By Rabbi Arnold Bender
What do you see and feel when you hear or read the words “The Kotel” or “the Western Wall?” Do you envision a holy site? What comes to your mind? Do you imagine a place of peace and reconciliation? Do you picture a place of unification and integration? Or, instead, is the Kotel a wall that reminds you of a time of destruction, baseless hatred and the site of our expulsion?
The Kotel/Western Wall has been a topic of great controversy recently. It is a current subject that has divided Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. People have reacted with “anger and dismay.” Our already divided political parties have used this controversy to find another reason to clash with one another. The Ultra-Orthodox against the Conservative and Reform Movements. The Haredim against the Zionist Modern Orthodox. Who is a Jew? Where can one pray? How can one pray? All of these elements of division around a wall?! Yet, I believe that is still possible to look at the Kotel in a constructive and optimistic fashion – and here are just a few of the reasons.
I have had the honor, many times, to officiate at a variety of festive occasions at the Kotel: In addition to the expected bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, I have also presided over adult bar and bat mitzvah and renewal of vows ceremonies for couples who decided to come to Israel to celebrate their 20th, 25th 45th and even on one occasion, their golden wedding anniversary.
Please note that when I write “Kotel” I do not make a distinction between the “traditional” Western Wall site and the area known as Robinson’s Arch (i.e. Ezrat Yisrael). Because this is really one Wall which extends for approximately 480 meters from its southwest corner adjacent to the Dung Gate to the northwest corner closest to the Damascus Gate. At least it was one wall when it was built. Now, to walk the 480 meters, one must pay to walk through an archaeological site, the Davidson Center, where the wall is actually cordoned off, exit the site to walk along a stone path, pass through metal detectors and a security barrier, skip over either the men’s or women’s section of the “separated” area and then, to see the remaining 350 meters, pay another entrance fee to experience the Wall underground.
By now, by my referring to my “officiating” at religious ceremonies, you may have surmised that I am a rabbi. By my referring to my officiating at bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, you may have concluded that I am a member of one of the pluralistic Movements. That is, indeed, true. I am a Masorti rabbi who studied at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The focal point of this article is to include you in some of my most recent moving experiences which, despite all that we read and hear about from the media, there are still hundreds of families, yes, thousands of people who are attracted to celebrate their s’machot in Israel and at the Kotel, in Israel, in Jerusalem – the center of Jewish life.
The families that come to Israel to celebrate their life cycle events come from varying backgrounds. There are those whose children learn in Jewish day schools and there are others who are unfamiliar with the siddur and the liturgy and thus need a transliteration of the Torah blessings. There are boys and girls who read Torah accurately and proficiently using the correct tropes and there are those who simply read without chanting the portion. While one may view this as a shortcoming, for the child, it was a great accomplishment and one must admire his or her achievement.
I recall the service that I led when the father, with tears rolling down his eyes, recited the Torah blessings for his son. He did this because, even though his son was aware of his surroundings and all that transpired, the boy had never spoken a word in his life. Still, the young man was called up to the Torah for the aliyah and received a certificate from the Ministry of Tourism … and a hug from me. The father’s blessing for him: One day I pray that I will hear your voice recite the Torah blessings. One thing that I learned as a rabbi, not necessarily in my academic studies, was when to be silent. I skipped the D’var Torah that morning and grabbed a handful of tissues like everyone else.
On another occasion, I had asked if the parents would like to say something to their two sons, both in their mid-20s, who had come to Israel to celebrate their bar mitzvahs. The father explained in his heartfelt speech that when the older boy was 13, he didn’t think that a bar mitzvah was important. A few years later, after expressing remorse and regret, he and his wife decided that it would not be fair to have a bar mitzvah for the 2nd boy after not having a bar mitzvah for the older child.
Years later, the idea struck the parents to hold a joint bar mitzvah ceremony in Israel! There were just 5 of us at the service but both boys and the parents were called up to the Torah – a first for two sons – and the parents too. At the end of the “formalities,” with the father explaining his decisions aloud to his sons for the first time, I ended up in the middle of a huddle (or perhaps, puddle) with everyone wiping their eyes with their sleeves. Again, I used my discretion not to speak.
I have been careful in not using the word “service” when writing and have used, instead the word “ceremony.” While there are families who come prepared with tallit and tefillin and make the point that every hymn, prayer and psalm must be recited, the majority of families do not come with the same the Hebraic and liturgical skills and prefer an abbreviated service that includes the singing of familiar liturgical pieces and explanations.
To be sure, there are two prayers that I always include (in addition to the Shma and the Amidah), and they are Psalm 150, the last psalm in the Book of Psalms and “Ahava Rabba.” Why this psalm and this prayer? Psalm 150 talks about the pageantry of the Levites playing instruments (clashing cymbals, the blowing of trumpets and the shofar) and dancing as they lead the people up to the Temple Mount on its way to the Temple. For anyone who has been in the Old City on a Monday or Thursday, one cannot help but hear the drummers leading people to the Kotel or the Ezrat Yisrael prayer sections. I then point out the obvious connection between what occurred 3,000 years ago, when the Temple stood, and what happens today. Jewish history has come alive!
And “Ahava Rabbah? V’ha-ve-ay-new l’shalom may arba kanfote haaretz” – bring us together from the four corners of the earth in peace and safety to the land of Israel. While Jews may live in South Korea (as did this particular Israeli family that returned home to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah), Los Angeles, Toronto, Atlanta or New York, I ask the boys – and girls – to gather the tsitit (fringes) on their new tallit symbolizing Jews coming from the four corners of the earth to the home of the Jewish people.
Like many of my colleagues, I make it a point to meet with the celebrating family a night or two before the service. This meeting gives us an opportunity to get acquainted and to also discuss any last minute service details. Recently, I officiated at a bar mitzvah service for an Israeli boy. When we reached the Torah reading I asked the mother, “Who would you like to call up for the first aliyah?” She replied, “My father. Can you call him up as a bar mitzvah?” “Of course but why? She then explained he was a Holocaust survivor and never had a bar mitzvah. I called the grandfather, who was seated in a wheelchair, to the Torah. Crying he says, “I will walk up to the Torah.” With the assistance of his children, he stood alongside his grandson who read the Torah portion. Need I say there was not a dry eye in the house!
One more grandfather-grandson story: In this story, the grandfather told me that he promised himself that when his first grandson was 13, he would bring the family to Israel to celebrate a joint bar mitzvah. He further explained that he grew up in Chicago during the Depression and his parents couldn’t afford the $5 to become members of the local synagogue and without paying membership, the synagogue would not “bar mitzvah” you. He told me that between flights, hotels, restaurants, tour guides and everything else included in a family trip to Israel, that he spent thousands of dollars. He concluded by saying “this is the best money I have ever spent in my life.”
Finally, upon reaching the end of the service, I asked the participants to turn to Adon Olam. The North American family, that was on temporary assignment and living in Japan, asked if we can sing “Adon Olam” to the “Japanese tune.” I, of course, agreed but was, understandably, quite intrigued. What is the Japanese tune to Adon Olam? At this point the family started singing Adon Olam to the well-known Uzi Hitman tune.
Adon Olam, Master of the World, bring peace and happiness to your Wall – all 480 meters!
Arnold Bender is Rabbi at Kehillat Yaar, Ramot, Jerusalem. He is a graduate of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies and a Masorti rabbi.