10 Nov A DIFFERENT SHABBOS CHAYEI SARAH IN CHEVRON THIS YEAR: Q & A WITH RAV SIMCHA HOCHBAUM
Name: Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum
Born: 1966 in New York
Grew up in: Staten Island
Graduated: Yeshiva University with a B.S. in accounting and studied at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education.
Before Making Aliyah: Was the Rabbi of The Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City and a Judaic studies instructor at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford CT.
Made Aliyah: 1995, shortly after Oslo Accords, and moved directly to Chevron
Currently resides in: Chevron’s Avraham Avinu neighborhood
Job Title: Director of Tourism in the Holy City of Chevron
Years as a tour guide: Twenty one
Job outside of being a tour guide: Part time Rebbie, teaching Chassidut, song-filled and soul-stirring shiurim in Tanach, Shivat Tzion, Tefilah and Massechet Tamid at Yeshivat Reishit under the leadership of Rabbi Marcus.
Chevron resident, Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum (Rav Simcha) is the Director of Tourism for the Hebron Fund and is a Rebbe at Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim. In his tour, Rav Simcha takes 3,800 years of history and expertly educates and inspires everyone on tour, children and adults, and participants of various faiths or levels of Jewish observance. He offers spellbinding stories of the foundational figures of the Jewish people and an insider’s perspective on the deep history of Hebron from ancient times until today. He has guided upwards of 100,000 people over the years on his tour. Rav Simcha also guides individuals, families, and groups in the Old City of Yerushalayim every week (generally on Wednesdays) and runs other trips throughout Yehuda & Shomron. His love for these regions is apparent, as he brings out the holiness and special grace of Eretz Yisroel, connecting people to the Torah and to their roots. Ari Hirsch from The Jewish Vues had the opportunity to interview Rav Simcha last week.
During this period of Covid, what is happening this year for Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah?
This year Shabbat Chayei Sarah is going to be very different than the other years. This year Shabbat Chayei Sarah is going to have to be more internal. Due to coronavirus and public safety, we won’t be able to have mass gatherings. Of course families will still be hosting small numbers of immediate relatives. And of course the diehards will come anyway. There’s an expression in the Talmud “echad hamarbe veechad hamamet.” Whether it’s 40,000 people or if it’s 1000 people,the main thing is that we direct our hearts and we bring nachat ruach to Hashem. We’re doing something special for the Avot and Imahot and we are honoring the purchase of the second holiest site, the first real estate purchase of Avraham Avinu.
Have tourists been visiting Chevron since the outbreak of Covid?
Since a few days after Purim, the skies have been closed and it’s almost been impossible for people from abroad to come to Eretz Yisroel. Sometimes it could require a 2 week quarantine both in Israel and when coming back to their respective countries. So visiting Chevron has been limited to a handful of people who have apartments here or who came for a simcha. Just like a farmer needs a Shmita year to stop and let the land be fallow, to have time to sit and learn and connect to the Torah, as a tour guide this is a time for me to refill myself and have a shmita year. In a time where tourism is relatively fallow, we are able to fill ourselves with holiness and spiritual opportunities that weren’t accessible or available due to the Lachatz and the pressure of having to deal with tourism.
Are there still outsiders visiting Chevron during Corona?
A lot of Americans living in Eretz Yisrael did come throughout the summer from Ramat Bet Shemesh, Modi’in, Bet Shemesh, Nachlaot, Shaarei Chesed area. So there were some people coming in the summer individually with cars.
How did you become the most popular tour guide in Chevron?
G-d told Avraham, when you come to Eretz Yisroel, I’ll bless you. One of the things G-d blessed Avraham with was “I’ll make your name great.” And Hashem, thank G-d, made my name great when it comes to the tours of both Chevron and in the Old City of Yerushalayim. My agenda always is to make Eretz Yisroel great, to make it more beautiful and special, and I hope in return Hashem is also making my name great.
What do you typically cover on a tour in Chevron?
No two tours are alike, but every tour BH covers two stops: Kever Rachel and Ma’arat Hamachpela. We also try to focus not only on the people buried in Chevron, but on the people living in Chevron. We try to see different Jewish neighborhoods and try to bring to life the mesiras nefesh and privilege of being able to live in Chevron. Each tour varies with the seasons. Tel Rumeida is a staple stop. Other stops include where Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov all lived and where David Hamelech had his palace. We sometimes go to the old cemetery, sometimes to Yishai & Ruth’s kuvarim, or to the new museum built by the Hebron Fund. It’s called the Hebron Heritage Museum. It’s in Beit Hadassah and it now has a 4D movie ride through Hebron’s ancient history. We go to the Avraham Avinu shul built in the year 1540 by the Jews coming over from the Spanish Expulsion. And we always end our day by davening mincha at the Ma’arat Hamachpela.
Are the Avot and Imahaot really buried under the Ma’ara?
We believe 1000 percent they are buried under that Herodian structure. According to everyone that is where the double cave is. Other Kevarim & sites have various opinions about the authenticity, but in Chevron everyone agrees, the Maarah is where our Avot and Imahot are buried.
At what point did you move to Chevron with your family?
Until 1995 we were living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan with 2 children and decided to move shortly after the Oslo Accords. The Israeli government was under PM Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Perez, and the idea was to strengthen the Jewish presence in Chevron and Gush Katif. My wife and I debated between the two neighborhoods of Netzarim, which is in northern strip of Gaza and a very isolated Yishuv which was fated to be dismantled, or Chevron where every Jew makes a difference. We decided to move to Chevron.
What’s the amount of Jews that currently live in Chevron?
We have approximately a thousand Jews in Chevron, including a yeshiva of about 300 boys called Yeshivat Shavei Chevron. It’s a Yeshiva Gevoha. It’s a combination of some boys who sit and learn for years and some who do the army and then come learn. We have approximately 90 Jewish families in Chevron. In Chevron, the city is divided 80% to Arabs and 20% to Jews. In the 20% where the Jews live, only 3% is accessible to civilians. The rest is under watch by the military. So really just 3% of the city is inhabited by civilians.
Approximately how many people visit Chevron a year?
The numbers have been going up in recent years. The year before corona, we broke 800,000 people! When I started, we could barely get people to come to visit. People were scared and intimidated by Chevron. BH, today it’s the norm to come visit and experience Chevron. It’s the norm to put it on your itinerary, especially for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
What is something very few people know about Chevron?
A lot of people think that Chevron is just the Ma’arat Hamachpela and people forget that, not only are Avraham and Sara buried in Chevron, but they actually lived in Chevron. Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov and Leah, also lived there. We try to bring out that not only are holy people buried there, but it’s also the land of the living.
Outside of Parshas Chayei Sara, what are the busiest times for tourism in Chevron?
Outside of Parshat Chayei Sara we BH have busy seasons throughout the year. We just finished intersession and yeshiva break, two intense weeks at the end of January/beginning of February, that are packed with people. Chevron is packed with tourists from Tisha B’Av until the school year. Chol Hamoed Succot and Chol Hamoed Pesach are also busy tourist times. There’s a tremendous trend now to come during the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, when people need the best lawyers to represent them, to reawaken the merits of the forefathers, and to have the family lawyers who have been with us all these years, the avot and imahaot, represent us before the day of judgement. Yeshiva students also come during that time of Aseret Yimei Teshuva.
How often is the Ma’ara closed completely to Jews?
It is officially closed ten days a year on days connected to Ramadan and other Arab holidays.
When is the Ma’arah only open to Jews?
For Jews, we have ten days throughout the year starting with Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rosh Hashana one day, two days Aseret Yimei Teshuva, Yom Kippur, two days Chol Hamoed Succot, two days Chol Hamoed Pesach, and Shabbat Chayei Sara.
Who is currently considered the Rav of the Ma’ara?
That’s a loaded question, but really there is no particular Rav of the Maara. Rav Dov Lior was the chief Rabbi of Chevron for over forty years and he retired two years ago. He has very big shoes and as of yet, no one has replaced him.
Every year Alan Hirsch, the publisher of The Jewish Vues, & numerous other people bring toys to the children living in Chevron. What do the toys mean to the children of Chevron?
This is something achat bshana, like on Yom Kippur and Purim! The children of Chevron wait for this day, much like Jewish children all over the world wait for Chanukah. The children wait for the gifts and the presents that Alan brings to them. Alan is a household name for all the children in Chevron.
If someone wants to book you for a tour, what’s the best way to go about doing it?
Visit online: TheHebronFund.org/ tour. We have a website with our schedule, dates, pricing. That’s the best way to book a tour of Chevron. For the old city of Yerushalayim, people can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (011-972-0) 52-431-7257 or 02-996-3946.
Is there something else that we did not discuss, that you would like to mention?
After Corona, I want to reiterate the importance of people coming to Chevron. It is so important on a spiritual level to visit Chevron, especially for American Jews who are living without that concept of Am Yisroel or of being part of the nation of Israel. The American kids are BH learning beautifully in some of the best yeshivot and day schools in America, but when they visit Chevron, they get a feeling like they’re part of something bigger and part of the greater family of Am Yisroel. Coming to Chevron reconnects us to our roots and the nation of Israel. It’s also important for us in Chevron to feel that our mesirat nefesh is on behalf of all of Klal Yisrael and that world Jewelry is standing with us!