When I invite people to Hebron for Shabbat, I sometimes hear the response, “I’ve been – I was for Shabbat Chaye Sarah.” But in fact, Shabbat Chaye Sarah in Hebron isn’t a normal Shabbat. It’s an experience.
Yesterday, according to conservative estimates, over 20,000 people visited this holy city.
Here in our offices, this event began weeks ago; planning for the multitudes. Many man hours, and much money is invested to ensure that the day will be a success. And as much as we want, and need rain, we sort of hope that this day will remain dry.
My Chaye Sarah began on Friday, wandering around, hoping to get some good photos. Being that the main events are on Shabbat, I have no way to photograph the occasion. (That’s really my only regret about this wonderful day.)
Toward early mid-afternoon the tents start popping up on the lawn in the park across from Machpela. Men, women, kids of all ages, can be found camping out. I spoke to people who’d come from Netanya and Akko to sleep in a tent on the ground because ‘this is the city of the Patriarchs. It’s ours.’ On Friday night, walking back from amazing evening prayers at Machpela, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Families pitched tents on the road, between parked cars and opened up small tables from which to enjoy their Shabbat meal. Young children, swathed in winter jackets, sat around such tables, eating, singing and enjoying the festivity.
Evening prayers are unbelievable. Various minions – prayer services – spring up on the lawn outside, in the courtyard, and inside the building. Thousands upon thousands descend on Herod’s 2,000 year old structure to offer Shabbat prayers. These worship services include song and dance, true joy. More than one group includes dozens of people who have flown into Israel from the United States and Europe, for 48 hours, to participate in this massive celebration. It is indescribable.
During meals, huge tents were filled to capacity. People hosted, some more, some less. In my apartment, aside from filling our bedrooms (in one, three older married women slept together), our living room floor contained four guys and the couch bedded my friend Moshe Goldshmid, whose family has been coming to us for about 14 years for this Shabbat. Moshe’s grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Goldshmid, was murdered in Hebron during the 1929 riots. For meals, another visiting family joined us.
Others hosted literally dozens, eating in shifts (and maybe sleeping in shifts too).
After evening meals many participated in political panel discussions, including numerous Israeli MKs, ministers and Rabbis. Visitors toured all day and all night. Saturday afternoon my friend Noam Arnon led a huge tour in the Casba. Simcha Hochbaum guided a huge group throughout the Jewish neighborhoods. I had two tours of the Tel Rumeida neighborhood, showing the uninitiated the wonders of ancient-new Hebron.
I must also mention: Friday afternoon we dedicated a memorial room to our dear friend, Herb Zweibon, founder and director of AFSI, Americans for a Safe Israel. Herb was a genuine friend of Israel, and especially of Hebron’s Jewish community. AFSI’s executive director, Helen Freedman led a group of about 25 friends from the US for a week-long visit in Israel, and to Hebron for this Shabbat. We all gathered at the new “Zweibon Hall,” at the entrance to the ‘Hezkiah neighborhood,” here in Hebron to dedicate this room in Herb’s memory.
Late Saturday afternoon I participated in the ‘3rd meal’ with our friends attending via Hebron’s US branch, the Hebron Fund. The fund’s new director, Rabbi Dan Rosenstein, asked me to speak with the group for a few minutes. I asked them to take their “Hebron Shabbat High’ back home, to convey it to others, and to be ambassadors for Hebron’s Jewish community, getting the word out, letting other know what Hebron iss really all about. They are all, as much as we are, ‘keepers of the keys,’ insuring Hebron’s Jewish future forever.
By the time Shabbat ended, everyone was exhausted, but the day hadn’t yet concluded. I sat with my AFSI friend in our Beit Hadassah apartment, answering questions and discussing various issues common to all of us for about an hour. Only later did I have the luxury to collapse.
Actually there was another important event Saturday night. In Kiryat Arba, a group of people met with Education Minister Gideon Saar, expressing gratitude for the time and effort he has put in to assist the communities in Hebron and Kiryat Arba. I wanted to attend but my legs rebelled.
How can I best sum up this day? Actually I’d prefer to quote a friend of mine, Barak Arusi, the police officer in charge of the Hebron station. Barak began his position here a number of months ago, and this was his first Shabbat Chaye Sarah in Hebron. Speaking to him, he told me, “As far as I’m concerned every Shabbat should be like this in Hebron. It’s a lot of work, but for me, it was a lot of fun, a real happening.”
Coming from a police officer, who worked around the clock this past Shabbat, well, I couldn’t express it better. ‘A lot of fun, and a real happening.’
Twenty thousand isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. Considering that the forecast was for rain. These 20,000, in my eyes, represent tens and hundreds of thousands who couldn’t celebrate here with us in Hebron, but did so, at their homes and in their synagogues, around the world.
I think Abraham and Sarah would be proud.