A Prayer for the Reality of Jerusalem

Jerusalem“Through a historical catastrophe – the destruction of Jerusalem by the emperor of Rome – I was born in one of the cities in the diaspora. But I always deemed myself a child of Jerusalem, one who is in reality a native of Jerusalem.”
S.J. Agnon

It is often said that to know Jerusalem is to know its reality. Its complexity, its exuberance, its narrow pathways and its wide-open conflicts are so representative of the stark realities of our world. Space and time seem excruciatingly measured and eternally unsettled all at once. It is a place where the pride of ownership and the ambition to acquire more – whether it is knowledge, power or land – are locked in an endless cycle of rage, resolve and reflection.

Jerusalem highlights the best and worst of reality: its ancient history and its contemporary struggles serve as a gateway through which we experience the passion of its inhabitants and of multi-faceted societies around the world.

This summer, I truly fell in love with Jerusalem. While the city has never been strange to me, this was the first time I didn’t feel like a stranger walking its streets. I met shopkeepers in all quarters of the city, I visited the homes of my friends (both Israeli and Palestinian), and I celebrated holidays (both Jewish and Muslim). I felt comfortable in unfamiliar places—and sometimes uncomfortable in familiar places – but most of all, I began to feel Jerusalem becoming a part of me, my home away from home.

At home, you dance, you cry, you celebrate and you mourn. At home, you struggle to be better, and you rest when that struggle becomes too much. And then you wake up, renewed, and begin again.

This summer, we did all of that. We mourned Shira Banki, a young woman attacked at a parade celebrating equality and acceptance. We cried over innocent Palestinian children slain in retribution. But we also rejoiced, listened to sacred music and danced until the sunrise. We said our slichot and we vowed to be better. We bowed our heads at the Western Wall and we sang songs in the streets.

But the fate that befell Shira Banki is has now befallen dozens more, and no amount of seasonal rain can wash away the anxiety on the streets of Jerusalem. Back again in the city that I love, it is hard not to feel the weight its residents’ concern, despite their abundant resilience and resolve. Shalmith Haraven once called Jerusalem the “city of many days.” But to really know the Jerusalem of today, you must also know also it as the city of many nights. Nights that are far too quiet and permeated with a trepidation that pierces the very soul of what Jerusalem represents.

So what can we do?

First, to reunite Jerusalem with its purpose as a bastion for all people, those nights must end and give way to creation, to renewal. Its artists, its activists, its entrepreneurs – the passionate young innovators that comprise the spirit of the city – must come together in devotion to and in defense of a vibrant Jerusalem grounded in respect, tolerance and cultural appreciation.

We should find ways to support Jerusalem-based initiatives like New Spirit, an organization that helps to not only bring new energy to Jerusalem through its young people, but to bring young people themselves to the city; and the Jerusalem Season of Culture, a dynamic event series that utilizes art, music, dance and theater to promote unity and ignite change. These projects, like so many others, help build up Jerusalem not from the stones of its quarries, but from the spirit of its residents.

Second, we should resolve to return to Jerusalem, in one way or another. To bring ourselves to this place that is ours, whether by birth or by mindset. Whether by walking its streets or sharing its stories, all of us have the ability to shape the reality of Jerusalem through our actions and our words. But by visiting and bringing visibility to the best of what Jerusalem has to offer, we can help our city again walk boldly towards the future, not listlessly behind its gates.

Finally, we can do what so many have done for generations upon generations: we can face Jerusalem and pray for its safety and serenity. So, in that spirit, and to our home away from home, I offer a small prayer in the hope that we all find words we can share about this city we love.

Jerusalem, a place beyond place, a land beyond lands. May your stones may be used only for building futures, not for sharpening knives. May your streets be meant for parades of joy, not processions of death. May your beckoning voices call for prayer, not mourning. May your reality be one of light, not darkness. And may you always be a city of children who know more about love then hate.

And let us all say: Amen.

Seth Cohen is Director of Network Initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.