By Miriam Karp – Chabad.org
A ray of light and hope dawned after 53 wrenching and arduous days. The exhausted family welcomed the little baby girl into her auspicious lineage and their challenging world.
The precious pink bundle entered the world at a critical time. The new Chabad movement was under fire. The holy founder—the genius and tzaddik Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi—had been imprisoned, charged with treason. He had sent funds to support the nascent Jewish community of Hebron. Since the land of Israel was under Turkish rule, he was charged with supporting the Ottoman empire, the enemy of the tsar.
Finally, after 53 days in the infamous Peter Paul prison, he was liberated. And on that very day, 19 Kislev, 1898, a special girl was born to the Alter Rebbe’s son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Dov Ber and Rebbetzin Shaina. They named her Menucha Rochel.
Her middle name, Rochel, was after an aunt who had died at a young age, while her first name, Menucha, captured the hopes of the community. Menucha means “rest,” “tranquility.”
“From now on, we will have a little menucha,” her father said at her naming, expressing the fervent wish that this girl’s birth and her grandfather’s liberation were ushering in a new phase.
Indeed, as the girl grew into a woman, she filled the qualities embodied in her name, and brought special blessing and spiritual menucha to many.
In 1815, her father, the Mittler Rebbe, sought to strengthen the Jewish community in Hebron. One of Judaism’s four holy cities, Hebron was the seat of much foundational Jewish history. The burial site of Adam and Eve, and all the patriarchs and matriarchs except for Rachel, it had also been King David’s capital city. Over the many centuries of exile, it had fallen into neglect. The Rebbe sent groups of Chassidim to establish a Chabad presence in the city, encouraging Chassidim settled in Tzfat and Tiberias to move there as well. He bought the small synagogue and parcels of land near the historic Avraham Avinu synagogue.
As a young woman, Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel suffered a dangerous illness. Her father assured her that she would live and merit to emigrate to the Holy Land. In 1845, at the age of 47, Menucha Rochel Slonim and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Kuli Slonim, decided that it was time. They prepared to leave the secure and known environs of the court of Lubavitch and settle in Hebron. Her father had passed on, and her cousin, the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, was the Rebbe.
The time was approaching for the caravan to leave. Perhaps because her health was still tenuous, Menucha Rochel told the Tzemach Tzedek that she was afraid of traveling in the winter, during the cold rains. He told her, “Do not delay. You will travel between the raindrops!”
And so it was.
The first leg of the journey was from Lubavitch to Shklov, where they changed wagons. When the wagon driver for that portion came back to Lubavitch, he was overflowing with enthusiasm for his amazing trip. Not one drop of rain had fallen on his wagon, he told anyone and everyone. In contrast, his return trip, without his illustrious passengers, was different. His wagon wheels and horses were sunk deep in a wagon driver’s constant adversary—pouring rain and thick mud. For the rest of his life, the wagon driver took great pride in relating this story.
Making the long and arduous journey was no simple matter. Such trips typically lasted months, traveling by wagon and via ship through hostile lands. And not too many amenities awaited them, as Hebron was considered unproductive, with a reputation of “being an asylum for the poor and the spiritual,” with semi-urban, semi-peasant dwellings. At the time, there were approximately 45 to 60 Sephardic families, and an Ashkenazic community of about 50 mainly Chabad families.
When they finally arrived, it was the fitting completion of a circle. Menucha Rochel’s illustrious grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, had been incarcerated for sending funds to Hebron, and now his granddaughter, born on the day of his liberation, had come to strengthen that very community.
The Slonims did much to revitalize the Jewish community, as did their descendants. Menucha Rochel quickly became known as a holy woman—famed for her wisdom, piety and erudition. Rabbis, common Jews and Arabs held her in high esteem, and sought her blessings and advice. New brides and barren women would request blessings from her.
Several anecdotes illustrate her unique spiritual powers.
The Jewish community of Hebron was plagued by a wild gang known as “The Black Hand.” The marauding thugs regularly broke into Jewish homes, robbing and plundering to the accompaniment of vicious curses and threats.
But one day, things changed.
A messenger showed up at the doorstep of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel with an urgent plea. The gang leader’s wife was in throes of a difficult labor; both she and the baby were in danger. The ferocious bandit was singing a different tune; having no choice, he swallowed his arrogance and begged for a blessing.
Her reply was clear. If the man would completely cease his reign of terror, then she would give her blessing and everything would be alright.
The ruffian immediately swore that he would stop the violence. He hurried home, where he found his healthy wife and new infant. He kept his word, and the Jews enjoyed a long respite, living in peaceful menucha.
A powerful Arab had absolute control over Hebron’s water springs. The townspeople had to kowtow to his insufferable demands to be able get the invaluable commodity. He used extortion and relished making the Jews suffer, especially at times of high volume such as Erev Shabbat and Erev Yom Tov, the eves of the Sabbath and holidays. Everyone seemed helpless in the face of his domination.
The man had one daughter, who was the apple of his eye. She became very ill and lay in bed, writhing in pain. The doctors despaired. The wealthy magante stood at her bedside, helpless, his fortune and power useless.
His friend had a suggestion. “Go to the righteous grandmother for a blessing for your daughter’s recovery. You can’t lose out.”
Desperate times call for desperate measures. The spring owner went to the home of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel. He encountered her grandson, Reb Zev Dov Slonim, and bombarded him with frantic shouts and pleas. Reb Zev Dov went to his grandmother’s room and told her what the man wanted. She instructed her grandson to tell the man, in her name: If he promised to stop harassing the Jews of Hebron, his daughter’s recovery was assured.
The magnate immediately agreed. He put his hand over his heart and swore that he committed to doing whatever the tzadekes (holy woman) told him, then left the house in a rush. His daughter quickly recovered.
From that time on, he would be seen on Friday mornings, knocking on the doors of the Jewish homes, offering barrels full of fresh spring water.
Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel was a beloved and revered foundation of the Hebron community for 43 years. At the venerable age of 90, she sensed that her days were ending. She sent a letter to the current Rebbe—Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the Rebbe Rashab—informing him of her imminent passing. Her remarkable longevity meant that she lived during the leadership of the first five Lubavitcher Rebbes. The Rebbetzin passed away on the 24th of Shevat, 1888. She was buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron.
Menucha Rochel’s descendants were important leaders in the community, which had a thriving Chassidic population by the time of her passing. Many family members were caught in the horrific riots of 1929, when 67 Jews were brutally massacred by Arab neighbors with whom they had lived peacefully for generations. Shlomo Slonim (1928-2014), one of the few survivors, was just a year old at the time.
Menucha Rochel’s grave was destroyed during the infamous riots. It was rediscovered by Professor Ben-Zion Tavger. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Professor Tavger was instrumental in excavating historic areas of Hebron that had fallen into ruin during the years Hebron was empty of Jews—from 1929 because of the danger after the riots through the Jordanian occupation from 1948 through 1967. Such important sites as the Avraham Avinu synagogue, used as a sheep pen by the Arabs, were excavated.
In 1982, with the encouragement of the Rebbe, a memorial ceremony was initiated at the Rebbetzin’s gravesite, which continues to this day. This holy resting place is considered an auspicious place to pray and receives frequent visitors. Over the years, the leaders of the rebuilt Jewish community and the Chabad House of Hebron have joined to establish a yeshivah at her gravesite, known as Colel Menucha Rochel.
A large building at the center of Hebron’s Jewish community bears the name, Bet Schneerson/Schneerson House. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Slonim resided in this building, which also served as headquarters of the Chabad community of Hebron, and by extension, the entire Chabad community of Israel in those days.
Women in particular are drawn to gather and learn in the Rebbetzin’s Colel, and to sing and pray at her gravesite. As they leave the Rebbetzin and face their various life challenges, the women often say that they feel protected and strengthened in ways that transcend logic, ways they can’t always readily express. It’s as if the Rebbetzin’s protective spirit ensures that they, too—her daughters in spirit—are blessed to “walk between the raindrops.”