By Max Fruchter
Never would I have thought that spending Shabbat on the cold, hard ground in a cramped and compact tent with five friends could turn out to be one of the most enriching, enjoyable, and special experiences of my life. Having spent Shabbat in Hebron, the religious, historical, and sentimental significance possessed by this magnificent city completely deterred my mind from the uncomfortable and less than ideal living conditions that came along with the tent. Incredibly, Hebron saw an estimated 50,000 Jews temporarily settle in to experience the Shabbat in which parashat Chayei Sarah was read. Jews from across the country made any accommodations necessary in order to sleep in Hebron; many slept in tents, others opted for being housed in a yeshiva or synagogue, and still others stayed by residents of local communities. As one out of many who slept in a tent, I can firsthand attest to the awe inspiring atmosphere held by this Shabbat.
If the bulletproof bus taken from Jerusalem to Hebron is no indication of the emphasis placed on safety I don’t know what is. The thick, tinted windows made gazing out at the passing scenery difficult, yet once the bulletproof bus inched towards its final destination, it was clear where we were. The abundance of fully armed soldiers or the setup of hundreds, possibly thousands, of tents may have been the telltale sign of arrival. In any case, I, along with my friends, pitched our tent and immediately made my way past the communal medical care center, a large red tent tantamount to a makeshift infirmary, and headed towards the most illustrious, historically infused and spiritually uplifting location in all of the city—Me’arat Hamachpelah.
Contrary to my preconceived vision, the burial site of our founding fathers and mothers was by no means held in an ancient, out of date structure. The building was fairly modern, with present day chandeliers in each room accompanied by equally concurrent bookshelves and tables available to anyone who wished to pray. The actual tombs appeared behind large, green iron bars, through which a large, rectangular shaped construction was visible. These seemingly “large boxes” are actually markings as to the placement of the bodies. Beneath each structure, a predicted 30 feet, lay the actual remains of each body. Adjacent to each tomb marking are several different areas open for prayer service, in addition to various boxes set up for donations towards different charities.
Had it not been for the incredibly opportune time in which I visited Hebron, the prior description of the Me’arat Hamachpelah would have ended here. However, fortunate as I was to have been present during the “complete” ten days of the year, these sights were only the beginning. To clarify, this interval of ten days (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shabbat of Chayei Sarah, two of the chol hamoed days of Passover, and the eve of rosh chodesh Elul) holds deep importance for each Jew, considering the availability of sections usually designated for Muslims. With the exclusivity of this situation settling in, I began walking with excitement towards the tomb of Yitzchak and Rivkah. Before entering the actual room in which the tomb markings were held, I noticed a number of oddities which made me question: why is the entrance, and entire section for that matter, inconsistent with the tombs of Avraham and Sarah as well as Yaakov and Leah? As I stared directly into the hundreds of green shelves on the wall just outside of the main room, I pondered what their purpose could possibly be in a place such as this. What’s more, the myriad of different rugs and mats hanging from the ceiling only furthered my suspicions as to what reason there could be for such a blatant discrepancy between the burial place of Yitzchak and Rivkah and all of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs. After quick inquiry, the answer seemed obvious. I was standing in the area of the Me’arat Hamachpelah reserved for Muslims. The green shelves were used for holding footwear, as is customary of Muslims to remove their shoes before praying, and the rugs were meant to be placed on the floor, also part of the Islamic prayer ritual. For clear reasons, the absence of Jewish charity boxes also no longer posed itself as a mystery.
Following my visit to the burial place of Yitzchak and Rivkah I made my way back to the tent in order to prepare for Shabbat. Once properly dressed and with only 20 minutes until Shabbat, I scanned the massive grass-filled area and took in my surroundings. Jews of all different affiliations were present; a motley crowd of “black hatters, jeans and T‑shirters” and everything in between. To the same degree, each camp site was set up in drastically different manners. To my left I could see an enormous tent large enough to hold a family of ten while maintaining enough room for the luxurious camp gear necessary for an enjoyable camping experience—generators, hot plates, burners, tables, etc. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum were the meager and flimsy tents to my right. Supported only by the contents inside, many of these tents actually threatened to blow away in the cold, windy night.
As Shabbat began and the temperature quickly dropped, I managed to block out the unusually cold weather and focus on the uplifting davening taking place only meters away from the Me’arat Hamachpelah. The Carlebach-inspired tunes energized everyone onto their feet, singing and having a great time. Not too long after, Shabbat dinner had arrived. For many, it meant sitting on the ground with friends eating shuk (Machaneh Yehudah) bought food earlier that day, while others ate in the warm atmosphere of their tents. For myself and my friends, a concrete bench acted as a provisional table and the delicious deli, chicken, and fish prepared the day before only enhanced our meal. In any case, everyone had the option of eating under the enormous communal tent centered in the grass-filled area, in which chulent, amongst other foods, was being served to anyone without a place to eat.
At approximately four in the morning, I, along with many others, awoke to a blaring voice over a loudspeaker. Certainly not a security related sound, I soon learned the din to be that of a Muslim male hymning tunes meant to acknowledge the earliest prayer service of the day. After about 20 minutes, I fell back asleep, only to wake up to an equally exciting and enriching day.
Shabbat day began with a blazing sun beating down on us all, a heat in strong disagreement with the brisk chill of the night before. Once dressed in proper Shabbat attire, I made my way to the Ma’arah only to see a large demonstration consisting of relatively young American Jews. Unclear as to what their stance was on an undetermined subject, I asked one of the many soldiers containing the unruly group what was happening. To my astonishment, the young and heavily armed soldier informed me of the frivolous and immature nature of this group. Evidently, these “anarchists” as the soldier referred to them, gather every now and then in order to create an unnecessary brouhaha and argue no actual ideology. The calm and professional demeanor which each soldier presented themselves with while dealing with such provocative idiocy is truly remarkable.
The rest of Shabbat was nothing short of incredible. In addition to davening at the Me’arat Hamachpelah for a second time, I was privileged to visit the burial site of some lesser-known Jewish historical figures such as Ruth and Yishay, as well as a prominent character in Tanach, Avner ben Ner.
As Shabbat came to a close, and I began to dissemble the tent which had been home to me for but a day and a half, I realized how privileged I was to have spent Shabbat in such a holy, special city. I truly felt honored to have walked on the same ground as our Forefathers and Mothers, particularly at the apt time in which the Torah portion discussing the burial site of Sarah was read. As I once again stepped foot into a bulletproof bus, I could not help but smile in delight and gratitude knowing how many amazing stories I will be able to share with my friends once back in yeshiva. v
Max Fruchter, a recent graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns, is now attending yeshiva in Jerusalem.