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Chabad In Gilo: Returning Fire With Fire
By Menachem Ziegelboim

I went to the Gilo neighborhood of Yerushalayim in order to prepare an article about the Chabad house located there. Who would have believed that Arabs would open continuous fire on a prominent neighborhood in Yerushalayim? * impressions of the tremendous work of Rabbi Hersh Ferber spanning almost twenty years, in the biggest neighborhood in the country * his motto: Na-Gilo B’Zman HaGeula

The time was 4:08 p.m. on Wednesday, 3 Cheshvan. A continuous spray of bullets was suddenly heard. Instinctively we crouched – Rabbi Hersh Ferber, director of the Chabad House in Gilo, Yerushalayim, and myself – on the floor behind the cement walls erected there as a safety shield. Right then and there began a drama that lasted for hours, with us in the thick of it.

I had gone to Yerushalayim in order to prepare an article about the work Rabbi Ferber does in Gilo, a prime target of recent terrorist gunfire. I never dreamed, though, that I would get caught up in the maelstrom.

When the interview, which had taken place in the Chabad House in the center of the business district, had concluded, we went out to see the various mosdos in the neighborhood. Then we continued on to the "front lines" facing the Arab village of Beit Jala...

Rabbi Ferber posed for a picture with a scenic view behind him, which included Beit Jala on the other side of the wadi. Then we spoke for a while longer, and without warning, shooting suddenly began. Three days of quiet had given the illusion that the area would remain peaceful. Only the sight of entrenched soldiers behind sandbags, peeking out constantly to view the village across the way, bore witness to the volatile situation.

As soon as the shooting began, all the mishmar ha’gevul (civil guards) stationed in the neighborhood sprang into action. The streets leading towards the front were closed and people ran home. The shouting of worried mothers looking for their children playing outside on what had been an ordinary afternoon, could clearly be heard. Police and rescue team sirens were heard on all sides. The police arrived quickly in armored vehicles. A police car cruised the streets in the line of fire, and by loudspeaker ordered for the windows to be blackened out. Residents were told not to stay in rooms with windows facing Beit Jala.

Border guard soldiers quickly got us away from the street we were on and into the center of the neighborhood. Even from there we could see the Cobra helicopters hovering overhead. The heavy exchange of fire between the terrorists in Beit Jala and Haida, which is south of Gilo, and the I.D.F. lasted an hour and a half. When my car descended the winding Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv road later in the evening, I heard on the radio that the I.D.F. had used shells and missiles against the terrorists. The prime minister was having a (so-called) security meeting (nobody in Gilo held great hopes for it), and there were no reports of any injuries nor any damage to property – baruch Hashem.

* * *

Rabbi Hersh Ferber come across as being somewhat shy, though his appearance, perhaps his red beard, gives the impression of tremendous energy. His eyes are clear and soft, and his quiet manner of speech reveals a distinct Russian accent. His life experiences have left their mark, and one observes in him modesty alongside tenacity, a strong desire to take action and make changes, along with an aura of serenity.

Hersh was born in Moscow forty-three years ago and knew nothing at all about Judaism. His Jewish identity was not hidden from him, but neither was it granted any significance. His parents bought him a watch for his thirteenth birthday, saying no more than he had reached an important age. But something inside drew him towards his roots. Even as a nine-year-old, he resolved that when the time came, he would only marry a Jew.

Hersh excelled in mathematics. After elementary school, he enrolled in a school for mathematics and was one of its outstanding students. While still a student, he made a decision to eventually emigrate to Eretz Yisroel. He left school shortly before he finished, citing medical reasons as an excuse, so that he wouldn’t have to devote three years of his life to the Soviet military.

He became acquainted with Chabad Chassidim in Moscow and was captivated by their charm. "What particularly appealed to me," he says, "were the secret farbrengens and the booklets containing the Rebbe’s teachings which had been smuggled into the country. The Rebbe’s approach answered many important questions in my life."

Hersh continued to take steps towards a full Jewish life along with his wife, Elisheva. Two weeks after the couple was married, the young chasan was circumcised. He devoted the next two years to intensive Torah study, in a supreme effort to bridge the gap of twenty years.

In Sivan 5741, the Ferber family, which now consisted of four members, left for Eretz Yisroel. Hersh was ready for shlichus. "I had the choice of two absorption centers, one in Mevaseret Tziyon and one in Gilo. I chose Gilo because I knew there were already a few Lubavitchers in Mevaseret," he says.

Rabbi Ferber began making house calls. He went from house to house and spoke about Torah and mitzvos. He checked t’fillin and mezuzos, made mesibos Shabbos, and started Tzivos Hashem clubs for children. Only a month after he had arrived, on Yud-Beis Tammuz 5742, he officially opened a Chabad House to be a resource for Yiddishkeit for all of the residents of Gilo.

There were no overnight changes. But after years of consistent work, he has made tremendous inroads. In Elul 5747 a Chabad Talmud Torah opened for twenty children in two classes. Today about 200 children from all over Yerushalayim learn in eight classes, and there are about 100 students in four kindergartens.

Rabbi Ferber brought an additional shaliach to help him, R’ Nitzan Simchon, who works exclusively at the Chabad House. Every month about 1,000 children participate in the programming the Chabad House provides at the local schools and in the neighborhood. The staff of the Chabad mosdos in Gilo numbers over 45 people!

Rabbi Ferber doesn’t credit himself with his success. "As a Chassid, both behind the Iron Curtain and now, I feel how the Rebbe MH"M leads me and how his brachos accompany me every moment," he says.

* * *

Gilo is to the south of Yerushalayim, near the tunnel highway (infamous these days for the frequent shooting there) that leads to Beit Lechem. With a population of 150,000, Gilo is the largest neighborhood in the country.

The Chabad House is located in the center of the business district, smack in the middle of Gilo. About 15 Lubavitch families live there, aside from the staff of teachers who teach in the schools, most of whom commute from outside the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is run by an office called Menahelet HaSh’chuna, a small council that takes care of the residents of Gilo. Most of the people living in Gilo are "traditional Jews."

Rabbi Ferber puts a tremendous amount of work into developing the activities and mosdos in the neighborhood. He is immersed in what he does and despite the many difficulties, he doesn’t give up.

When his son turned three, he learned in Toras Emes, located in another Yerushalayim neighborhood, but the daily commute was too difficult. After seeking advice, Rabbi Ferber decided to open a Talmud Torah for his son. He received permission from the Chabad rabbanim in Eretz Yisroel and from the rabbanim of Gilo (Rabbi Ben-Abu and Rabbi Shlesinger, both of whom are great admirers of Chabad).

There were twenty students at first. The hardships were enormous. "The children learned in various apartments, some in bomb shelters with sewage leaking in, creating an unbearable stench, both in the summer heat and the Yerushalmi winter cold." Only two years ago did the school finally get a proper building.

When his daughter turned three, he realized that if he wanted a Chabad education for her, he had to open his own kindergarten. He did so, and today there are two kindergartens for girls and two for boys. This year he opened a first grade to begin a girls’ elementary school, "miraculously," as he puts it. Each year they plan to add a grade. Today, about 300 children attend his schools. "Our schools have a good reputation in the neighborhood," he says with satisfaction, "mostly because of the attention the staff, headed by Rabbi Dovid Dahan, gives the students. We get students from neighborhoods all over Yerushalayim, including the northern tip of the city, such as Ramot, Givat Ze’ev, Maaleh Adumim, Katamonim, Har Nof, and from the various settlements around Yerushalayim. The staff organizes many contests and programs to strengthen Jewish and Chassidic education, which cover topics such as respecting one another, respecting parents, niggunim (every Friday), and learning Mishnayos and Tanya by heart. The parents are very satisfied, baruch Hashem."

You have built up an impressive empire. But in the earlier days, were there times that you despaired?

"There were many difficult moments, even extremely difficult," he says without hesitation. "There were months that we didn’t have milk for our children at home."

* * *

The shooting into the neighborhood in recent weeks brought Gilo to the forefront of public attention. In this situation even the Left is in confusion, since Gilo is absolutely, without a doubt a neighborhood of Yerushalayim. Many journalists have come to Gilo, along with Knesset members and various other communal figures.

It’s hard to say that the residents like the publicity, but having no choice in the matter, at least their lives have improved in many ways. The Chabad House has also been enjoying some positive results of the circumstances. Ordinarily it has to fight for various budgets, but now it gets them easily, without a struggle.

Recently, Rabbi Simchon received a telephone call from the director of the religious education department in the city council. The director said that he heard the shooting at night and found it hard to sleep. "What can I do to help you?" he asked.

"We decided on the spot to arrange four t’filla gatherings for children for the purpose of thwarting the enemy. Over 1,000 children participated and the council footed the bill. The principals of the public schools received us with open arms – another rarity," says Rabbi Simchon.

Rabbi Simchon goes out every evening to visit homes that were under attack. He checks their mezuzos, and if any need to be changed, he does so. He talks to the people and encourages and strengthens them, and wherever he goes he brings the besuras ha’Geula of "behold Moshiach comes."

Geula is the motivating force for the Chabad House of Gilo. Whoever walks into the Chabad House feels Moshiach, sees Moshiach and hears Moshiach. Rabbi Ferber proudly features the concept of Moshiach in the forefront of all his projects.

Rabbi Ferber even founded a special kollel, the first of its kind in the world, called Kollel Oro Shel Moshiach. It’s an evening kollel that is attended by approximately ten men (not Lubavitch), who study inyanei Moshiach and Geula as well as Chassidus, as a preparation for and to hasten the hisgalus of the Rebbe MH"M.

In his letters to the Rebbe, even long before Chaf-Zayin Adar 5752, Rabbi Ferber always addressed the Rebbe as Melech HaMoshiach "I wrote a report to the Rebbe each week, and I always used this title and received answers. I saw that the Rebbe accepted it," he says.

Do you speak of Moshiach’s identity openly in Gilo?

"Definitely. We publicize the importance of ‘Yechi Adoneinu,’ and baruch Hashem, it has never diminished the number of participants or donors. On the contrary, we are constantly growing."

Many people enter the Chabad House each evening in order to ask for help, for a bracha, or in order to write to the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh. Miracles, no doubt, are commonplace. Some of the stories are publicized in the Chabad House’s monthly newsletter, Na-Gilo Bizman HaGeula (We Will Rejoice in the Time of Redemption, emphasizing the letters that spell "Gilo" in the title).

You are a mathematician by nature, and math is an exact and rational science. How does this fit with your koch in writing in the Igros Kodesh, which is a matter of emuna?

"Writing to the Rebbe in the Igros Kodesh is absolutely rational!" Rabbi Ferber answered.

I looked at him in surprise and he explained, "Mathematics is built on axioms, not on experiments and hypotheses, as physics is, for example. Math is based on the reality you can see. I know with certainty that when I write to the Rebbe, the Rebbe reads it and answers. Period. It’s not that I write in the Igros in order to check to see if it works. I turn to the Rebbe because the Rebbe himself said that at certain times when it is physically impossible to reach him, you can write to him this way. I remember this from when I was back in Russia. When Chassidim were unsure about something, they opened a Midrash Tanchuma."

"I know that the Rebbe reads the letter, and even if I don’t receive an answer, the Rebbe answers me by helping me. After I write, I clearly see how the problems are resolved, one by one. If this wasn’t the case, we couldn’t go on."

How did you find the Chabad Chassidim in Russia?

"I came to Chabad with the help of a dear Jew by the name of Michoel Schneider. He helped me tremendously in my getting involved in Yiddishkeit. The first Torah I learned was with Rabbi Uri Komishov. I attended classes, and saw the G-dly truth in Torah. This was especially obvious in the Rebbe’s sichos. Another great influence on me was Professor Branover’s book, Return. He tells the story of his life, which I identified with strongly.

"I also had the privilege of attending farbrengens with R’ Getcha, a’h, and with R’ Muttel Lifschitz, and other Chassidim. These farbrengens gave me a great understanding and feeling for Judaism and Chassidus. I remember them today with nostalgia."

Rabbi Ferber learned in Marina Roscha in the seventies. Before leaving Russia, R’ Uri told him to prepare, because "in another two months, you’ll be giving Tanya classes."

"I don’t know how to read Tanya properly, so how can I give classes?" he wondered, but R’ Uri prepared him well. Rabbi Ferber spent hours studying and he discovered a new world. Two months later he did, in fact, began giving Tanya classes. "Whatever I knew, I taught," he says. "I knew Alef, so I taught Alef to others."

Wasn’t it dangerous to study and teach?

"Although it was the seventies, it wasn’t as dangerous as it was under Stalin and Lenin. They could throw you out of work or school, but that’s all. Sometimes when they wanted to frame someone, they staged a fight in the street, and according to Russian law they could arrest one of the people involved and hold him for fifteen days without a trial. A person could be broken in fifteen days, and there were incidents like that, but baruch Hashem I was never involved."

* * *

The serious security breakdown in Gilo began on 6 Tishrei. It was the first night of shooting that caught Rabbi Ferber in the middle of an administrative meeting at the Chabad House. "We heard shooting and didn’t understand what was going on. My wife was walking through the center of town on her way to a women’s gathering when a stream of bullets flew over her head – it was miraculous that nothing happened to her."

Since then, there have been dozens of shooting incidents aimed towards the houses in the neighborhood, with thousands of bullets landing inside and outside.

There are constant miracles reported, as well. A group of people left the room they were in except for one boy, and suddenly bullets whizzed by his ear. A woman washing dishes bent down to pick something up and heard bullets flying overhead. Except for one soldier who was hit after removing his helmet, there have been no injuries in Gilo.

The final incident before I visited the neighborhood was on Friday night. "I was saying Kiddush when the shooting began," says Rabbi Ferber. "A real war took place that night. From 7:00 in the evening until 2:00 a.m. the terrorists and the I.D.F. exchanged fire."

The shooting began again on Simchas Torah night. Many bullets hit the shul, Mishkan Moshe. In the middle of Hakafos the people laid down on the ground. In my visit to the shul with Rabbi Ferber, we saw a row of bullets around one of the big windows. It’s a miracle that the glass didn’t shatter into a thousand pieces.

The people in Gilo laugh painfully at the I.D.F., which has hardly reacted. "They put tanks here, and shot into the open area in the valley" says one resident bitterly. "Instead of the terrorists having to hide, we have to hide behind the cement walls they put up here."

There are days that the local schools are deserted. Parents are afraid to send their children to school. They prefer keeping an eye on them.

A six-year-old Lubavitcher girl, Devora Leah Simchon, said that she’s not at all afraid.

"Why aren’t you afraid?" I asked her.

"Because I have a dollar from the Rebbe."

"And are your brothers not afraid either?"

"They are afraid because they didn’t take care of their dollar from the Rebbe. If they walk with me in the street, they aren’t afraid."



Rabbi Ferber relates: We have a Kollel Tiferes Levi Yitzchok for seniors. There are many stories I could tell you, but I will relate just one.

One day an eighty-year-old Russian immigrant came to us. We greeted him warmly and he began attending classes regularly. Four or five years later, one of his grandchildren from Russia arrived. I saw that he was quickly getting involved in a life of Torah and mitzvos, and without my asking him, he told me why: "When we parted from Grandfather, he was not in good health at all. But he insisted on leaving for Eretz Yisroel. The family couldn’t change his mind, and we were afraid we would never see him again. When we said goodbye at the airport, we thought it was forever.

"Time passed and we began receiving letters from him in which he told us that he was studying every day and that the classes were reviving him. We could detect this even in the few lines he wrote and in the pictures he sent. We could see he was getting stronger. Among other things, he told us a little bit about what he was learning. Because of this, we began looking into Judaism. I was very curious and decided to move to Eretz Yisroel. I met my grandfather – and I saw that he’s become twenty years younger."


something I could only dream of

A few months ago, R’ Hersh celebrated the completion of stage one of the construction of the Chabad shul in Gilo. The Chabad House had been given property on the edge of the neighborhood twelve years ago. One day, Rabbi Michoel Halperin, rav of French Hill, came to Gilo and pointed out that the lot wasn’t suitable for a shul because it was low [i.e., a shul is supposed to be higher than the surrounding structures].

"I asked the city council whether I could exchange that lot for a different one," says Rabbi Ferber. "I was told I could not. The official added that I could refuse the lot I was given, but I wouldn’t be given anything in exchange.

"I wrote to the Rebbe about this, but received no reply. One day Rabbi Groner called and said I should speak to R’ Yisroel Leibov and ask his opinion. I did so and R’ Leibov was most surprised, for he didn’t see what he had to do with the matter. However, since Rabbi Groner had told me to call him, he understood that the Rebbe had told him to do so. So he came to Gilo.

"He looked around the neighborhood and suddenly pointed to a lot in the center of town and asked, ‘Why don’t you build there?’ Well, to get a lot in the center of town was something I could only dream of.

"After a few weeks I received a call from the council architect himself. He asked to meet me. Naturally I agreed, but I had no idea what it was about. He began the conversation by saying, ‘We at the council want to exchange the lot you have.’ I was astounded. ‘Things changed,’ he explained, and he told me there had been a big demonstration of residents of the Ramot section because they wanted to build a shul near their neighborhood of villas. ‘Your shul was to be near the future neighborhood of villas. To prevent future disputes, I suggest that you accept this lot,’ he said and pointed towards an exclusive section in the center of town, the very same lot that R’ Yisroel Leibov had pointed out."



Rabbi Ferber: I have a giant-sized picture of the Rebbe hanging from my porch at home which says "Yechi." A young couple lived across from us. Actually, they were living in the husband’s parents’ house. They suffered from serious parnasa and shalom bayis problems, in addition to not having any children. Their situation was rapidly going downhill.

One day, as they looked at the enormous picture of the Rebbe, they decided to ask the Rebbe for a bracha. They came to the Chabad House and said they wanted to write to the Rebbe and ask for his bracha. The answer was to check their t’fillin and mezuzos. It turned out that he didn’t even have t’fillin, that their room at the parents’ house did not have a mezuza, and the rest of the mezuzos were pasul. Naturally, we immediately put up kosher mezuzos and the husband agreed to put on t’fillin every day.

Over the course of a few years, they wrote a series of letters to the Rebbe and gradually become more involved in Judaism. It began with t’fillin, and then taharas ha’mishpacha and shmiras Shabbos. Amazingly, their financial situation began to improve and they were able to rent an apartment in another Yerushalayim neighborhood, which significantly improved their shalom bayis. A few years later, they had triplets!


Rabbi Hersh Ferber with Beit Jala in the background,
minutes before the next outbreak of shooting.

Under fire

The first kollel of its kind, Oro Shel Moshiach,
where inyanei Moshiach and Geula are studied

Dancing with Beit Jala in the distance.



"There were many difficult moments, even extremely difficult," he says without hesitation. "There were months that we didn’t have milk for our children at home."




"Instead of the terrorists having to hide, we have to hide behind the cement walls they put up here."




There have been dozens of shooting incidents aimed towards the houses in the neighborhood.



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