I first met Rav Shurin at the Yerushalayim Volvo dealership in 1983. We were both olim hadashim, new immigrants to Israel. In those days, it was considered a privilege to buy a car from the dealer, not a privilege for them to sell you one. As a result the two of us were left waiting for about half an hour while the salesman (if you could call him that) disappeared for a lunch break. So we began talking, I, recently arrived from Australia, renting in Kiryat Moshe in Yerushalayim and the rabbi, just moved into his permanent abode in Efrat following a few months at the absorption centre in Kiryat Arba.
I had studied at the yeshiva in Kiryat Arba and later in Mercaz haRav. Rav Shurin knew Rav Avrohom Shapira (rosh yeshiva at Mercaz and recently appointed Chief Rabbi of Israel) from their days in the Ḥevron Yeshiva. So springboarding from these two commonalities (Kiryat Arba and Rav Shapiro) we played Jewish geography for over an hour (well they he said he would be back in half an hour, but ...) until the Volvo man returned to take our money.
It took a further two years until our family also found our permanent home in Efrat and I again met the Rabbi. He had a little congregation in a wood panelled bomb shelter near his house. He held prayer services there and gave G'mara lessons mornings and evenings, as well as hosting a night Kollel, where people from the town would come and learn together.
The first year I was living in Efrat, Rav Shurin announced on Tisha b'Av that he wants to go to a cemetery after morning prayers. Visiting a cemetery is one of the customs of Tisha b'Av and is brought in the Shulḥan Arukh. We could go to the local (then still small) cemetery next to Kfar Etzion, he said, but since we are so close to Ḥevron (seventeen kilometres to the south) we should make the extra effort to go there, to visit the graves of those slaughtered in the 1929 pogrom when over sixty Ḥevron Jews were massacred, with the acquiescence of the British police, on one long summer's shabbat.
In addition to the martyrs' graves, there are graves going back over 400 years. Buried in Ḥevron are many famous rabbis who lived in the city. Interestingly, there are no names on the graves which are marked by 2 metre long stones.
Rav Shurin illustrated the importance of visiting a cemetery on the 9th Av with a story in which he was personally involved. He told us that he used to spend the New York summers up in the mountains, at a bungalow colony, with a group of rabbis. Included in this circle was the famed Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Rav Shurin recalled that one Tisha b'Av it was particularly hot, "it was over a hundred degrees. Reb Moshe asked me to drive him to a cemetery." Rav Shurin explained that most of the rabbis then did not own cars, but he was one who did. "I felt sorry for him because he was getting old and they didn't have air conditioners in cars yet back then. So I told him there were no Jews buried anywhere nearby", knowing full well that on Tisha b'Av as opposed to before Yom Kippur, any cemetery would do. The purpose of the Tisha b'Av visit is to be exposed to the frailty of humanity and to cause you to think about yourself, in order that you reevaluate your purpose and place in this world.
"He told me that we don't need a Jewish cemetery ... I said there aren't any cemeteries at all in the vicinity ... he said, 'we passed one coming up here, ten miles back' ... he was very observant ... so I had no choice but to drive him there ... it was very hot, but I had to take him. We left the windows open to create a little breeze."
Our rabbi wanted to learn from this action of the great sage, the importance of this act on this day. "Most people do not bother going to a cemetery but Rav Moshe, by his actions, taught us the importance of a cemetery visit on this day." So we, together with Rav Shurin, visited the old Ḥevron cemetery.
The graveyard is located on a hill overlooking the city of Ḥevron and Ma'arat haMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, where four "famous couples" are buried: Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sara, Yitzḥak and Rivka, Ya'akov and Lea. The last burials in the Ḥevron cemetery, before the 1929 expulsion of the Jews by the British "for their own safety", were of those who were brutally murdered in that bloody pogrom.
By 1967, when we were finally able to return to the area following the Six Day War, the Jewish sites of Ḥevron were in a shambles. Both the four hundred year old Avraham Avinu synagogue and the cemetery lay under piles of rubbish and rubble, covered in animal dung and carcasses. The market toilets backed onto the synagogue site.
I remember these sites from the days I studied at the yeshiva in Kiryat Arba in 1976. The structures were unrecognisable. At that time Jews were not yet living in the city itself, only on its outskirts. I remember Professor Benzion Tavger, who came to Ḥevron from Novosibirsk. He cleaned up the two sites in the face of harassment and interference by officials from the military's Civil Administration. He was arrested a number of times. He gave up his university position to work as the cemetery guard. This allowed him to spend time clearing the area. A world renowned researcher working as a guard! He later said it gave him peace and quiet to think out his theories. Academics from around the world would come to speak with him there ... and all were shocked by this famous scientist's office.
The tombstones of the 1929 martyrs were reinstated, based on old records and photographs, and on eye witness accounts by some old men from Ḥevron, now in living Yerushalayim, who had taken part in the original burials, the Hevra Kadisha. The bones of the victims were scattered all over the site. They had been butchered for a second time by the next generation. I remember the day that the work was completed and the cememtery rededicated.
Having learnt from 1935 in the Ḥevron Yeshiva, by then relocated to Geula in Yerushalayim, our Rav was familiar with many of the stories of the massacre. While he obviously had not known the people lying in the graves before us, he knew some of their families and he knew survivors. He related these happenings to us. He enlivened this place before our eyes.
The following year, with a few additional people in tow, we visited Ḥevron again. This year the Rabbi said, in his typical Lithuanian accent, where 'sh' and 's' sound alike, "Why don't we also go the Cave as well ... after all it too is a cemetery and very important people are interred there".
That's how and why our custom of visiting these sites commenced. It is over twenty years now. Our beloved sage is no longer with us, passing over to the world that is all Truth a little over a year ago. We continue to narrate his stories and follow his footsteps.
Over the years we added additional stops along the way. We say the two kinot, lamentations, relating Jeremiah (Yirmiyahu) the prophet's visit to Ḥevron, to the Cave, just prior to the destruction of the first Temple. Kalir, the paytan who wrote these lamentations, describes the tribulation of Yirmiyahu, and the conversations between haShem and the forefathers and mothers that ensued, beseeching haShem to save the Jewish people from destruction.
Some years we visit the graves of Ruth and her grandson, Yishai (King David's father). These are located on the same ridge as the old cemetery. [We now know that these are not really their graves and the signage has been removed.]
Over the years we have seen many developments around Ḥevron. We also added to our itinerary a stop at the grave of Dr Baruch Goldstein, who was murdered in Ma'arat haMachpela. For political — and safety — reasons he is buried, alone, in Kiryat Arba, and not in Ḥevron. The Rav, who knew Dr Goldstein well from his time living in Kiryat Arba, would not pass up a stop there. He said that Rav Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Ḥevron (and my rosh yeshiva) ruled that "Reb Boruch" (as our Rav would call him) was a martyr and he was not going to argue with "the ruling of this great rabbi".
There was a period of two years when the Ma'ara was closed off completely, to Jews and Arabs, supposedly as renovations were carried out to improve security there. Even in those black days, Rav Shurin insisted we continue to go there in addition to the cemetery. I remember the joy (if there is such a thing on Tisha b'Av) on my [other] rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman's face when we arrived on the grass outside the Cave. "The people of Efrat have come to visit their fathers", he stated. In those days, no-one, absolutely no-one, came to Ḥevron.
We've seen ups and downs in the numbers arriving on Tisha b'Av. Intifada, bad roads, lots of excuses. But this year, thank haShem, the place was full of Jews of every colour of the Jewish spectrum. It was a Tisha b'Av pleasure to see and and be part of it. Following Rav Lior's ruling a few years ago, allowing cohanim (priests) to enter the complex, many new faces are arriving, one them being our Rabbi from Efrat, Rav Shlomo Riskin [haCohen].
I met Dov Shurin this morning in the cave compound. He is there every year. He sleeps the night outside on the grass. I told him that his father, on leaving the Cave, always said that next year when we return here, Avraham Avinu in person will be waiting to greet us. He based his remark on a comment by the Tosafoth. I told Dov I had not forgotten his father's words and that next year he and I will be sitting right here, with Avraham and with his father.
Note in 2022, תשפ״ב
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