Showing posts with label Kotel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kotel. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jerusalem: The Kotel and the Old City after 50 Years: A Schechter Institute Symposium

It has been 50 years since the State of Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned some of the holiest Jewish religious sites to Jewish control.  In honour and commemoration of the anniversary, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem held a forum on June 6, 2017.  The program was entitled:  "Jerusalem: The Western Wall and the Old City In Perspective after 50 Years."  We were privileged to attend.

Image result for yizhar hess masorti
Women of the Wall - from CNN site
I should note that this was not a broad political program designed to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict or the role of Jerusalem as part of that conflict.  Rather the program centred on the role of the Kotel (the "Western Wall") in Israeli and Jewish life and issues to be addressed going forward.

The evening featured an initial group of four academic lectures, which were intended to run about 20-30 minutes each.  Then the evening got really interesting and animated with a diverse panel discussing the issue of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.

We first arrived to hear Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham trace 50 years of historical development in the area of the Kotel and the Old City.  She provided some fascinating historical information about events that have transpired since 1967.  She was followed by Dr. Shira Wolkoff, who spoke about the historical struggle between designating the Kotel site as a part of the Israeli national parks and historic sites portfolio versus handing over complete control to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.   Her lecture was subtitled "An (Un)holy View..."

Image result for the kotel
The Kotel and Temple Mount from Wikepedia
The third presenter, Dr. Kobi Cohen-HaTav, looked at the Kotel as an Israeli national symbol.  He discussed the evolution of the Kotel from a part Zionist national symbol and part religious site to one that has come to represent Israeli national religious society and has  come to be viewed in a much different light over the 50 years since the 1967 war.

Finally, Professor Alona Nitzan Chieftan spoke about the various archaeological issues that have been addressed over the 50 years including ongoing struggles over how to design the Kotel plaza and all of the various considerations and challenges that various committees and governments have faced in doing so.

For us, the final event was the most interesting.  It was a panel discussion moderated by Yair Sheleg, a reporter, on the topic of the State of the Kotel Compromise: Risk or Opportunity?

I have written blogs about this issue in the past.  This article was written in early 2012:  Woman Arrested for Wearing a Tallit at the Kotel.  I updated the issue in October 2012 here: Latest Arrests.
I provided a further update in May 2013: Latest Developments.  In a nutshell, as you might recall, the Kotel is currently operated as, essentially, an Orthodox synagogue.  There is a women's section and a men's section (the men's section is much larger).  Women's groups have been forbidden from praying out loud in the women's section, from reading from the Torah, putting on Tallitot and from wearing Tefillin.  The organization "Women of the Wall" has challenged this state of affairs, as have various other religious and pluralistic groups in Israel.  This has lead to a number of court cases, which have reached the Israeli Supreme Court.  There have also been ongoing political discussions and negotiations.  As you might know, a compromise deal was reached in January 2015 which would have allowed for a designated area of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel, the entry to which would be at the same location as the general Kotel entry.

However, the government that had authorized the plan collapsed and elections were called. Following the elections, a new government took charge in Israel in 2015. The plan was never implemented and court challenges ensued.  The Israeli Supreme Court has made some decisions but has held off making any final status decisions on the issue and things have been left in a state of legal limbo.

The symposium panel featured three different speakers, each with a different perspective.  All three were lawyers. The moderator began with each panelist by asking a very provocative question.  Gloves came off and sparks began to fly.

First off was Ms Rickie Shapira-Rosenberg, a lawyer and member of the management committee of the group "Women of the Wall."  The moderator's questions asked her to respond to the suggestion that Women of the Wall are simply a provocative, feminist group who lack any real authenticity or relevance.

In response, Ms Shapira-Rosenberg described herself as an Orthodox Jew and spoke about the personal importance of having a voice in Judaism at the Kotel and in her religious life generally.  She offered a spirited and powerful description of the struggle that women have faced to pray together, aloud at the Kotel as well as at other communal institutions.  She described the history of the Women of the Wall and emphasized how meaningful it is for women to have access to religious equality.

The second speaker was Yizhar Hess, the current Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative ("Masorti") movement in Israel.  He was challenged with a similarly provocative question, targeting the legitimacy of "liberal" religious groups in Israel.  Mr. Hess spoke primarily about the negotiations themselves, the process of reaching a compromise and the need to recognize and dignify all of the various stakeholders.  He emphasized that the Masorti movement had made quite a number of concessions to reach the compromise as ultimately agreed upon. However, given that it was never implemented, he has been left to second guess the correctness of the decision.  He seems resigned to the notion that the Israeli courts will ultimately be required to decide the issue.

The final speaker was Ultra-Orthodox representative and lawyer, Dov Halbertal.  The moderator asked him whether there would actually ever be any possibility of compromise with these Ultra-Religious groups.

Mr. Halbertal used his time to attack the Women of the Wall, the Masorti, Reform and other "liberal" movements and to malign their motives.  His comments included derisive personal attacks on Ms Shapira-Rosenberg as well as the Women of the Wall generally.  He characterized the group as a bunch of publicity seekers who were completely outside of any definition of normative Judaism.  He asked the rhetorical question - whether we should also permit a group to come along claiming they are the "Adam and Eve Garden Group" who wish to pray at the Kotel naked with a Torah.  He argued that the idea of a group of women wanting to pray out loud, put on tallitot, wear tefillin or read from the Torah is as ridiculous as a group of women who wish to pray at the Kotel naked.  He attacked Conservative and Reform Judaism and argued that these movements are the direct cause of assimilation in the United States. Judaism will disappear because of women like Ms Shapira Rosenberg and the Women of the Kotel, he submitted.  He characterized "liberal Jewish groups" as "worse than the Holocaust" for the Jewish people.

He also noted (to the chuckling but shocked amusement of the audience) that he felt particularly proud, as a Jew, when he watched Donald Trump go the Western Wall, wearing a kippah, on the men's side of the Kotel without his wife and daughter who, obediently and honourably, went to the women's side.  He described that scene as far more respectful and authentic than the Women of the Wall, since Melania and Ivanka knew how to dress and how to behave at the Kotel.

When he was finally finished attacking his fellow panelists and most of the audience members (I assume), there was an opportunity for some further exchange.  To her credit, Ms Shapira Rosenberg chose not to take the bait and refrained from returning with an equally divisive response.  She responded to some of the points but in a more dignified manner.  Mr. Hess was similarly restrained. Perhaps it was because they both wanted to avoid having Mr. Halbertal get up and leave.  After all, his first comments were essentially an apology for agreeing to appear - and a statement that he has already been called out by at least one of his colleagues for appearing at a Schechter Center event.

There was one other special speaker in the audience.  A member of the sub-group, the Original Women of the Wall.  She spoke about her concerns about the political compromise that Mr. Hess had been instrumental in negotiating.  She argued that the negotiators had abandoned the Women of the Wall, who would be forbidden, under the compromise from praying out loud in the Orthodox women's section and would be required to do so in the pluralistic prayer section.  She noted that her group has always recognized the importance of women being able to pray together as women in a separate section of the Kotel.

A few of the audience members (including someone you might know quite well) were less charitable to Mr. Halbertal and attacked his horrible analogy more directly.  I should note that the whole evening was, of course, in Hebrew.  Although I understand everything quite well, I didn't feel comfortable enough linguistically to jump into the fray.  Though I certainly would have enjoyed taking some shots at Mr. Halbertal and his own motives.

As the debate become more heated, the moderator wisely jumped in and concluded the panel at an opportune time.  Although nothing was resolved, the vigorous discussion certainly highlighted the wide gap between the various stakeholders over the issue of how the Kotel should be treated by the State of Israel and more general religious issues.  What type of prayer should occur at the Kotel and who should be allowed to access it?  What should the State's role be in regulating religious sites? More significantly, what will the future bring for the development of religious life for Jewish women in Israeli society?

The discussion ended with the hope that some of these issues would be resolved favourably in time for the next Jerusalem symposium in 2018.  בשנה בשנה הבאה.  (To quote a well known song - B'shana b'shana habah - Next year....)


Friday, December 13, 2013

Major Israeli Storm December 2013

Israel is in the midst of a major storm.  Jerusalem has accumulated more than 30 centimetres of snow since yesterday.  That is a respectable amount even by Canadian standards.  Unfortunately, Jerusalemites and, Israelis in general, are not nearly as well equipped to deal with snow as Canadians.  Many Israelis took their families on car trips to Jerusalem to see the snow.  En route, the snow was so heavy that traffic ground to a standstill and cars became stuck in the snow.  Police and fire crews have indicated that they have rescued more than 1,500 people from stranded cars. 

Schools are closed in Jerusalem and many houses are not heated properly.  There have been power failures across the city and many gas stations are closed, as well as all kinds of other businesses.  Apparently, it's the largest snow storm Israel has had in more than 50 years.  A stalwart few have continued to pray at the Kotel despite the weather conditions...

Meanwhile, there has been snow in other parts of Israel including the Golan Heights.  But most of the rest of the country has been dealing with a major rain and wind storm.

In Ra'anana, the temperatures have hovered around 6-8 degrees, while we have been dealing with a major thunderstorm and blowing winds.  Last night and early this morning, there was sleet but so far, no snow.
After raining on and off for a few days, the rain has continued constantly since last night. 

Even by Canadian standards, this would be a significant storm.  But the major difference is that homes and businesses are simply not set up to deal with it.  For example, we stopped at the supermarket this morning.  There was no heating.  People were dressed in sweaters, jackets and gloves.  The cashiers were wearing gloves and hats.  We asked the customer service manager - who told us that you can't heat a supermarket - it would affect too many of the items in the store, he said.  Just after we paid, the store suffered a power failure and announced (though its emergency back up system) that it would only be accepting cash and no credit cards until the power returned.

Two nearby gas stations were closed due to the spreading power failure and some of the nearby intersections were running on flashing yellow lights.

The storm is expected to last another day or two.  The good news is that once the storm is over, temperatures will probably rise fairly quickly and things will get back to normal for a country not used to dealing with these types of storms. The other good news is that Israel is always happy to accumulate as much rain water as possible, which will hopefully cause the Kinneret, Israel's only fresh water lake, to rise from its low levels.

It looks like we will be eating Shabbat dinner with sweaters - and maybe gloves....but keeping dry inside.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Davidson Center Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jerusalem - Changes to the Area

Earlier this year, in August 2013, the Israeli government made changes to the Davidson Center at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  For those unfamiliar with the Center, I wrote a blog article about hosting a bar or bat-mitzvah here.  It has been one of the most widely read articles on this site.  I felt reasonably qualified to write it, as a veteran planner and parent of two b'nai mitzvot at the Center.

There has been a great deal of controversy over access to the Kotel itself over the past few years.  It is widely known that the Western Wall itself, the Kotel, is treated as an Orthodox synagogue.  This means that there is a big wall running down the middle, a Mechitza, separating the mens' side from the womens' side of the wall.  Morever, the Orthodox rabbis running the site, with the force of Israeli law behind them for the most part, have prohibited women from praying out loud, reading from a Torah, wearing a Tallith or wearing Tefillin on the women's side of the Kotel.  There has been a push for reform of this state of affairs to improve equality of access for everyone to the site, even to those who might not wish to conform to Orthodox prayer standards.

This past year, Natan Sharansky led a commission to try to find a solution to this challenge.  His proposal, apparently, was a significant improvement to the Davidson Center in a way that would make it appear to be an extension (at the same level) of the Kotel.  Sharansky's plan would have created, effectively, three sections at the Kotel - men, women and mixed.  However, due to some Archaeological resistance and some resistance by Orthodox rabbis, the plan was put on indefinite hold, even though, as a compromise plan, it was approved by a number of different stakeholders.
Davidson Center - New Platform with Tables

After icing Sharansky's plan, powerful cabinet minister Naftali Bennett implemented an alternate solution.  A platform was built at the Southern Wall ( the Davidson Center) and a number of tables were set up.  The Israeli government indicated that the site would now be open 24/7 and would be free and accessible to all for non-Orthodox prayer.  This was Bennett's effort to thwart Sharansky's plan.  The plan, which was implemented on August 27, 2013, is described in the Jewish Week.

This did not solve the problem for some groups.  For example, Women of the Wall, a group which has been denied the ability to pray on the women's side of the Kotel out loud and with a Torah scroll.  Morever, the site is still difficult to access, out of the way and with limited ability for participants to actually touch the wall itself (unlike at the main Kotel).

Nevertheless, for those interested in conducting a religious service at the Kotel for a bar or bat mitzvah that is egalitarian and not separated, the Davidson Center is really the only alternative.  It is now somewhat more accessible than it was previously.  Certainly the hours are much better - and admission is free.  Although it is something of an improvement over the previous state of affairs, I can't help but think that this is a stepping stone towards a much more egalitarian, accessible solution even though that type of dramatic change may take some time to implement.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Latest Developments: Religous Pluralism at the Kotel

There have been a number of exciting developments in the fight for religious pluralism and equality at the Kotel in Israel.  This may signify the start of significant change in Israeli society in the way in which religious affairs are administered.  For many Israelis and Jews around the world, these changes would be very welcome and long overdue.

One major event was an historic, precedent setting court ruling in April.  A number of women were arrested for "disturbing the peace" for wearing tallitoth (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) in the women's section of the Kotel in April, 2013.  Arrests like this had been commonplace for the past few years, with the police generally carrying what they viewed to be their interpretation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling from a number of years earlier.  However, on this occasion, the Israeli court held that there was no basis for charging women with "disturbing the peace" for praying out load in the women's section of the Kotel while wearing tallithoth and tefillin.  This New York Times article discusses the court ruling.

The result of that court ruling was a planned, large scale Rosh Hodesh service in the women's section for this past Friday (May 10, 2013).  Knowing that the police would no longer be arresting women for "disturbing the peace" when holding a prayer service, various Haredi leaders publicly called for their followers to show up at the Kotel and protest the women's prayer service.  The result was a violent clash in which Haredi women and men threw garbage, water and other objects at the women as they prayed.  Israeli on-line news source YNet covered the story here. Three ultra-Orthodox students were arrested and the police, for the first time in years, actually protected the women rather than the Haredi demonstrators.  Finally, those who were really disturbing the peace were the ones arrested.

This story comes on the heels of various announcements indicating that the Israeli government is close to a deal that  will see the Kotel expanded to include a section for mixed prayer (men and women together).  The Kotel now only includes separate sections and women are currently not permitted to bring a Torah scroll to the women's sided.  Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency and the person charged with coming up with a solution to this issue, has said that the first stage of his Kotel renovation project could be completed within 10 months.  This will be a tremendous move towards accommodating different types of religious practises in Israel and may will signify a change in attitude in Israel towards non-Orthodox Jewish religious groups and movements.

Religious pluralism is an issue that is important to Minister Yair Lapid, who holds significant power in the current coalition government.  So it is not a huge surprise that some things are beginning to change.

Even among many Masorti Jews, there are differences of opinion about how the Kotel should be administered.  At our shul, a fully egalitarian Conservative congregation, we had quite a heated debate a few weeks ago over the issue of whether the Israeli government should impose a pluralistic solution at the Kotel itself.  I personally see no reason why we could not divide the Kotel into three instead of two, with "his, hers and ours" sections.  This would be a compromise that should be equally unsatisfactory for almost everyone - the hallmark of a good compromise.

Some argued that since this is such a holy site, it should be administered in ultra-orthodox fashion.  This makes little sense to me.  The Kotel is not a small ultra-orthodox shul.  It is a signficant, symbolic, national-historic religious site.  It should be accessible to all.  The notion that women could be arrested for "disturbing the peace" for wearing a Tallith or for singing out loud in the women's section at the Kotel is just plain ridiculous.  Similarly, the notion that Conservative or Reform groups cannot hold prayer services at the Kotel is also wrong-headed and too exclusionary.

But Israel now seems headed in a different directon on this issue and that may signify upcoming changes in other areas of religious pluralism in Israel.  Stay tuned as this is certain to create lots of controversy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Woman Arrested for Wearing Tallit at Kotel

 A woman was arrested yesterday at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem and questioned for wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) in the women's section of the Kotel.  According to a Jerusalem Post report, the woman was fingerprinted, photographed and detained for three hours for wearing a men's Tallit.

The incident occurred during a monthly Rosh Hodesh (New Month) prayer service organized by the group Women of the Wall, an organization in Israel dedicated to fighting for religious equality of women and in particular, the right of women to conduct a Torah service at the Kotel.

According to an Israeli law from 2001, it is illegal for women to perform practices at the Kotel that are normally performed by Orthodox men.  This is includes wearing a men's style Tallit or putting Tefillin (phylacteries) and it also includes a ban on women reading from the Torah.

As part of a "compromise" the Israeli government has allowed mixed events including mixed prayer and Torah reading at the Davidson Centre - at the south wall of the Kotel.

But the actually Western Wall is overseen by  Orthodox religious authorities.  This means that the Kotel is divided so that it has a women's section and a men's section.  Women are not allowed to bring  a Torah scroll into the women's section or to pray or sing out loud.  Effectively, in a society in which only a minority of the population are Orthodox Jews, the Israeli government has ceded control of a site that is holy to all Jews to a minority Orthodox population exclusively.

It is time that the Israeli government reviewed the way it oversees religious affairs in Israel.  Perhaps this new governing coalition (with the addition of the centrist Kadima party led by Shaul Mofaz) will try to address some of these issues.  After announcing last month that it would begin funding Conservative and Reform Rabbis (to a limited extent and with limited roles - while still not recognizing their rights to perform weddings or funerals), the time has come for the Israeli government to review the rules pertaining to the Kotel along with a range of other rules and laws relating to religious affairs in the country..

For starters, the government should implement a three section solution at the main wall instead of the current two section division  - the Kotel should have men's, women's and mixed sections;   The government should also overturn all of the laws relating to women's prayer at the Kotel - in the mixed or women's sections - whether out loud, in groups, while wearing a Tallith or Tefillin.  As a compromise, the Orthdox and ultra-Orthodox should be able to continue to control part of the Western Wall area and to conduct prayer as they see fit in that area.

Some Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox have argued that this is a holy place and that, as the most rigorous adherents of Orthodox Judaism, they should be able to oversee the Kotel and should have the right to bar practices that they view as inappropriate and otherwise dictate the site rules.  They argue that the Women of the Wall are simply being "provocative" by wearing their prayer shawls in public and that women should not be able to pray out loud anywhere near the Kotel.  But the Kotel does not and should not  belong to the Ultra-Orthodox or even the Orthodox.  It belongs to Jews of all denominations and of both genders. And all of these Jewish people should have the right to access the Kotel even without following ultra-Orthodox practices.

The public observance by the Women of the Wall of Rosh Chodesh is not something that should attract police attention, arrests or other forms of public humiliation.  Rather it is those who would prevent women from praying in public who should be monitored.  A Kotel divided into three sections would be the best way of dealing with this as it would be a compromise that all sides could complain about equally.  A pluralistic approach to Judaism at this important symbolic and holy location would be a key message for a more pluralistic approach to Judaism throughout Israel.  This would be a significant step towards improving gender equality in Israel generally.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jerusalem Day 2012 - In Jerusalem and Ra'anana

April and May are filled with various holidays and days of commemoration in Israel. Yesterday, Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), marking the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

In many ways, Jerusalem is really the heart and centre of Israel and of the Zionist enterprise. The historical link of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is visible for all to see at the archaeological ruins at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. The epicentre of the story is the tunnels that have been excavated next to the Kotel (the Western Wall) where visitors can travel underground through history to see the multiple layers that have been built and rebuilt on the site where the two great temples once stood and the surrounding plaza area.

Today, the Dome of the Rock, the large golden domed mosque, which was built in 691 CE, some 620 years after the destruction of the second Temple, sits on exactly the spot where the Temple once stood. It is little wonder then that the Old City of Jerusalem is so hotly contested.

According the original U.N. partition plan in 1947, Jerusalem was to be an "International City" with full access to all to the religious sites that are holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. During Israel's Independence War in 1948, Jordan gained control of much of Jerusalem and the Old City in particular, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and other sites that are holy to three of the world's major religions. Israel held the western half of Jerusalem, where the Israeli parliament (the "Knesset") was established. Jerusalem was named the capital of Israel though, to this day, only a few countries have recognized it as such. Most others have insisted in putting their embassies and consulates in Tel-Aviv.

Between 1948 and 1967, Jews were denied access to Jerusalem's Old City. Many of the religious sites were destroyed and desecrated. Ruins were removed. The city was divided with part held by Jordan and the other part held by Israel.

In June 1967, during the six-day war, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli government later declared that it had annexed Jerusalem, reunited it and “liberated” the City. Jerusalem's holy sites are now open and accessible to all. The Dome of the Rock is managed by Muslim religious authorities and is fully accessible to Muslims. Similarly the Christian religious sites are open and accessible to all. Since 1967, Israel has excavated, restored and rebuilt much of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Old synagogues have been reopened. The plaza area of the Kotel has been expanded and is clearly the religious heart of the country. Jews from all over Israel (and all over the world) visit the Kotel for holiday celebrations, bar mitzvahs and, in the case of tourists, as one of the most important highlights of a trip to Israel.

Jerusalem is also at the centre of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides lay claims to the very same piece of land on which the Dome of the Rock now stands and on which two Temples once stood. The Old City of Jerusalem and East Jerusalem have significant Arab populations and the Palestinians would like to make Jerusalem the capital of their eventual state. While some Israeli negotiators have been willing to make some concessions with respect to Jerusalem, none of these concessions were viewed as sufficient by the Palestinians. The Bill Clinton brokered peace talks apparently collapsed over this very issue. Now the political climate in Israel has shifted somewhat and there is little appetite for any deal that might give up control over East Jerusalem and certainly not the walled Old City, which includes Judaism’s holiest site.

It might be fair to say that Jerusalem Day is marked most fervently by Orthodox Jews and in particular by those on the right of political spectrum. Yesterday, for example, a group of observant Jews went to conduct prayer services on the grounds of the Dome of the Rock, since this was the exact spot on which the Temple once stood. Though this is somewhat provocative, it is a site that is holy to different groups and ought to be accessible as such.

Jerusalem celebrations took place across the country. Here in Ra’anana, at the centre of the city, Yad L’Banim, a communal sing-a-long was organized where participants were invited to join in singing songs about Jerusalem.

I decided to wander over to the festivities which were about ten minutes walking distance from my place. The evening featured well known counter-tenor David D’Or along with a group of symphony musicians. It also featured a group of singers known as “Kolot Min Hashamayim” – “Voices from the Heavens” from the Melachim School. The Mayor of Ra’anana, Nahum Hofri, was invited to the stage and led the singing of one of Israel’s most iconic songs, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”).

But after watching the performances for a little while, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no women singers. Kolot Min Hashamayim is a religious choir which uses prepubescent boys to sing the female parts. I was standing and listening to some well- known pieces of music that feature some wonderful female vocal parts which were all being sung by young boys. While this is common in Orthodox Synagogues, singing liturgical pieces, it has certainly never been a major part of public Israeli national celebrations. In fact, one of the great things that Israel has produced has been music, sung by men and women together. Here, from looking at the program, there were no "mixed" performances scheduled and no women vocalists. Standing and watching these performances, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of "Sharia creep" – the idea that the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox were expanding their influence beyond synagogues to include public celebrations. As I have written in other blogs, the issue of public performances by female vocalists has been attracting a great deal of attention as ultra-orthodox groups have been trying to limit or eliminate these performances. Feeling that I was participating in something that was edging closer to Iran, I couldn’t help but leave before the evening ended.

Is there a tie in between the fervent celebration of Jerusalem Day and the issue of Sharia creep, barring women from singing publicly? Perhaps not, though it is probably fair to say that those on the political and religious left are much less inclined to celebrate Jerusalem Day as fervently. For many on that end of the spectrum, Jerusalem Day is a reminder that there is a still a great deal of unfinished business – that the need to reach a peace deal or an arrangement with the Palestinians is urgent and that Jerusalem is still at the heart of the dispute. Even so, there is probably still a broad national consensus supporting the current Israeli political position that the Old City of Jerusalem can never again be divided, which is at least some cause for commemoration and celebration by all those who support that view.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bar Mitzvah Experience at the Kotel

We attended a very special Bar Mitzvah yesterday – one of those events that reminds us how lucky we are to be in Israel – and have the chance to celebrate this type of occasion here.

The Bar Mitzvah was organized and run by Liran Levi – an Israeli with a company that specializes in conducting Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips to Jerusalem. Liran, who during his army service was in an elite combat unit, is also a trained cantor, tour guide and teacher. His told us that his goal (with the help of his four person crew) was to provide a unique, once in a lifetime experience – a day filled with happiness and excitement for the bar-mitzvah boy – and I have to say he met the goal.

We started out in Ra’anana – getting on a full sized bus around 8 a.m. The bus stopped at a few different points on the way to Jerusalem – picking up waiting friends and family members to join in the festivities. Though we had a bit of rain along the way – and some fairly nasty traffic jams – everyone was optimistic that things would still work out well.

Our first stop was Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam (“Oasis of Peace” – in Hebrew and Arabic) – a unique Israeli settlement – dedicated to the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Israel. People from different backgrounds live there ( We were there for a breakfast along the way – a fairly quick stop – but with enough time for bourekas, salad and coffee – before starting the real part of our trip.

As we left Neve Shalom, the festivities began. Liran and his crew turned on the speaker system – and pulled out Middle Eastern drums. For the next 40 minutes or so – the bus became a mixture of a party – and a Jerusalem tour. Liran gave explanations about the history of Jerusalem – from ancient times until today. He challenged the guests with interesting questions. But he also got people singing – and – yes – dancing on the bus. Sounds crazy - but it was a riot. He went up and down the aisles with the microphone finding people willing to take a turn singing. He had the bar mitzvah boy and his parents at the front of the bus jumping up and down (not during the sharp turns) – and he had the drummer banging away to keep the beat. Other guests were dancing in the aisles – as the bus drove up through the mountains towards Jerusalem.

As we got closer – the excitement level continued to increase. There was a unique sense of mission – and history. We were told all about the modern history of Jerusalem. Liran, of course, highlighted the fact that Jordan had held the Old City of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 – and Jews simply weren’t allowed to visit the Jewish religious sites during those years. Since 1967 – Israel has reunited Jerusalem – and ensured full access to the various religious sites – not only for Jews but for Christians and Muslims as well – to their holy sites.

The bus let us off at one of the gates to the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The crew pulled out the Shofars (rams horns), took the drums – and put up a mini Chuppah (overhead canopy) – held up by four guests over the bar mitzvah boy’s head – for a procession from the gate to the Kotel – the western wall. By now it was raining – but that didn’t really seem to bother anyone.

As we began walking through the old City, our guide led us in singing a whole series of songs about Jerusalem as well as other traditional Hebrew melodies. The amazing thing was that people who were walking by – entirely unrelated to the affair – joined us in singing and dancing. One small group of about 8 or 10 – joined our group and everyone started dancing a Hora. Some of the passers-by were religious – and probably Israelis. Others were clearly tourists – some secular Jews – some not Jewish. It didn’t matter. Liran invited people to join the dancing – and many did. This really got crazy when we ran into a Birthright type group – of about 100 or so – young adults – 18-23 – doing their own tour of Jerusalem. Liran went over to them and started signing – and invited them to join us. About ½ the group did – and before you know it – we had a huge group – singing and dancing together – even putting the Bar Mitzvah boy high up in the air.

We continued along towards the Kotel – stopping for explanations of different parts of the Old City.

By now it was still raining – so we had to have the Bar Mitzvah ceremony itself – in the enclosed area of the Western Wall – at the end of the Men’s section. We went inside – where there are a series of wooden Arks – housing a variety of Torah Scrolls – suitable for different types of congregations. The women’s section is up in the balcony – behind one-way glass. So the women could watch everything taking place – but the men couldn’t see the women. To ensure that they could hear everything – the women were all given wireless headphones – and the bar mitzvah boy was given a microphone. This is certainly not ideal for families used to attending Conservative or Reformed Synagogues – with mixed seating – but it is par for the course for an Orthodox Synagogue.

Since it was now afternoon (too late for the morning service – Shacharit) – there was a very abbreviated service – a chance for the Bar Mitzvah boy and his father to put on Tefillin – and the main event – the reading of the Torah by the Bar Mitzvah boy. The service was reasonably quick – the Bar Mitzvah boy completed the main part of the day – (that he had spent many months preparing for) and we even had time to squeeze in a full but very fast Minhah (afternoon) service.

After all of that – it was off to have lunch in Emek Refaim, Jeruselem – a new City area lined with galleries, cafes and upscale restaurants. We ate at La Bocca – a Kosher, Latin style restaurant. The food was terrific – a variety of chicken, steak and vegetable dishes – prepared and presented beautifully. Over lunch – the singing and dancing continued – led by Liran and his crew. The music was mostly Israeli religious music – with an Eastern flavour to it – though Liran apparently tries to cater the music to the style that the guests are likely to appreciate. The guests sang along – got up and danced – and generally seemed to have quite a good time. Liran continued to be full of energy – running around trying to involve as many people as he could – in singing, dancing – or at least hand clapping.

When lunch was over – it was time for the bus ride back – and most people were exhausted. But the event was really unique. With the bus rides – the explanations – the singing and dancing – it was really a quintessential Zionist and Jewish experience – with a pilgrimage- like feeling. Travelling together - to the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem – the Western Wall – for a day filled with prayer, song and happiness – and even involving complete strangers along the way in singing and dancing – well – it was quite an experience.