Steven Stark Lowenstein

Up to Jerusalem

In May of 1985, just before Shavuot, I was 21 years old and about to wrap up my time as a student abroad in Israel.

In my Essence of Judaism class, taught by Rabbi Aaron Kirshenbaum at the Tel Aviv University, I learned that our ancestors would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. “When the Temple stood in Jerusalem all males 13 and above had to appear before the Lord for the three festivals. They should not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you.” Exodus 23:14-17, 34:23-24, Deuteronomy 16:16

I had just spent the last 10 months living in Israel trying to make sense of the country and my experiences there. A Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Could this be what I needed to do to solidify my bond with the land and people of Israel? Was this my way to appear before God?

So, with a few friends to send me off, I set off by foot from the old Tel Aviv Train Station late in the afternoon on a Wednesday to begin my trek up to Jerusalem. I followed the train tracks towards Ben Gurion Airport and slept for a few hours in the old arrivals terminal. After refilling my water bottles, I departed at the first morning light, the sun slowly rising hills in the distance. My Hebrew mix tapes, played on my Sony Walkman, and the Voice of Peace radio station were my entertainment and motivation. Water, candy bars, cucumbers and hummus filled by backpack.

My mind was spinning with stories, thoughts, insights, and memories of what this 10-month experience and country would mean to me for the rest of my life. There I was, walking in the footsteps of my ancestors. By the heat of the early afternoon, I was back along old Route 1 between the train tracks and the highway, making my way through the burned-out convoys scattered along the road. Friends from Hebrew University made a point to tell me that they saw me walking from the 405 Egged bus window. Several people pointed out the window and laughed. Look at that crazy guy walking to Jerusalem.

By late afternoon I was struggling up and down the many hills that lead to Jerusalem. The sun set as I approached the outskirts of Jerusalem and by 9:00 pm I made my way past the flowers that say “Welcome,” around the Central Bus Station, through Zion Square and into the Jaffa Gate. I made it, my feet were inside the Gate, but I couldn’t stop there. I had to get as close to the Temple as possible, so I wandered through the Old City alleyways, towards the Western Wall. I cried as I walked up to the wall and placed my hand upon it. I felt that Jerusalem was now forever etched in my heart and my soul. Neither my Soul nor my Soles would ever be the same.

Even though it is an obligation in the Torah to stay the first night in Jerusalem after arrival, I did not. I made my way back to the shared taxi stand on Jaffa Road to return to my friends in Tel Aviv for our final Shabbat and Shavuot before traveling Europe and returning home after our junior year abroad.

A few days later we all left Israel, but Israel has never left me. So much has changed in Israel and in me except for my forever connection to Jerusalem. I’m now 60 years old. I’m not sure I could still do that walk but it might be a fun thing to attempt NEXT YEAR on its 40th anniversary. Every year as I prepare for Shavuot, I often think about those 60 kilometers that I walked on foot up to Jerusalem, their profound impact and lasting imprint. That was the year that I truly appeared before God and literally prayed not just with my two feet but with my whole being. That was the moment that I received Torah. May this Shavuot be filled with meaningful and memorable Torah.

About the Author
Ordained by HUC-JIR in 1995, Rabbi Stark Lowenstein has been a Rabbi in Chicago for 29 years the last 22 at Am Shalom in Glencoe, illinois. He is the author of For the Love of Being Jewish and For the Love of Israel.
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