These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Answer to a Question I Didn’t Ask

Posted on November 28, 2019 by Branden Charles Johnson

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This post was written by Branden Johnson (PEEP ’18-’19. PEP ’19-’20).

Ever since I was a young child, I have wanted to travel the world and see new places. There are very few places at which I would balk; and even fewer that don’t inspire some amount of curiosity in me. For better or worse, however, one of the few that neither inspired curiosity nor excitement was Hevron. In the past, when someone has suggested traveling to Hevron, it never sounded appealing. To me, it was a place shrouded in a cloud of zealotry, violence, and the very essence of The Conflict. I also understood, however, that I would probably go there at some point. And that point finally arrived earlier this week.

One of my first questions about the trip, organized by the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, was: Am I allowed to go there as an Israeli citizen? I must admit my ignorance about a lot of the intricacies of the divisions and administration of the West Bank. I was well aware that there are three areas, “A”, “B”, and “C”, and that Hevron itself is divided into two distinct sections. But – until this trip – I could never keep them straight in my head. With all that being said, our amazing tour guide, Jamie Salter, provided some helpful context for the trip, and a brief outline of the development of the status quo in the area. And the answer to my first questions was a simple, “Yes”.

My experience of Hevron didn’t necessarily change anything vis a vis my initial reaction/hesitation. I wasn’t overwhelmed or underwhelmed. I tried to allow myself to absorb everything I saw and heard, without rushing to respond or criticize. I wanted to let the place and its peoples teach me. Ultimately, I felt like there was nothing and anything that I could do. Everyone with whom we spoke expressed some amount of hope, but none of them could tell us how the Occupation could, should, or would end. Just that it must end.

One of the final stops of the trip was at the Cave of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), a plot of land that was purchased by Abraham in the book of Genesis, and where he and his wife, Sarah, are buried, along with Isaac and Rebecca. The site has a difficult history of violence and disputes over access. But to be there – to pray there with my community – was very powerful.

When I converted to Judaism, I took the Hebrew name Yonah ben Avraham v’Sarah. Whether or not their bodies are in fact entombed at this site, it was still, for me, a significant experience. To be in that place where those people once stood. To honor them with the words of the Jewish scholars who crafted and passed down our tradition from the stories of their lives.

I started this trip with a question, and left it with an answer. The answer was not the answer to that question. It was a to a much deeper, existential question that I had avoided asking myself for a long time. What is my responsibility, as a Jew and a citizen of Israel, to ensure that it and we are upholding the highest values of our tradition and honoring our ancestors? What am I doing to ensure that I am contributing in a positive, meaningful way to changing the status quo? And how do I hold potentially conflicting ideas and values about these people and places without sacrificing myself?

My response is: education. I still have a lot to learn, and am privileged to have a community full of passionate friends and mentors who can help guide me on this journey. If there’s one existential take-away for me that came out of this trip, it’s that we can’t do it alone. We have to work together, or risk losing everything, including ourselves.