In Gilo: Returning Fire With Fire
By Menachem Ziegelboim
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
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.
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.
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...
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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."
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.
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
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.
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."
have built up an impressive empire. But in the earlier days, were there times
that you despaired?
were many difficult moments, even extremely difficult," he says without
hesitation. "There were months that we didn’t have milk for our children
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
you speak of Moshiach’s identity openly in Gilo?
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."
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).
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?
to the Rebbe in the Igros Kodesh is absolutely rational!" Rabbi
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
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
did you find the Chabad Chassidim in Russia?
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.
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."
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
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."
it dangerous to study and teach?
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
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."
then, there have been dozens of shooting incidents aimed towards the houses in
the neighborhood, with thousands of bullets landing inside and outside.
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.
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."
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.
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."
are days that the local schools are deserted. Parents are afraid to send their
children to school. They prefer keeping an eye on them.
six-year-old Lubavitcher girl, Devora Leah Simchon, said that she’s not at all
aren’t you afraid?" I asked her.
I have a dollar from the Rebbe."
are your brothers not afraid either?"
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."
GETTING YOUNGER EVERY DAY
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.
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."
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
"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.
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."
BECAUSE OF the rebbe’s PICTURE
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!