Rabbi Danny Cohen helps a soldier in Chevron wrap tefillin. (Photo: Chabad)
Chabad for the Soldiers of Chevron
BY RABBI LAZER GURKOW
Chevron’s Chabad House is unique, for it serves a community of deeply observant Jews. Living in Chevron is fraught with tension and often physical danger; only Jews who are ideologically motivated and deeply committed to Torah possess the strength to live here. The Jewish residents of Chevron are people of profound faith and joyful observance who already live and breathe the idealistic Judaism that characterizes Chabad. What then does Chabad offer to this exceptional Jewish community?
Rabbi Danny Cohen, the Chevron Chabad House rabbi, gave me all the answers I needed in two simple words. The soldiers.
Chevron is protected by hundreds of soldiers who rotate through the city on four-month tours of duty. The Chevron Jewish community enjoys excellent relations with the soldiers, providing them with food and drink, friendship and hospitality. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Cohen go further, and bring them food and drink for the soul.
Before Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the Cohens drive their car through army checkpoints, road barriers and hostile neighborhoods to visit soldiers in remote outposts. The soldiers love these visits and make the most of them. The Cohens bring along Jewish music and the soldiers join in exuberant song and dance. They bring Shabbat candles and delicacies and study Torah with soldiers, who often experience their first taste of Judaism while serving in Chevron.
In a unique partnership with Chabad of Lyon, France, the Cohens have undertaken to provide a pair of tefillin at no charge to every soldier who commits to wearing them every day. The tefillin are provided by Rabbi Gurevich of Lyon and distributed by the Cohens in Chevron.
Every Thursday afternoon, Rebbetzin Bat Sheva Cohen engages in an ancient Jewish ritual that originated with our matriarch Sarah in Chevron. Our sages taught that Sarah baked challah every week for her family and Shabbat guests. On Thursday afternoons, Rebbetzin Bat Sheva invites the female soldiers to join in her challah baking expedition. They learn to fulfill the beautiful mitzvah of “separating challah,” while also learning the culinary arts of braiding and baking the challah. The soldiers bring their challah back to their base and often return to the Chabad House on Friday night to join the Cohens for dinner.
Many of these soldiers experience their first taste of Shabbat at Chabad of Chevron. Every Friday night, the Cohens host upwards of 40 soldiers on their terrace overlooking the dome of the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. While the media portrays Chevron as a hotspot for clashes between Arab terrorists and settlers, at the Cohens’ Friday night dinner table, you’ll find joyous singing, friendly banter and profound words of Torah.
The camaraderie between Rabbi Cohen and the soldiers is palpable. Driving through the streets of Chevron, Rabbi Cohen slows to a crawl and rolls down his window. A soldier, standing guard, saunters up to the car and greets his rabbi with a wide grin. One of a wave of fresh recruits to Chevron, the soldier only met the rabbi the previous weekend, but they are already on friendly terms.
“Are you coming for Shabbat,” Cohen asks. “I’ll be on duty,” the soldier replies, “but all my friends are coming.” “We need to set up a chavruta (study session)!” Cohen calls out as he drives off. The soldier smiles, waves and nods his agreement. Even as he resumes his post, the soldier’s eyes linger on the rabbi’s receding car.
As we celebrate Shabbat Chevron, we pray for the safety and success of our holy soldiers!
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org.