Beit Hadassah – From Historic Hospital to Symbol of Rebirth
The Beit Hadassah building and neighborhood have a rich past
The historic Beit Hadassah complex in the Old City of Hebron dates back to 1893. The first floor was built with funds donated by the Jewish communities in North Africa. Its creation was initiated by Rabbi Haim Rahamim Yosef Franco (1833-1901), a noted scholar known as the HaCharif and chief rabbi of the community.
The building was originally called Chesed L’Avraham, (Kindness of Abraham) and was utilized as an infirmary and aid center for the needy. In 1911, an additional floor was built with funds donated by Jewish communities of India and Baghdad.
Later, the Hadassah Organization sponsored a medical clinic which granted free medical assistance to both Jewish and Arab residents. The noted pharmacist Ben Zion Gershon worked out of the adjacent building. Rabbinic leaders of the Jewish community such as Rabbi Hanoch Hason, Rabbi Joseph Castel and their families lived in adjacent buildings in the complex as well.
In 1929, the hospital was the site of some of the worst of the rioting that killed 67 Jewish residents. The clinic was looted and burned. During the Jordanian occupation of 1948 – 1967 all Jews ere barred from the city and the Jordanian government for a time used the building into a UNRWA school.
After its liberation in June 1967, the Jews of Hebron, who were expelled following the 1929 massacre, hoped to return to Beit Hadassah. Although the government of Israel closed the school occupying Beit Hadassah, it did not return the building to Jewish ownership and left it closed and shuttered. Occasional attempts to repopulate it were made but each failed and the Jews were driven away.
One midnight in May 1979, a group of ten women and some 40 children entered the first floor of the building in order to finally re-establish a permanent Jewish presence in the center of Hebron. The group was discovered at daybreak when the children broke into the song “V’Shavu Banim”, based on the prophecy in Jer. 31:17 – “Your children have returned to their border.”
Initially the government, by order of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, quarantined the building, and the inhabitants were not allowed to connect the utilities and bring in equipment and basic necessities. Only after pressure was applied did the authorities allow them to receive water and basic food for the children. The women and children lived under siege for two months, no one was allowed in and anyone who left would not be allowed to return.
One day a little boy in Beit Hadassah had a tooth-ache and left for a dentist in Kiryat Arba. When he arrived back at Beit Hadassah the soldier guarding at the entrance refused to allow him back in. The little boy started crying, saying, “I want my Ema (mother).” At that time the Israeli cabinet was in session, and a note was relayed to the Prime Minister that a little boy was crying outside Beit Hadassah because he wasn’t allowed back in. Following a discussion by the cabinet, the little boy was permitted to return to his mother in Beit Hadassah. Finally, the women and children were allowed to leave and return, but no one else was allowed in. They lived this way for a year. The women were eventually joined by their husbands. At the time, Prime Minister Menachem Begin “Hebron is also [part of] Israel. I will not allow for any place Israel to be ‘Judenrein’.”
Life in Beit Hadassah went on until early May 1980, when terrorists murdered six Jewish men as they approached the gates of Beit Hadassah, dancing, as was their customary way, to hold their Friday night ‘kiddush’ services there.
Only then, amid the shock and agony of this horrible attack, and after years of struggle, did the government resolve to actually promote the return of Jews to the City of the Patriarchs. To make Beit Hadassah fit for permanent settlement, two floors were added in 1985 in a special style combining old and new, transforming the house into an apartment building.
Today, Beit Hadassah is the home to about 30 Jewish families and includes a synagogue, playground, guesthouse areas, and the Hebron historical museum with a 1929 memorial room. The Beit Hadassah neighborhood includes the Schneerson House, home of Rebbetzin Menucha Rachel Slonim, “matriarch of Chabad in Hebron,” which serves as a residence and a nursery school, Beit Hashisha, commemorating the six casualties of the 1980 terror attack, and Beit Romano (on land purchased by Chabbad over 100 years ago), where the students of Yeshivat Shavei Hevron live and study.