(Article was written August 6, 2005, a week before the evacuation and dismantlement of Gush Katif, and appeared in dozens of media outlets. Posted today to commemorate 6 years since the destruction of Gush Katif) Today’s scheduled anti-disengagement activity was a prayer service at the Kotel. I dashed home early from work to don an orange shirt, grab a few of my kids and go. This was no ordinary prayer service. In my life I have never seen anything like tonight. Rallies and special prayer events filled with orange-clad people (orange being the symbol of the resistance) have become a regular occurrence in Israel as the dreaded “disengagement” day rapidly approaches; the day that will pit Jew against Jew in the unfathomable event of expulsion and eviction of 10,000 people from their homes in Gush Katif and parts of Samaria. Tonight’s planned prayer rally at the Western Wall was expected to be no different; but it was. Very different.
Despite recommendations to take public transportation, I took 14 year-old Lexi, 11 year-old Eitan and 2 year-old Yaakov in my big, old minivan and started heading toward the Old City of Jerusalem at 6PM. It normally takes 20 minutes to get there from our home in Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion, and the rally was called for 6PM. For 15 minutes we drove as we usually would. As we got within 2 miles of the Old City the traffic practically came to a halt. Though we were quite far from our destination, we saw many people with various orange-colored garments and ribbons on them already parked and walking in the general direction of the Old City. Something unusual indeed was going on.
Miraculously, I thought of a little-used side road that not many others seemed to have thought of and we were able to park there; a 15 minute walk to the Kotel (Western Wall) on a normal day. We bounced poor Yaakov in his stroller up and down many rocky sets of stairs on our way down the valley, then up and into the Old City as many other people were streaming both in and out. We wondered, in fact, how many people would be inside if there were already people leaving. We needn’t have wondered.
As we entered through the Zion gate on the southwestern side of the Old City, we began merging with many others who had entered through other points. We elected to walk down the road used by vehicles that leads directly to the Kotel plaza to avoid the hassle of the stroller with even further sets of stairs. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by densely packed people heading toward the Kotel, and becoming denser and denser with every step. A woman saw me with Yaakov and beckoned toward a little side alley that she recommended we go down to remove Yaakov from the “hazardous” crowd — (In Israel there is such a close and connected feeling, even among strangers, that everyone thinks they are your mother and gives you advice…) We politely listened but of course we didn’t need her advice; after all, we were finally at the point that we could see the Kotel! It was astonishing! I had never seen the huge Kotel plaza completely filled with people. At capacity! What was more astounding was that every single space from the plaza up the road, around several bends to where we were standing, where the Kotel was merely in sight and nowhere near, – was filled to capacity! As the massive human tide was making its way toward the Kotel with little hope of actually getting there, I suddenly realized that the Israeli woman with the advice knew what she was talking about!
I grabbed the kids and we quickly ducked into the back alley. The only way through was UP a fire escape staircase. So we bounced the stroller up the stairs, and found ourselves in a side street in the Jewish quarter—amongst thousands of people! We were able to get through, so we carried on in the general direction of the Kotel. We thought that, maybe, only that first street had been crowded and other passages would be easier to get through… but that was not to be the case. Every street in the entire Old City was jam packed with people making their way to the Kotel.
For a split second I was disappointed as it seemed that I would probably not be making it down there after all our efforts. Then I came to my senses and realized that this was not a personal event. I can go to the Kotel any time I want to. Tonight I didn’t need to. For we were like one with all of our brothers and sisters who made their way from far and wide to pray together this one remarkable evening. Every man, woman and child, Haredi, modern Orthodox, secular; we were all there together. If anyone made it all the way to the Wall, then we ALL made it to the Wall.
In fact, as I later found out, the 250,000 people physically present were not the only ones participating. Many thousands of people were jamming the internet trying to watch the live feed at sites such as www.thewall.org. What was so incredibly unusual about tonight’s event? It was truly uniting. The leading rabbis from all sectors of religious Judaism were sponsoring and promoting the event. This was a rare occasion indeed.
When we came to the conclusion that we were not going to make it down to the Kotel, we needed to come up with Plan B. I suddenly remembered that tucked into a little alley was the rooftop balcony of Isralight, a Jewish outreach organization. We dashed down the alley, found the narrow metal staircase leading up to the roof, but the gate was locked. Okay, maybe this wasn’t the perfect thing to do, but we just had to get up there! Eitan scrambled over first, then Lexi, I handed her Yaakov, and then I climbed over as well. We were startled to find that we were hardly original. In fact I was rather amazed to discover a fairly old woman among the trespassers and Lexi and I had a little chuckle imagining how she climbed over the fence. A small crowd had gathered on the Isralight roof, but it was nothing like what was down below. In fact, I had no idea what really was down below until we were there on top.
Lexi was the first to hop up on the highest point there and look down. She gasped at what she saw. There were people on every roof, in every alley, on every street; it was unbelievable!! And the masses of people at the Western Wall plaza! If you have never been to the Kotel, it is something like a big, outdoor synagogue, except that every little group holds its own, sometimes competing, prayer services. Not tonight. Tonight, all of those thousands upon thousands of people prayed as one. I cried and sang along as all those people sang the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, Our King) in unison, amplified by some massive speaker system. Anyone who has ever been to a Jewish town knows that the only thing people need to start a synagogue is another synagogue to break away from. The tiniest differences among people and suddenly there is a whole new congregation. But here there were people who were about as different as you can get, black coats with long beards, hippie-types, the fashion conscious; knitted kippahs, no kippahs, big black kippahs; yet here they all were praying, together, in perfect unison, at the holiest site in the world.
I was overwhelmed and overjoyed at the unity. A unity that I hope we can replicate in the coming, painful weeks.