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How A Shabbos In Chevron Changed My Life

By David Wilder
5/6/2008, 12:00 AM

That particular Motzai Shabbos I just wanted to stay in Chevron.

Printed in the Jewish Press - See: http://tinyurl.com/69we7c

By: Miryam Yerushalmi Wednesday, April 30, 2008

As an American girl studying in seminary in Jerusalem, I get the unique opportunity of spending Shabbos in many different neighborhoods, and I have the opportunity to observe how different kinds of Jews live.

In each home I gain a deeper appreciation for different aspects of Yiddishkeit: the beauty of family dynamics, the emphasis on kavod Shabbos above materialism, the pure and sincere belief that Torah is emes – truth.

One Shabbos in particular stands out in my mind as being a rare combination of all these different aspects: Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel, which I spent in Hebron, or Chevron in Hebrew.

My friends and I took a 2:30 bus on erev Shabbos and the ride itself was fascinating. We rode through primarily Arab neighborhoods, stopping in the Gush, and then in Kiryat Arba, before arriving in Chevron.

Kiryat Arba is a beautifully developed city whose paved streets and storefronts resemble those of Yerushalayim.

But the difference as we entered Chevron was unbelievable – in a matter of seconds we had left a typical modern city and entered a scene straight out of three hundred years ago.

In this city, Arabs, who comprise 80 percent of the population, are visibly dominant. While in Yerushalayim it is rare to see an old Arab wearing a keffiyah, here they abound.

As we drove through the narrow streets we felt their piercing stares, which conveyed the unequivocal message that we were on their turf.

We arrived at the neighborhood called Shechunat Avraham Avinu, where our hosts, Rav Simcha Hochbaum and his family, live and the feeling again changed.

Within this small enclave it was easy to feel totally secure and comfortable – to forget we were in what some consider a war zone. Women were preparing for Shabbos; children
were laughing and playing. Sandbags and soldiers in camouflage were the only reminders of where we were.

After we settled in, Rav Hochbaum, or, as he referred to himself, Rav Simcha, took us to visit Ramat Mamre, where he introduced us to a frum farmer whose property is complete with horses, goats, roosters, and a full litter of puppies. When we arrived he was in the middle of last-minute Shabbos preparations, which were slightly different from our adjusting of Shabbos clocks and air conditioners. He was milking his goat now in order to avoid the halachic issue of milking on Shabbos.

Rav Simcha spoke about the mitzvah of acquiring land in Eretz Yisrael and how the concept of "mipnei chata’enu galinu me’artzeinu" (because of our sins we were exiled from the land) does not refer strictly to our physical separation from Eretz Yisrael but to our internal alienation from it. This man wanted to preserve that connection between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.

What we did next took only a few minutes but it framed my whole Shabbos and completely shifted my mindset. Rav Simcha took us to a field where we sat on rocks as he spoke. He talked about how, in many frum homes, the last hour before Shabbos is an extremely stressful time, filled with yelling and accusations about who forgot to open the packages of tissues.

How sad, he said, that we waste the opportunity to embrace what is supposed to be the most serene and holy time of the week, a time that if utilized properly could change the way we experience Shabbos.

He continued, "The chassidim used to go out to the fields and welcome Shabbos; let us do the same." He spoke in a soft voice as we sat with our eyes closed.

"Think about yourself. Are you body or are you soul? During the week you are both, but on Shabbos you are just soul. Feel your body and neshama separating. Feel the wind of the week blowing out and the wind of Shabbos blowing in. See the clouds of the six days of the week rolling out and the clouds of Shabbos rolling in. Feel the holiness of Shabbos enveloping the world."

We remained seated in silence for several minutes, thinking about the power and holiness of Shabbos. Then Rav Simcha sang "Lecha Dodi" and we left, prepared to greet the Shabbos Queen in the manner she deserves.

We proceeded to walk toward Maaras Hamachpela for Kabbalas Shabbos. As soon as one leaves Shechunat Avraham Avinu, one is acutely aware that indeed he or she is in a war zone. Soldiers are everywhere, guns cocked in the direction of passing Arabs. It’s really touching to walk by these soldiers, some of them frum with tzitzis lying over their guns, say "Shabbat shalom" to them and watch their eyes light up as they respond with their own warm "Shabbat shalom."

Knowing we could walk freely and proudly through the Arab streets and daven at Maaras Hamechpela because these Jewish heroes are risking their lives to protect it – and us – engendered such deep feelings of gratitude.

Some of these boys were my age. It was hard to see their faces because of their protective gear, but one soldier was so striking. He was incredibly young. While some looked weather-beaten, the toll of their tour of duty evident on their faces, this soldier had such a baby face under his camouflage. It was scary to think that his reality was one of war and danger and not basketball and summer camp.

Again, I felt a deep-seated sense of hakaras hatov to these young Jewish soldiers for enabling me to feel safe in so dangerous a place.

Overwhelmed by these feelings, I found myself reflecting on the hakaras hatov owed to Hashem, Who allows me to breathe, walk and live a secure and protected life. It is a good way to begin to comprehend everything for which one should be grateful.

Davening
was like nothing I had ever seen or heard. I thought the room was going to collapse. The singing was so passionate and so loud, it sent chills down my arms every few minutes. The men were jumping out of their skin, bouncing out of happiness until they finally broke out into real dancing and just sang and sang and sang. I didn’t want it to ever end.

The worshipers davened and recited pesukim like "hareu b’goyim" and "imru ba’goyim Hashem malach." They are living lives of complete mesiras nefesh, with total faith that Hashem is stronger than all the Arabs in the world and with the conviction that the enemy can’t defeat them. They don’t just recite these pesukim, they live them.

The men walked out of shul dressed in white, their talleism over their heads and their three-foot guns underneath.

It is so powerful to know that there are people who have such emunah and such intense dedication to Eretz Yisrael. It’s not mere lip service. They are willing to make do with little or nothing, to live in constant vigilance, because they are devoted to keeping Chevron.

As we walked back with Rav Simcha, we spoke about the davening. It is at a time like this that you wonder why you live in chutz l’Aretz – outside the Land of Israel. We in the Diaspora go searching around for a bit of inspiration in our lives – a shiur here, a class there – when here, in Eretz Yisrael, they have davening like this every Shabbos.

I am obviously not suggesting that everyone move to Chevron, but Eretz Yisrael in general offers an elevated plane of living. When we go back to New York we are often struck by how hard it is to feel our Yiddishkeit. Here in Israel it is being offered to us on a silver platter, and all we have to do is tap into it.

Living in Eretz Yisrael may not be for everyone, but it is amazing to see people experiencing life on a totally different wavelength and to learn from them in whatever way we can.

On Shabbos day we again davened in Maaras Hamachpela and it was an added privilege to be there for blessing the new month of Adar. Lunch was at Beit Shalom, a ten-minute walk from Shechunat Avraham Avinu.

Beit Shalom is a building that was funded by a Sephardic Jew who was moved by the self-sacrifice of those living in Chevron. When the families moved in they had no running water and no bathrooms. They scrambled to put in one bathroom and one sink for all seventeen families, and they shared one tiny kitchen for almost a year.

The Israeli government is determined to evict them, and the families have been in court since they moved in, forced to wage a legal battle to secure their basic amenities. They finally won the right to install windows – this Shabbos was their second one with windows after they’d endured all manner of weather without any insulation. The house is unfinished – walls, ceilings, and floors are still concrete with nails jutting out. And yet it is a home.

We were greeted warmly by our hosts, an Israeli couple in their early sixties who have lived in Chevron for twenty years, along with their two married children and two single daughters – a 20-year-old and a 13-year-old.

The meal was an incredible experience. I was struck by the feeling of "Mi k’amcha Yisrael – Who is comparable to Thy nation Israel?" I marveled at spending time with people labeled by much of Israeli society as "extreme mitnachalim" (settlers) and completely relating to them. I was so touched just being with them, watching family dynamics, seeing them laugh and poke fun at siblings.

Amid all the dangers of living here, they are just a regular family dedicated to preserving Chevron Ir Hakodesh above all else. And, more incredibly, many of them have comfortable homes in Shechunat Avraham Avinu but moved out here to make a point – to show that we won’t be threatened and intimidated out of Chevron.

On Shabbos afternoon, Rav Simcha recommended that we join a tour that takes place only on Shabbos afternoons. We arrived expecting a tour guide to be there but instead we were met by a platoon of soldiers and three armored trucks. A soldier introduced himself, said that he would be leading us, and began giving us instructions.

I had no idea where we were going and so when he went into detail about the procedures, I began to get a bit nervous. We were told that if "something happens" we should all drop to the floor, hold our heads, and not respond to anyone telling us to get up until a MADA (Magen David Adom) member evacuated us.

I searched the soldier’s face for the bored look of a flight attendant perfunctorily detailing evacuation procedures – the look that says, "This has never happened and never will." But all I saw on his face was fear.

It turned out we were entering the Kasbah, Chevron’s old Jewish quarter dating back to the Turks, which is now solely Arab. There was a ratio of at least one soldier to each person, and I can’t really describe the scene, except that it somewhat resembled the news coverage of Iraq: American soldiers running through Arab streets and markets, guns ready, turning around corners and creeping around alleys while Arab kids look on.

That is exactly how it was. In the beginning I was frightened only because the soldiers themselves were. They were constantly yelling over our heads, giving instructions to each other to look at this or be careful of that. We walked through the market, and if an Arab approached us despite warnings to stay back, the soldiers held their guns to the Arab’s face until we all passed through.

It is hard to describe the feeling of seeing a gun held to someone’s head. At the same time, it was interesting to note the stark difference in how Israelis and Arabs treat people. All too many Arabs have little or no compunction about being violent toward innocent civilians, while Israeli soldiers are so sparing in their use of their guns that when they do use them, even as a threat, it is a jarring sight to behold.

It was fascinating to get a peek into a world that few Jews get to see. We learned that Jews are simply not allowed into this part of Chevron during the week. The IDF goes to great lengths to take Jews in on Shabbos, not because it wants to teach us history – a history lesson would hardly be worth risking the lives of soldiers – but to make a point, to create an Israeli presence, and to let the Arabs know that despite their control during the week, the Israeli army can, whenever it wishes to, come in and bring along civilians, too.

After the initial discomfort had passed, it felt very good to walk unafraid, heads held high, asserting our right as Jews to our land.

Upon concluding the tour, we all applauded the soldiers and bid each other "Shabbat shalom." We proceeded to the Avraham Avinu shul for Mincha. We had shalosh seudos at Rav Simcha’s house and after Shabbos got on a bus back to Yerushalayim.

Typically, I look forward to returning to Yerushalayim on Motzai Shabbos, and as I enter its environs I feel a sense of comfort and happiness in being back. That particular Motzai Shabbos, though, I really didn’t want to come back. I just wanted to stay in Chevron.

While I spent only two short days there, my Shabbos in Chevron struck so many spiritual chords within me and gave me so much chizuk, so much spiritual comfort and strength. It transformed not only my ensuing week but will, hopefully, reverberate through all the future Shabbosim and weeks of my life.

Miryam Yerushalmi is a 19-year-old New Yorker currently studying at a seminary in Jerusalem.