Shavuot 4:15 a.m : Breathing in the pre-dawn air, I join the flood of thousands of Jews on the darkened streets of Jerusalem hurrying to the Kotel, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.
Many are wearing all white on this holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, the symbolic wedding between God and the Jewish people.
We hear Hebrew, French, Russian and Spanish, but predominantly English as the crowd floods down Agron Street past the U.S Consulate building and its sleepy guards, before the crowd gathers force and takes over the Mamilla Mall area.
The Tower of David and Jaffa Gate rise in front of us, outlined by spotlights. It’s 4:35 a.m as we surge forward through Jaffa Gate and divide–some heading down the steps of the David Street shuk, the rest of us stepping off to the right, past the Tower of David to the St James Street turn-off that leads into the Jewish Quarter.
There are only four entryways into the Kotel plaza and they’re all completely overwhelmed by the number of people pressing to get in. There’s barely room to move as more and more people surge in from each of the four entry points.
I don’t go down to the Kotel plaza: I can’t get into prayer mode with pressing crowds and onlookers. I take up a position at the railing just in front of the gold menorah overlooking the plaza adjacent to the last flight of steps leading down to the Kotel. It’s the best place to take in the majestic transformation from night to dawn over the Temple Mount.
It takes about 15 minutes for the heavens to begin to change hues and turn slowly from an exquisite shade of midnight blue to a lighter, overcast blue in the coolish dawn. The floodlit ancient structures of eastern Jerusalem stand out in stark outlined contrast. Chattering starlings swoop around the walls and the voices of the throng rise in prayer.
Most of the crowd has pulled an all-nighter as they observe the centuries-old Kabbalistic custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night dedicated to Torah study that has become popular amongst Israelis of every religious persuasion.
On the eve of the holiday, commentators on Israel Radio remark on the phenomenon of secular Jews eager to take part in some kind of Torah learning on Shavuot. One daily paper has a tightly packed full page of venues where learning of all kinds is taking place all over Jerusalem. Many places are forced to turn people away for lack of space at their study sessions.
Coming barely a week after Jerusalem Day, when similar numbers filled the same plaza to celebrate the reunification of the city, the Shavuot early morning spectacle is yet another affirmation of the strength of the connection of the people to its roots.
5:15 a.m: I’m having trouble finding an empty seat at any shul in the Old City. Every synagogue is already packed as I make the mistake of lingering a few minutes too long to watch parents clutching the hands of their sleepy but awed kids, and listen to the expressions of amazement of American students as they round the stairs and absorb the sight of the largest gathering of Jews they’ve ever seen.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” exclaims one student with a tiny crochet kipa perched on his long straggly hair, as he stops to take in the scene below.
After dropping in at three shuls, I finally find a spot at Yeshivat HaKotel in front of a window overlooking the Temple Mount; a sliver of the packed men’s section of the Kotel is visible, as are the adjacent rooftops, each hosting its own minyan.
From my perch I can see down onto the Temple Mount–it’s completely empty. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews are packed into a plaza in front of the Kotel that’s only 187 feet long, on a holiday designated as one of the three pilgrimage festivals. Arab threats of violence keep Israeli authorities from allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount that is supposed to be under Israeli sovereignty.
Right before Shavuot, a legal adviser for the Women In Green organization sent a letter to the Israeli Police inquiring about the status of their request to hold their annual Tisha B’Av gathering on the Temple Mount this year.
“The rights to assembly, as well as equality, are constitutional rights that take the highest priority in any government,” he stated. “The Mount is part of the State of Israel and is not an ex-territorial area to which the law does not apply. The Supreme Court has reiterated this, more than once.”
“It is only fitting that the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, be a place which upholds the sanctity of human rights, and that the state fulfills its obligation to actualize this in every effective way possible,” he added.
Maybe next Shavuot Jews will finally have equal rights at our most important place and we won’t all be kvetched into that sliver of space in front of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount.