My husband and I spent a recent Shabbat with our 20-year-old son at his yeshiva. It is the end of his second post-high school year there and the first time all of the parents in his cohort were invited to spend Shabbat together and with our sons.
The yeshiva is located in Hebron and there is not enough room on its campus for the parents of dozens of students to spend the night, so we slept in nearby Kiryat Arba, and made the trek to and from the yeshiva a couple times over the course of the 25 hours.
The Shabbat with the yeshiva reminded me what I love the most about living in Israel – the connections we make with other and often very different people.
We sat for Friday night dinner with two Yemenite couples and their sons, and an Ashkenazi couple and their son. We soon learned the Ashkenazi couple lives in a West Bank community near us and he owns the printing company in the lower level of our local mall. About halfway through the meal, one of the Yemenite dads looked across the table at our local businessman and said, “You know, we went to junior high school together.”
After several moments of Jewish-Israeli geography, which is really the best kind of Jewish geography, the men realized they had been in the same homeroom and had friends in common. Their sons have been in yeshiva together for two years and they never knew they had a connection.
I heard one couple speaking English, a small comfort when surrounded by Israelis that I have never met chattering away in rapid-fire Hebrew. That father turned out to be the brother of one of my husband’s Bnei Akiva camp counselors and the father of a child who is married to the child of one of our neighbors. Another couple who spoke (South African) English spent their first years after aliyah as neighbors to a former Clevelander we knew well. Small world.
The walk from Kiryat Arba to Hebron was lined with soldiers there for our protection. As we parents walked together in a group past the soldiers standing about 40 meters apart from each other we smiled and said “Shabbat Shalom,” and “Todah Rabah.” One of the mothers suddenly let out a whoop and began hugging one of the soldiers. He was one of her neighbor’s sons and had just come that day to serve in Hebron. They caught each other up on their families and parted with more hugs.
My son loves Hebron and wanted to share some of its history and beauty with us. He led us up to Tel Rumeida, a small pocket of Jewish-Israelis living in a tall apartment building alongside archeological excavations.
From the top of the apartment building, we could look out over all of the city of Hebron. We could see the yeshiva, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the old Jewish cemetery; the roof of the nine-story modern mall filled with chain stores; the thousands of Palestinian homes and apartments, part of a vibrant city.
During Shabbat, we visited the Cave of the Patriarchs and walked along Shuhada (Martyrs’) Street, the main thoroughfare to get to the site of the burial place of our forefathers and foremothers. At a former Palestinian market, the storefronts are closed after many serious threats and attacks on Jews that live in a small enclave of Hebron.
Much is made of the 500 Jewish Israelis who have chosen to make their home in a small bloc in Hebron and how it has turned Hebron into a city under siege. But those Jews take up only a small corner of a large and vibrant city in which Palestinians live, work and shop.
We learned that prior to 1929 Jews and Arabs lived together in Hebron as neighbors and friends until a pogrom left 67 Jews dead and caused the rest to flee. Jews returned to Hebron in 1967 to reclaim the Jewish community’s homes and institutions.
It is ironic Hebron is one of the three cities where it is made clear in the Bible land was purchased by Jews, in this case by our forefather Abraham, in which to bury his dead. Abraham also is the forefather of the Arabs (known as Ibraham and the father of Ishmael) with whom we share the city and the Cave of the Patriarchs. The other two are Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Shechem, also known as Nablus, which also is home to Jewish holy sites and is officially under Palestinian control.
Hebron has a long history and one in which both Jews and Arabs have known sorrow. Its history is obviously more complicated than these few paragraphs. Can there ever be a return to the neighborliness of pre-1929? It has to start somewhere.