[Issued by the International Sephardic Leadership Council in light of the crisis in Hevron, Israel.]

Avraham, the father of the Jewish people, selected Hevron as the first home for the Jewish people. There, Avraham purchased the historic Cave of the Makhpela. Other than Jerusalem, Hevron is indeed the holiest location for the Jewish people. The city is mentioned in the Torah over 70 times: "Avram removed his tent, and came and lived in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hevron, and there he built an altar to the Lord." Hevron is the place where Sarah died and was buried. Hevron was King David's first capital, even before Jerusalem.

Jewish archeologists in Hevron have uncovered pottery, jewelry and ancient homes from the time of Avraham and Sarah. Unfortunately, Hevron, like all of the land of Israel, suffered under foreign occupation for 2,000 years. Even so, there have always been small populations of Jews living in this holy city.

Over the many centuries, while the Jewish people were exiled from Eres Yisrael (the land of Israel), Hevron, like Jerusalem, retained a sparse Jewish population, fed by a small but constant stream of pilgrims. In 1166, at the young age of 31, Maimonides wrote, "And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of Marheshvan, I left Jerusalem for Hevron to kiss the graves of my forefathers in the Cave of Makhpela. And on that very day, I stood in the cave and I prayed, praised be God for everything."

It's interesting to note that the building over the cave was not built by the Arabs, but by the Christians of the Byzantine church; it was only later converted into a mosque. This is also true of the foundation under the gold dome that sits atop the Temple Mount; it was initially started as a church, and only later captured and transitioned into a mosque.

The early period of Arab conquest over the Byzantines (638-1099) was said to be a relief for the Jews of Eres Yisrael. But then, in 1099, the Christian Crusaders invaded Hevron and renamed the city Avraham. The name was changed back to Hevron after their defeat by Saladin, the Kurdish-Muslim warrior, in 1187. The Encyclopedia Judaica indicates that in regards to this period, there is evidence showing that it is "probable that there was a permanent settlement in Hevron at that time. The testimony of historians from an earlier period and documents discovered in the course of time... give a fairly clear picture of the continuity of the Jewish settlement in Hevron."

One of the earliest pieces of evidence that an Arab named Omar gave permission to the Jews to build a cemetery and a synagogue near the cave of Makhpela is corroborated in both Christian and Muslim sources. The Mamluk warrior Arabs took control of the city and kept it for 328 years. The Mamluk rulers created their armies by collecting non-Muslim slave boys, converting them to Islam, and training them as soldiers. The Mamluks lost Hevron to the Ottoman Empire in 1516.

Jews born in the Diaspora desired to live in the holy cities of the land of Israel for generations. In their desire to get to Eres Yisrael in the 14th century, Jews dangerously traveled on Christian ships from Spain to the ports of Alexandria and Beirut. One man in particular, a Sephardic astronomer fleeing the island of Majorca in 1392, dreamed of seeing the "peaceful habitation" of Jerusalem. Jews left from Castille and made their way to the ports of Catalonia and Valencia. Jews from Saragossa were actively involved with helping their fellow Jews travel to Eres Yisrael. The literature mentioned Jews from Spain going to Damascus and Jerusalem. As early as 1333, there is an account from Hakham Yishak Hilo of Larissa (Greece), who arrived in Hevron and observed Jews working in the cotton trade and glassworks. He noted that in Hevron there was an, "ancient synagogue in which they prayed day and night."

The most notable influx of Jews into Hevron and Jerusalem came in 1517, after the Ottoman Turks had taken control of the land of Israel. With this change in administration came an influx of Iberian Jews from Salonika to Jerusalem and the surrounding cities. These were Jews who had been forced out of Spain in 1492, only 25 years earlier. For those Jews who, when in Spain, could only dream of living in the Holy Land, this was a life-changing opportunity. In fact, those Spanish refugees who had been dwelling in Ottoman Salonika could now legally travel to Ottoman Palestine, where they could start a new life in Jerusalem, Hevron or other ancient Jewish cities. This would be the commencement of the influx and rebuilding of serious Jewish community life in Eres Yisrael.

During this period of great change, a certain Menahem ben Moshe Bavli, author of the book Ta'amei HaMisvot (The Reasons for the Misvot) migrated from Ottoman Baghdad and became one of the pioneers that settled in Hevron after 1492. With the large resettlement of Jews into Hevron in 1540, led by Hakham Malkiel Ashkenazi, the Avraham Avinu Synagogue was built. This location became a center of study for Kabbalah. The synagogue was restored in 1738 and enlarged in 1864. The influx of Iberian Jews in the 16th century raised the Jewish population of Hevron to a point higher than it had been during the Roman occupation nearly 1,500 years prior.

Upon making Aliyah from the Italian city of Bartenura, the great 15th-century Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia, wrote, "Over the Cave of Makhpela is a large building of the Ishmaelites, who regard the sacred site with fear and awe. No person, Jew or Ishmaelite, is allowed to descend to the cave; and there is a small window in the outer wall of the building, which is above the grave of Avraham, and there the Jews are allowed to pray. And in Hevron live 20 Jewish families, all of them scholars, some of them descendants of the Marranos, who came to find refuge under the wings of the Divine Presence... I lived in Hevron for many months."

A famous scholar who migrated to Hevron was Moroccan-born Hakham Avraham Mordekhai Azoulay, author of Hessed LeAvraham (1685). He also authored the Kiryat Arba', as well as an important source on genealogy and life in Fez and Eres Yisrael.

Jews not only migrated to Hevron, but Hevron's Jews ventured away to other communities for the purpose of raising funds and teaching. This was the job of the Rav HaKolel, the rabbi responsible for raising funds for the poor people in the community. From Casablanca to Halab (Aleppo) and from Alexandria to Mosul, they traversed the dangerous highways and treacherous seas, as emissaries of their communities.

More than two centuries ago, Avraham Ruvio went abroad to raise funds for printing a book his father Mordekhai had written. Avraham's father was the head of the rabbinical court of Hevron in the 18th century. Mordekhai had written a religious manuscript that was eventually published at Livorno in 1793, and another printed in Salonika over 40 years later. Avraham Hayyim of Hevron was born in Fez, Morocco. As a rabbi of Hevron, he traveled from community to community seeking sedaka (charity) for the Talmud Torah (Jewish children's school) in Hevron. Sadly, while traveling on this most honorable mission in the Turkish city of Monastir (modern Greece), Avraham died.

From the Balkans came Moshe ben Avraham Ferrera of Sarajevo. Ferrera traveled to Eres Yisrael in 1823, and became head of the rabbinical court in Hevron; he died four decades later, in 1864. Even though both Smyrna (Izmir) and Hevron were both considered part of the Sultan's empire, Smyrna could not compare to the holiness of Eres Yisrael for the spiritual Jew. For this reason, Sephardim migrated from one location of the Ottoman Empire to another.

From the icy mountains of Macedonia to the scorching deserts of Syria, and from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent they came. One notable was Hakham Yosef Rafael ben Haim Yosef Hazan who had relocated from coastal Turkey to Hevron, later becoming the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

[Part 1 of 2]