There’s a fifth holy city in Israel (in addition to Jerusalem, Hevron, Tzfat and Tiberius), but most of us don’t think of it because in the last few years, it has become infamous rather than famous. It’s called Shechem, or in English, Nablus. The largest Muslim city in Israel, until recently it was the hub of Arab terrorism against Israelis. So, then what, you may ask, makes it holy? It’s holy because Joseph, the son of our forefather Jacob, is buried there. Shechem, as well as Hevron and Jerusalem, was paid for and bought with good Jewish money, as recorded in the Bible. Until 2000 the home of a Chabad oriented yeshiva, people still insist on going there to visit and pray at Joseph’s tomb, although presently it’s not possible without an army escort.
How did it get that way? Here’s a partial history;
|1982||A group of Israeli yeshiva students decided the time had come to renew the Jewish presence in Shechem, and founded a yeshiva adjacent to the tomb of Joseph.|
|1989||The group grew, and they chose Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg as their Rosh Yeshiva. His guidance imparted a flavor of Chabad, of love of the Land of Israel and love of the inner dimensions of Torah.|
|1993||The Oslo accords were signed, which while compromising on Jewish land in other places, allowed for a continued Jewish presence in Shechem at Joseph’s tomb|
The yeshiva, called Od Yoseph Chai (Joseph lives on), bought a Torah scroll and sought to install it in the yeshiva during the winter. B’didi hava uvda - I actually experienced the following events; the celebrating crowds were stopped at Tapuach Junction, some ten kilometers from the yeshiva, by the IDF, apparently acting upon orders of the government from the highest echelons. Undeterred, the dancing and singing yeshiva students continued through the dangerous refugee camp, Balata, in order to avoid IDF roadblocks seeking to prevent the Torah scroll from arriving at its destination. Walking and singing for ten kilometers, the crowd and the Torah scroll arrived to within one hundred meters of Joseph’s tomb and the yeshiva. The student carrying the Torah scroll was knocked to the ground by IDF soldiers following directions, and the scroll was taken from him and placed in an army jeep to be taken away. Another one of the students lay down on the muddy ground in front of the jeep, which was prevented from leaving the area. Negotiations with Rabbi Ginzburg ensued, and it was decided that the army would permit the Torah scroll to be entered into the yeshiva at a later date. The crowds dispersed and returned home.
The ceremonial entrance of the Torah scroll into the yeshiva was re-scheduled for about one month later. The crowds once more gathered at Tapuach junction, but were greeted by policemen who arrested the “ringleaders” of the previous month’s attempt to bring the Torah to the yeshiva. Rabbi Ginzburg denounced the negotiators in no uncertain terms. Once more, the ceremony was postponed.
Finally, during the Torah reading of VaYechi, on the very day that Jacob says to his son Joseph, “And I have granted you one portion more than your brothers, (the city) of Shechem…” (Genesis 48:22), the Torah scroll was successfully installed in the yeshiva. The ceremony took place with much singing and celebration, in the presence of many public notables, such as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (may he rest in peace), Mr. Dov Shilansky (former majority leader of the Knesset), and General Rechavam Ze’evi (may he rest in peace). The latter noted that the occasion brought more Jews to Shechem (at least two thousand) than had been there at one time since the era of Joshua (when he camped there with the six-hundred thousand Jews who left Egypt and came to the holy Land). When asked how he knew to fix the ceremony on this auspicious date, Rabbi Ginzburg replied that it was not him, but the “holy spirit of the army General” who chose the date. (That general, Gen. Nehemia Tamari, was tragically killed in a helicopter accident a few months later.)
|1996||In September, rioting Arabs surrounded the yeshiva and Joseph’s tomb, including six soldiers who were in the army compound to defend the yeshiva. Instead of ordering the immediate rescue of the trapped soldiers by means of IDF forces, the Israeli minister of defense (Gen. Yitzhak Mordecai) tried to “negotiate” with PA “authorities.” Only when the army chief of staff at that time - General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak – ordered the army to attack did the rioting come to an end. In the meantime, the six soldiers were killed and the yeshiva compound was destroyed. The yeshiva continued to function, but the students left every night and returned during the day, rather than sleep overnight in Shechem.|
|2000||In May, Jerusalem Connection undertook the first of our yearly visits to Elon Moreh, the beautiful settlement overlooking Shechem and Joseph’s tomb. Our first guide was Rabbi Hillel Lieberman (may he rest in peace), the general director of the yeshiva in Shechem, Od Yoseph Chai. In
September of 2000, Arabs once more rioted and attacked the yeshiva. A Druze soldier, Yusef Madhat, was wounded and left bleeding in the compound. In the meantime, the army once more “negotiated.” The result; the soldier bled to death. The army, against its own rules and regulations, had abandoned a wounded soldier. Subsequently, one Shabbat, the army abandoned its position altogether, leaving the yeshiva and Joseph’s tomb to the Arabs. That Shabbat, upon hearing this, Rabbi Lieberman left Elon Moreh and walked on foot to the yeshiva. He was never heard from again; his body was found in a nearby cave riddled with bullet holes. This time, not only the yeshiva, but also the tombstone itself was shattered and totally burned.
|2003||With improvement in the local security situation, and under pressure from Breslav Chasidim who regularly “sneak” into the tomb unguarded, the IDF began to accompany groups of Jews into Shechem in order to pray at Joseph’s tomb.|
|2004||On October 25, 2004 (corresponding to Rachel Imanu’s yahrtzeit), Jerusalem Connection entered Joseph’s tomb in Shechem with a small group among hundreds of Jews who came to pray there, accompanied and guarded by the IDF. Such guarded “forays” take place occasionally, under the auspices of the yeshiva, Od Yoseph Chai – Joseph lives on.|