After a much-needed sleep, we were up early to meet our Israeli soldiers! I’d heard from many people that the soldiers would play an integral, meaningful part in our experience, and I can’t put into words a truer statement. Upon shaking hands and introducing ourselves, we sat outside the walls of the Old City and played yet another round of icebreakers. Everyone seemed to click pretty quickly. We entered the Old City – it was so pristine, so lovely, so preserved. We walked through the Jewish Quarter while learning about the various religious sects of Jerusalem. We were led past the Statue of King David, down the Cardo Maximus, and past Huvra Synagogue, amongst many other sites. Our ultimate destination was the Kotel, the Western Wall.
In preparation for our arrival at the Wall, our group was told to separate into people who have visited the Kotel before, and people who hadn’t. Obviously, David and I hadn’t. We were told to close our eyes, and were guided to a lookout above the Kotel by those who had been. When we opened our eyes, we were looking at the Western Wall, unobstructed, from a birds-eye view; I got chills thinking about the history that stood before me.
It was stunningly pictured against a crystal blue sky, with Temple Mount visible behind it. I couldn’t believe that we were actually there. Approaching the Wall was surreal; I’d written my prayer the night before so that I could take everything in while I was there. The female side of the wall (there is a barrier dividing the men and the women) was crowded, and many were visibly moved to tears while praying at the wall. I went up to the Wall, put my prayer in a tiny crack, and stood back to reflect.
A bit of history: Despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the four walls surrounding Temple Mount remained undamaged. What makes the Western Wall so important, as opposed to the other three remaining walls, is the fact that it is the closest to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Due to this, the Wall has become a place of prayer and yearning for people around the world, specifically for the Jews. Many know of the tensions throughout Israel, and most of the tensions are exhibited at the Western Wall. Eruption of violence at the Wall is and has been common, from before the declaration of Israel as a country to today. This we witnessed firsthand.
After going through the archeological museum next to the Western Wall, we stood around our guide, Itay, and listened as he blasted “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. It was meant as a segue into a group discussion about Jewish traditions within our families. We separated into groups, chatted some, then we heard something that sounded like an explosion. I thought nothing of it. Then we thought we heard gunshots. Still tried to ignore it. Another explosion. More gunshots. But, what was happening? It sounded so close. We all gathered around as a group. Sirens. But really, what was happening? We were safe, but confused. We left the area beside the Wall and moved onto our next destination. We found out later that night that smoke bombs were dropped and rubber bullets fired in response to Muslims dropping rocks on people praying at the Western Wall.
For lunch, we headed to Mahane Yehuda, one of the markets in Jerusalem. It was jam-packed and quite chaotic, but we were on a search for our first schwarma! At last we found a place, and it was amazingly full of flavor.
We had an early night, as it was the beginning of Shabbat. We went down to the candle lighting ceremony, said a prayer, and lit a candle. At some point in the evening, we were informed that three teenagers were kidnapped just south of Jerusalem that day; supposedly Hamas was behind the kidnapping, but there was no concrete evidence. Either which way, it was devastating news and we were praying for their safe return.
It ended up being a late night, as we bonded with the Israelis for the first time in the lobby of our hotel. From that moment, we knew that it’d be a great few days together.
The following day was more relaxed due to Shabbat. We slept in, ate breakfast, then had a fascinating activity. We sat in groups – each group had an Israeli – and discussed various dilemmas (inter-religious marriages, circumcision, trading 1 soldier for 1000 prisoners, the army requirement, etc.). It was so interesting to hear the views of an American on these subject matters versus the views of an Israeli. The rest of the afternoon we laid in the sun by the pool and walked around to see the government buildings. Upon arriving back at the hotel, we gathered into a room for a political seminar on the situation in Israel and the Middle East. Despite being exhausted, Sheldon Shulman, our guest speaker, was captivating. He discussed at large Israel’s relationship with Palestine and Iran. It was truly an intriguing and terrifying discussion. Sheldon spoke so carefully and grabbed our attention within seconds. If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend hearing him speak.
After dinner, we concluded Shabbat with the Havdallah Ceremony outside. I was chosen to hold the glass of wine in the center, even though I was wearing white I managed not to spill it all over myself! We sang, danced, and hugged. Somehow we ended up in a group hug, which turned into a sing-a-long to Seven Nation Army. Don’t ask me… But, after hugging every person, it actually felt like we were one big Jewish family. We returned back to the hotel for a discussion with Rabbi Eli, discussing the implications of the Holocaust and how it affects each of us.