In my opening speech to my Birthright participants, I always mention the quote of Rabbi Nachman from Breslav: “Everybody has his/her own special place in the Land of Israel.” I teach that we are on an odyssey following our ancestor’s footsteps through the length and breadth of our homeland in order to fulfill the first commandment the first Jew received; Lech L’cha! (“you go”) and explore the land. We must seek and search for what will help us to forge a meaningful connection to our heritage, people and land.
I never know when, or if, their personal epiphany will happen. For some the “moment” happens at the Kotel (Western Wall), for others in the serenity of the desert, and still for others at a Kosher McDonalds. Yet I have never before, until my most recent group, AI 424 CYJ, had such an overwhelming and intense collective moment at the Kotel.
We were halfway through our tour having travelled throughout the north of Israel and spent a day in Tel Aviv with the eight Mifgash soldiers when we finally ascended to the Old City of Jerusalem. Before we went down to the Wall I took them to Batei Machseh Square in the Jewish Quarter where I read the quote carved into the stone on the wall from the book of Zechariah 8: 4-5,
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Old men and old women shall once again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.’”
All around us we saw the prophesy come alive as the streets of the city were indeed full of boys and girls playing! At that same place we welcomed some of our brothers and sisters into our group by having a symbolic mass bar/bat Mitzvah ceremony for those participants who had requested one. Some had not celebrated this important Jewish milestone and others wanted to reconfirm their commitment to the Jewish people. People, who had been strangers less than a week previously, spoke with deep emotion and indeed with profoundly personal antidotes to explain why at this time and place in their lives they felt the urge to commemorate this moment. After the emotionally charged ceremony we went down to the spiritual center of the Jewish people.
The Wall and plaza are the focus of three circles of Jewish spiritual energy. Throughout the world Jews pray to Israel. In Israel they pray toward Jerusalem and in Jerusalem itself to the site of the Temple Mount. Here we were, standing in the middle of this vortex. There were Jews of all types roaming around, IDF soldiers, tourists, Ultra-Orthodox, secular etc. Everyone was focusing on what we all had in common. We were Jews at our holiest place in our holiest city on the holiest day of the week collectively welcoming in the Shabbat Bride.
One of the participants, Yuriy, described the moment:
“The climax of the night (and the trip for me) was my experience at the Kotel. The sight of the wall, the feel of the stone, the sound of prayer and the Jewish community rejoicing flooded my senses and gave me a sense of satisfaction and wholeness that I had never before experienced in my life. Now I was a REAL Jew. If only briefly, I felt my life to be in perfect harmony.”
Some people in our group prayed, others wondered around and absorbed it all and still others put notes in the Wall. At the conclusion the group, both IDF soldiers and Americans spontaneously formed a line in front of the wall, linked arms and started to sing gently at first, then building in intensity and then a remarkable thing happened. A few individuals started to cry and then it spread right along the line.
Another one of the participants, Alexa, recalled:
“It was incredible for me to see how much love we shared as a group, no matter our background, but just because of the simple fact that we were all Jewish. That moment is something I will remember forever.”
That evening another one of our group members told me that, despite the fact that she had little formal Jewish education, and had not really connected to any of the prayers until then, that the group singing Jewish melodies in front of the Kotel had awakened some deep and dormant part of her Jewish soul and that she had indeed found her special place. It was her “Birthright Moment.”