Seventy dry and cool degrees. Thousands of people from all over the world. Dozens of minyanim (groups of 10 or more men praying together). Jews of all stripes and colors. Furry hats, wool hats, top hats, no hats, knitted kippahs, leather kippahs, long beards, trimmed beards, peyot, cleanly shaven, t-shirts, shorts, army uniforms, suits, and ties. Friday nights at the Kotel, the Western Wall, there is room for everyone. Find a minyan to join, pray by yourself, or simply find a group to dance and sing with. All will welcome you. The experience is one and the same.
If you go once you will understand the beautiful chaos of prayer and unity. The mish-mosh of people. The incredible feeling when you run into a friend from Mexico, who you haven’t seen in years, or a family from Eli who you did not expect to see. You are amongst family.
You do not walk in unaccompanied. Your prayers do not walk out unaccompanied.
If you go every Friday, as I have for the past five weeks, it is amazing to see the diversity of groups who pass through Jerusalem as part of their summer trips – all of which stop at the Kotel on Friday night. To give you a proper taste, over the past few weeks I’ve seen and engaged with groups of U.S. Congressmen visiting Israel, a group of yeshiva boys from Tzfat on a Shabbaton in Jerusalem, countless Birthright trips, Maccabiah teams from Brazil and the United States, groups of Israeli soldiers on Shabbatons in Jerusalem, High School in Israel, families from my hometown in Miami, groups from London and Paris, and most memorably the little boy who tapped me on the knee and asked “Are you Yona’s daddy?! Where is Yona?” How did this little boy know I was Yona’s father…and more importantly: what did he want from my 6 year old daughter?! Jokes aside. It was an awesome moment. That is Friday night at the Kotel.
So it is for me. So it will be for my three daughters.
Last Friday, I had the good fortune to accompany a family friend, who is a new Member of the U.S. Congress from San Diego, Congressman Juan Vargas, to the Kotel for Kabalat Shabbat. Mr. Vargas, a devout Catholic, who woke up every morning during his trip to Israel at 5 am to join a 5:30 am service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre wanted to experience Friday night at the Kotel.
Immediately as we walked in to the plaza, the Congressman was welcomed into a swarm of 100 uniform clad and excited Israeli soldiers. Before he knew it, the Congressman found himself arm-in-arm, dancing and jumping in circles, with the soldiers singing at the top of their lungs “Am Israeli Chai”, the nation of Israel lives. When the Rabbi who was hosting the soldiers realized who the Congressman was, he stopped the singing and dancing to welcome the Congressman and the soldiers (and all of the people who joined the group), began signing, dancing and clapping to him to thank him for his support of the State of Israel. After this incredible experience Congressman Vargas joined our minyan as we said our Friday night prayers. He stood quietly and intently prayed to himself. Afterwards, the Congressman looked at me and said “I am blown away at the warmth and happiness of the Israeli people.”
Not something you hear so often.
As Congressman Steny Hoyer, who was leading a group of Democratic Congressmen on an AIPAC affiliated trip to Israel, said to me in a breakfast earlier last week: “Congressmen come to Israel with Israel in their minds, but leave with Israel in their hearts.”
At the conclusion of our prayers, I invited Congressman Vargas to sneak up to the Wall with me, as I do at the end of every Friday night service. Its not easy to find a spot up against the Wall on a Friday night between the thousands of people praying – let alone two. I shared with him that if you stand at the Wall amongst the chaos, close your eyes and relax, then the disorganized sounds of dozens of minyanim praying at their own pace and to their own melodies will suddenly morph into a symphony of prayer that makes its way up to Hashem in harmony.
After some maneuvering, we stood side-by-side and each closed our eyes with our hands resting on the stones which once surrounded the Holy Temple. We each come from extremely different backgrounds, belong to different religions, and have different responsibilities, problems and opportunities in our lives. Still, at the end of the day, we were two men standing at one of the holiest places in the world, praying for whatever we each pray for, and our prayers most certainly travelled up to Hashem together.
For me, standing at the Wall after bringing in the Shabbat in Jerusalem, is always a time of quiet reflection and personal prayers. I pray for the only things I am personally responsible for in my life: my wife, my three beautiful daughters, and myself. I thank G-d for everything I have, and I ask him for everything I need.
Amidst the chaos I find peace, and peace of mind.
This is the Kotel on a Friday night.
This is Jerusalem.
This is Israel.
Am Israel Chai.