Despite Palestinian terrorism and Orthodox “control” of the site, more than one million Jewish pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem’s Western Wall during the High Holiday period. So let’s keep Kotel “crises” in perspective.
I have been to the Kotel (the Western Wall) to daven (pray) three times in the past three months.
I was there with one son on Tisha Be’Av for afternoon services. I was there with two sons on Yom Kippur at night, at the start and the end of the fast day. I was there with three sons and two daughters on Hoshana Raba for early morning prayers.
Each time it was different experience.
On Tisha Be’Av (the Day of Lamentations), the main prayer plazas were full with many thousands of people mourning the destruction of the two ancient Jewish commonwealths and their temples that stood on the Temple Mount. But we said our afternoon prayers along with the leadership of Yeshivat Hakotel at the smaller, quieter alternative prayer plaza (known as “Ezrat Yisrael”) down in the archaeological garden.
The reason for this is that the yeshiva was founded on Tisha Be’Av 1967 in an abandoned Arab girls school building that was at the foot of the Temple Mount – more or less where the alternative prayer plaza is now situated. So this was an appropriate place to mark Hakotel’s fiftieth anniversary in prayer and song. The experience had a historic ring of accomplishment to it, alongside a longing for even greater redemption.
(A word of explanation: The “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza was established for non-Orthodox prayer quorums, and indeed there were two cabinets in the back of the plaza, presumably with prayer books and Torah scrolls inside of them, but they were locked. The sign on the cabinets reads: “Equipment will be provided by Masorti Movement staff during pre-reserved ceremonies only.” Apparently, no Reform or Conservative Jews were holding ceremonies that day, nor were they around to daven afternoon and evening prayer or to lament the destruction of the Temples).
On Yom Kippur, bedecked in kittel and tallit, after evening selichot, we made our way down from the yeshiva in the Jewish Quarter to the main men’s prayer plaza for private prayer. I’ve been doing this for close to 20 years, and there are generally very few visitors at the Kotel late on Yom Kippur night. It is a magical time for quiet reflection and petition.
This year, however, it was also Shabbat, and a group of men led by the Chassidic singer Chaim Dovid Sarachik started a pick-up circle singing Sabbath zemirot (liturgical songs). My boys and I joined in for an hour, even though I’m not the biggest Shabbat singer. It was enchanting and uplifting.
Then at the end of the ne’ila prayer that rounds-out Yom Kippur, we danced down to the Kotel with hundreds of yeshiva boys for the final shofar blast and havdala service. It is a grand and majestic finale to the Day of Atonement, and provides a great kick-off for the new year. Again, thousands of worshippers (and tourists who snapped my photo a thousand times) filled the plazas.
On Hoshana Raba (the last day of Succot, just two days ago), we joined the throngs of Jews streaming by foot into the Old City Gate at 6 am for vatikin (dawn) prayers; something that has become an annual family tradition. I rouse the kids out of bed at 4 am, and drink my coffee at the wheel of the car as they sleep some more on the way up the highway to Jerusalem.
Then we’re moved by the early morning march through Jaffa Gate and the Arab shuk to the Kotel, along with literally many tens of thousands of men and women. The hushed procession of thousands in the cool near-morning mist is a sublime experience in itself; the closest we get to aliya la-regel, the experience of mass Jewish holiday pilgrimage up to the center of our religious world.
Then there is a gigantic lineup at the security checkpoint just before the descent to the Kotel plaza. (Yes, Jews going to the Western Wall have to go through metal detectors and have their bags inspected!)
Then there is the spiritual high of the netz hachama moment, when the sun crests the Mount of Olives, and 50,000 people (packing all the Kotel plazas all the back to the ramparts of the Jewish Quarter) who have been waiting in silence, belt-out in unison Shma Yisrael (Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d is One).
A few minutes later, the entire area is rocked by joyous Hallel and Hoshanot prayers with tens of thousands of palm and willow branches waving in the air – demanding that the Heavens give us prosperity and protection. And there is always one or two unusual prayer quorums with wildly oversize willows (like tall trees) and over-enthusiastic prayer leaders jumping and shouting in the air; wild enough to bring a smile to our faces. I’ve got great videos of this to share. (Check my Facebook page).
And when it’s all over by 8 am, we retire to a big breakfast in the succahs of the Mamilla cafes, usually with some grandmothers and guests. (For some of my brood, the hot chocolate and pastries are the true highlights of the morning. Whatever works to bring the family together in Jerusalem on the holiday!)
I’M TOLD THAT over the past seven weeks, throughout the High Holiday months of Elul and Tishrei, well over one million Jews flocked to the Old City and Western Wall for selichot tours and prayers.
The Kotel plazas were packed every midnight for Sephardic-style songs and prayers. All testimonies indicate that the vast majority of these worshippers were not Orthodox Jews, but rather Israelis from diverse walks of life and varying religious commitments. Overtly, neither the masses of men nor women were dressed religiously.
I know personally of many organized tours of secular school kids, factory union and municipal workers, university and bank employees, Diaspora youth groups and more – who made evening pilgrimages to ancient Jerusalem.
All these Israelis streamed to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount vicinity despite Arab terrorism on the Temple Mount and Palestinian violence in the eastern parts of the city, earlier this year.
This tells me a lot about Israeli society: That it is undeterred by terrorism and will not abandon the political and religious capitol of Israel; that it seeks some sort of spiritual connection to God and to the powers regnant in Jewish history; that it knows that a key to this is deepening our ties to holy and historic Jerusalem; and that it still finds in traditional (Orthodox) Jewish rituals a great deal of emotional and spiritual satisfaction.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much Israeli media coverage of the mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Western Wall these past two months. I think that this is because most of the mainstream Israeli media is defiantly secular and left-wing – and it is uncomfortable with religious passions for G-d and political commitments to united Jerusalem.
It’s also because nobody made a fuss. Nobody tried to bust-up the services with alternative customs; nobody held press conferences to complain about discrimination or warn of crisis; and nobody complained about a lack of Jewish unity. Just the opposite: Jewish unity was the strongest sentiment felt and expressed.
Don’t get me wrong: I am in favor of the Israeli government’s plan (negotiated skillfully by Natan Sharansky and Avichai Mandleblit) to provide a space for alternative prayer expression near the Temple Mount so that some Diaspora Jews (mainly) can feel more connected to Israel and to G-d, and I deplore the fact that the Netanyahu government backed away from the plan under Ultra-Orthodox pressure.
But I just don’t like declarations of “dire crisis” and threats of disassociation from Israel which ignore the reality that millions of Jews are praying just fine at the Western Wall.
I hope that tens of thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews join me next year in dawn processions to true prayer near (and perhaps on!) the Temple Mount. If and when that happens, I’m sure that more space will be found for their devotions.
In the meantime, let’s keep things in perspective.
This was originally published in The Jerusalem Post, October 13, 2017.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.