Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbat, Shabbat Hebron, what we call Chayei Sarah, I wandered into the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. It was difficult to drive into the parking area, which was a huge maze of cars. I left mine near the street and walking around, bumped into what would be called in another place, a 'homeless' zone. Tents all over the place. Tables were set up with hot-water urns and food-heating platters.
I bumped into a few kids, turned on the video and asked where they're from. "Migdal.'
Migdal is all the way up north.
Why? "Shabbat Chayei Sarah."
A man, probably about forty, saw me talking to them and walked my way. The camera turned towards him. How long did it take you to get here? "About four and half hours."
Where will you sleep tonight? "In a tent, on the pavement, on the ground."
Do you usually sleep in a tent on Shabbat? "No, I have a big house, but we came here to strengthen Hebron."
Where will you pray? "At Ma'arat HaMachpela." And when you say 'the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,' there, what do you think? "I get goose-bumps, just thinking about it. The holiness of the place."
Blessing him, that next year he should be able to sleep in a hotel in Hebron, he said, "no, I'll come to live here. V'Shavu banim l'gvulam – And the sons have returned home."
This was one, of somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 people, who filled all the neighborhoods of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, just to be exactly where Abraham purchased the Caves of Machpela, as we read about this event in the Torah, on Shabbat.
Tents were everywhere. Next to Machpela, on the streets, inside buildings, everywhere. People used their cars as temporary dwellings, sleeping on the seats and eating at picnic tables they'd brought with them.
Two huge tents, feeding literally thousands of people, were located near the old Arab market at the entrance to Avraham Avinu, and in the park across from Machpela. A special station was set up for real 'homeless,' people arriving without any food or a place to eat. There they received enough of a Shabbat meal to keep them from being hungry, Friday night and Saturday afternoon. And Yeshivat Shavie Hevron, at Beit Romano, was filled to capacity.
The amount of people arriving for worship at Machpela can only be described as massive. Inside, outside, on the lawn, in the courtyard. At night, and again the next morning. Finding a chair was luxury. There simply weren't enough to go around. I stood thru early Shabbat morning services.
Hebron's streets were filled with people. It seemed like a city with no night. And people's apartments were, as a rule, full up.
I guess my apartment was fairly standard for Chayei Sarah. We had six guys sleeping on my living room floor and another on the couch. Most of them were American Yeshiva students, as well as a friend from Tel Aviv and his girlfriend.
One room with three women: an Israeli from Tzfat, a young American woman studying in Israel for the year, and another Amercan who'd come over to visit family and 'had to be in Hebron for Chayei Sarah.' The last time she'd been here was about 12 years ago, during the 'intifada' – the Oslo war, while Arab bullets bounced off our sandbagged windows as we enjoyed our Shabbat meal.
What never ceases to amaze me is the number of people who fly in from outside of Israel, just for this Shabbat. Some organizations, like our friends at AFSI, set up annual trips to Israel in order to be here for this unique occasion.
So too with the Hebron Fund, our American organization. The Hebron Fund, assisting in supporting Hebron projects in the community, has sponsored this event for many years. Executive Director, Rabbi Dan Rosenstein, put together a wonderful program for friends and supporters, whose sole reason in Israel was Hebron for Shabbat. Some arrived a few days earlier in order to attend the 'Night to Honor Hebron' at the Knesset. Others landed Thursday night and left Saturday night or Sunday morning.
Some of our guests slept at the Avraham Avinu guest house; others at the Ulpana in Kiryat Arba. They dined in the Gutnick Center, outside Ma'arat HaMachpela, and participated in various tours and events at night and during the day.
For many of these people, this wasn't there first Chayei Shabbat mission. And we always know when our guests enjoy themselves, when they 'come back for more.'
Another special event was part of this Shabbat. Teaneck teenager Jonathan Rosen celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in Hebron, at Ma'arat HaMachpela, on this very exceptional day. This is truly a unique happening: reading your Bar Mitzvah portion about Ma'arat HaMachpela, at the very sitewhere it occurred. Not too many kids have such a unique opportunity. Jonathan's father, Michael, is a Hebron Fund board member, and a number of the family's friends from Teaneck, NJ, also participated in the celebrations, which included, of course, festive meals and a tour of Hebron.
I had the honor to speak with our guests shortly before the end of Shabbat, and stressed to them how important their visit here is to us, Hebron's Jewish community. When we see literally tens of thousands coming into Hebron, all at once, including people who make such a long, and expensive journey from outside Israel, for all of one day, it shows us how important Hebron is to Jews from Israel and around the world. Such dedication, such love, such determination! We then know that we are not a small group of 90 families and 850 people, rather we are a community of multitudes. And I have no doubt that we aren't the only ones to take notice. The Israeli government, the US, the EU and also our neighbors across the street; they all see the enthusiasm and commitment of our fellow Jews. The scene of tens of thousands says more than words could ever express.
That's what Hebron is: the word itself means 'to bond' and is derived from the word 'friend.' Hebron bonds us, links us, and transforms us all as friends, whether from Migdal in northern Israel, or from New York, Texas or California.
And of course, all of this originates from our Grandfather Abraham and Grandmother Sarah, whose merits still stand for us today. Despite the fact that during this Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, we read of Sarah's death, the words "Chayei Sarah" speak of her life. For though Sarah's body was interred at the Cave of Machpela, her spirit lives with us through the present, and can be tangibly sensed on this extraordinary Shabbat day.
V'Shavu Banim L'Gvulam. The Children Have Returned Home.
From Hebron we thank all those who participated, and made this day what is was.