yisrael. “We are destined to bring blessing to all the peoples of the world. Thus was spoken to Abraham our forefather when God said to him, ‘And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you’.”

I believe that my stories illustrate the personality and character of Rabbi Eliezer Waldman. He exemplified a love of people, a love of learning, a love of Eretz Yisrael and a seeker of genuine peace. I feel privileged to be among those who knew him, emulated him, and hopefully internalized some of his significant messages.

May his memory bring blessings to us all.

The author is an award-winning journalist, an educational theater director and the editor-in-chief of She and her husband live in Efrat and have children and grandchildren who live throughout the land of Israel.

(Photo: Courtesy of Ulpaney Etrog)

By Toby Klein Greenwald


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