Israel, Justice, Politics, Religion

Project Chayei Sarah: Engaging Hebron, Unearthing Our Values

Two weeks ago, a group of 13 rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educators and lay-leaders who spent time in Hebron invited their communities to examine the conflict there by delivering divrei Torah on Parshat Chayei Sarah. Their audiences included Hadar, JTS, Hebrew College, HUC, RRC, Mercaz Hamagshimim, Wesleyan U., and others.
This drash was delivered at Kehilat Hadar and guest posted by Charlie Schwartz, a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary who served with distinction in the IDF.
“Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba, now Hebron…”
This Shabbat, thousands of Jews will descend on the holy city of Hebron in commemoration of the death of Sarah.  Gyms will be converted into makeshift dorms, tents will sprout up around the city, serving food and hosting the pilgrims, and massive minyanim will form in and around the maarat hamakhpelah, the traditional burial site of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.  The streets will fill with excitement and joy, and maybe even spiritual ecstasy buoyed by the deep historical and religious Jewish connection to Hebron.  But I don’t have access to this spiritual joy.  For me, the hatred, fear, and violence that mar modern Hebron seal off the path to the holiness of ancient, mythic Hebron.
Among the places I served while in the IDF, Hebron was the most difficult, the most physically and psychologically draining, the place where moral lines were most blurred in the name of security.  There, I encountered the harsh realties of a city under occupation, a city where 500 hard-line Israelis live among 130,000 Palestinians.  I came to know Hebron as a city of intense conflict and strife.  My role there as a solider was as much desperately trying to keep distance between Israelis and Palestinians as it was preventing terrorists from hiding within the civilian population.  Among my unit, there was constant talk about the theoretical calculus of whether our overwhelming presence in the city stopped more terrorists than it created.
My memories of modern Hebron are vivid; patrolling the Old City shuk’s shuttered stalls, nearly abandoned due to army policy; a bullet in the chamber of my assault rifle incase of sudden attack; chain-link overhead to protect Palestinians from being pelted with garbage and debris from Israelis above.  I remember passing by the memorial for Shalhevet Pass, an infant murdered by a sniper, before I entered the Casbah to perform random searches of homes.  Noticing a small inwards facing niche on a door post, possibly mezuzah remnants left by the Hebron Jewish community massacred in 1929, before pushing into the home of an elderly man eager to show a picture of his son, murdered at prayer by Baruch Goldstein.
While studying this past year at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to return to Hebron several times as a civilian.  Hearing Palestinian narratives of life in Hebron while traveling with groups like Encounter and Shovrim Shtika, reinforced the deep sadness I feel around the reality there.  These narratives depicted a city divided by hatred, where the Israelis who live there are often abusive and violent to their Palestinian neighbors, where Israeli law is rarely enforced, creating an untenable situation for many Palestinians.  These visits also reinforced the confusing and complex nature of the history and hostility surrounding Hebron.  Each side wields the dates of their tragedies and massacres like weapons in a duel as if hoping that 1994 will somehow outweigh 1929, or that 2003 is only seen in the context of 1967.
This week, as we read the parshah of Chayei Sarah, when we celebrate the life of our matriarch and her burial place in Hebron, is an opportunity to learn and reflect about the situation in modern day Hebron.  For those who are unfamiliar with what occurs in Hebron on a daily basis, this can be a time to learn and discover.  For those who are unsure of what they think of the situation, this can be a time to decide.  Hebron is a city too holy and sacred to be destroyed by violence and hatred.
To get involved in Project Chayei Sarah for next year’s reading of the parsha, leave a comment and Jewschool will pass along your name and email to the project leaders.

2 thoughts on “Project Chayei Sarah: Engaging Hebron, Unearthing Our Values

  1. When Avraham died we read of Isaac and Ishmael: “and together they buried him.” This was in Hevron.
    Even is strife, estranged rivals can find a way to come together – if they will it.
    Sadly, as is all too often the case in families torn apart, it takes a death and funeral to bring waring brothers and sisters together.

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