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Newly Discovered Map Offers Clues to Ancient Hebron Cemetery

A long lost map adds clues to the reconstruction of one of Israel's most important and historic cemeteries.

26.1.16, 01:05
Photo: Structure at the grave of Menucha Rochel Slonim in Hebron. 
 
A map of the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron has recently been discovered weeks before a planned annual visit to the site. The newly discovered map gives clues to where some of famous sages buried in the Ashkenazic section of the cemetery are located. 
 
The area includes the final resting place of Menucha Rochel Slonim, grand-daughter of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, daughter of the second Lubavitcher Rebbe and a matriarch for the Jewish community of Hebron in the mid to late 1800s. Every year hundreds of people attend a service at her gravesite, one of the few that has been correctly identified. 
 
 
When the Jewish community of Hebron started researching the history of the cemetery, it was learned that in World War I, when the Ashkenazic community in Hebron dwindled, two members of the Burial Society created a book and map to mark the exact graves of the deceased. They gathered information from the elders of Hebron about the names of the deceased, and carved the initials of the names on each tombstones. The initials were recorded in a special book. This initiative lasted several months. A more detailed map was created twenty years later in 1937. This came after the infamous massacre fo 1929, the return of the survivors in 1931 and the subsequent forced eviction by the British in 1936. 
 
Both items, the book and the map, ensured that the place and the name of who is buried in the cemetery. But during the tumultuous history, the location of the book and map became lost.
 
Finally the map was rediscovered in the the estate of Rabbi Elazar Mordechai Gelbstein, longtime manager of the Burial Society in Jerusalem, and a member of the Council of Cemeteries, by his son Rabbi Yitzhak Gelbstein. The map lists 6 - 7 rows of graves, and marks about 225 tombstones. The map will now allow the community to restore the exact location of the gravestones. But at this point, as long as the book is gone, the exact names of who is bruied in which plot will remain unknown.

Representatives of Hebron and the Chabad hasidic movement expressed excitement over the discovery of the map. They hope the book will soon be found as well so the reconstruction of the cemetery can commence.
 
February 3, 2016 will mark the 128th anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel. She immigrated with her family to Hebron in 1845 and led the Chabad community in Hebron decades, until her passing in 1888 at the age of 90. Her advice and blessings were sought by both Jewish and non-Jewish residents. 
 
She was buried in the Ashkenazi cemetery in Hebron. Among the sages also buried there are Rabbi Shimon Menashe Chaikin (1802-1893), who served as a community rabbi for about 50 years, and Rabbi Hillel Moshe Gelbstein.
 
The Ashkenazic cemetery was the western part of the ancient cemetery while the eastern part was maintained by the Sephardic community. Rabbis and kabbalists, victims of pogroms and riots can be found in the eastern section. There are approximately 5,000 graves in total.
 
One of the special customs of the Hebron community was to place a natural rock monument, rather then engraving the name of the deceased. This practice was done for number of reasons. Typically, the community remembered the names of the deceased and knew who lay under which tombstone. 
 
During the Jordanian occupation of Hebron (1948-1967) the cemetery suffered considerable damage. The Ashkenazic section was almost was completely destroyed, with all tombstones removed. The Sephardic section also had massive vandalism including at the plots for the victims of they 1929 massacre.
 
After the Six Day War of 1967, former residents and their descendants were once again able to visit the site. In the mid 1970s, Hebron resident Prof. Ben-Zion Tavger began the process of cleaning and refurbishing the cemetery. He was also instrumental in the uncovering of the historic Avraham Avinu synagogue which had been turned into a goat pen.
 
In the past several decades, the monument to Menucha Rochel Slonim has been restored, and a kollel has been established in a structure nearby. Hundreds come every year for the annual memorial. But the monuments around that area are gone.
 
Today, once again, Chabad is strong Hebron, as is the rest of the community. The local chapter of Chabad is led by Rabbi Danny and Batsheva Cohen who named their daughter Menucha Rochel, reputed to be the first native born Hebron child given that name since the reestablishment of the community.  They are among the many excited to learn of the discovery of the map and eager to connect to the past and continue building a strong future. 
 
Rabbi Danny Cohen at the dedication of a sefer Torah to the Menucha Rochel synagogue in honor of her yahrtzeit in 2006. Courtesy Chabad of Hebron.
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