My friends, Aharon and Jennifer Ungar, went on Aliyah about a year ago. Aharon has been keeping a journal of their experiences in Israel, which he sends to his friends. The following is from his latest journal entry, posted here with his permission:
Journal No. 24, August 11-12, 2005, Menachem Av 6-7, 5765
So far, I have seen two newspaper reports and three first-hand online accounts of last night’s Kotel Prayer Vigil/Rally and none of them even come close to truly expressing what it was like—and I hesitate to write my own because I know that I will fare no better, as it cannot be put into words. The personal tales that I have read were from people who never actually made it to the Kotel.
Jennifer, I, Nachum (15) and Yaakov (13), on the other hand, in the spirit of the nine days, decided to go in the early afternoon and take a tour of the extended Western and Southern Wall excavations and then go immediately over to the Kotel Plaza for the prayer rally.
Consequently, we were among the first 1,000-2,000 people to show up and were able to position ourselves in the shade near the front, just ahead of the building rooftop which we later realized was to serve as the podium for the VIPs and speakers. We even managed to get chairs which we soon relinquished to the elderly—until our son, Yaakov, fainted and got his back—but more about that later.
Truthfully, we have not gone to any anti-disengagement rallies. My reason was that I felt my learning and davening that the expulsion shouldn’t happen were more important. This is especially true in a country where the lawmakers are not answerable to the public, only to their parties.
Therefore, public opinion on this issue is irrelevant compared to Sharon’s ability to threaten and bribe the 120 people who hold seats in the Knesset and have a vote that matters. You might remember that Sharon actually LOST a referendum in his own party trying to get support for disengagement. It did not matter or change anything.
Therefore, I have always felt that getting out one’s frustrations by screaming support at a rally, although healthy, paled in comparison to the other things I was doing with my time.
But this rally was different from the start for two very important reasons.
First, it is the only event that I can remember in Israel that was co-sponsored and participated in by leaders of all of the religious communities, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chassidic and Modern Orthodox/Centrist/Mizrachi. This alone meant it was going to be unique in that Chazal (the Sages) have told us for 2,000 years that it is Jewish unity that will bring Moshiach.
Secondly, the focus of the event was to be prayer and beseeching of Hashem to annul the decree of the expulsion, not speeches.
(The only time I ever davened with 30,000 people was about 15 years ago in Madison Square Garden for Maariv after the Siyum haShas. It was one of the most memorable events of my life [imagine MSG packed to the rafters and you could hear a pin drop during Shemoneh Esrei…]. I have always wanted to replicate that feeling of davening together ish echad, b’lev echad [as one person, with one heart] with tens of thousands of Jews and this was my chance to be mekadesh shamayim b’rov am hadras Melech.)
When we got there we asked a number of people, including those people handing out the pages with the Tehillim (psalms) and other tefillos (prayers) that would be said, if they would be davening Mincha together. Nobody knew, so we decided to join one of the pick-up minyanim to daven. What started with about 12 people turned into a congregation of over 200 by the time we were finished.
Gradually people were filling up the plaza, but only in the half that had shade from the buildings and walls. After a while the entrance was packed with people and no one was moving, but nearly half the front plaza was still relatively empty because of the sun. When the program was about to begin, they announced that people should move in because the back plaza was beginning to fill up. Finally people moved into the sun and within 15 minutes the front plaza was completely filled and the back was too.
It took about another 45 minutes to an hour until all the paths and roadways leading to the plaza were packed. Then the hilltop in the back and all the rooftops got jammed as well. Towards the end of the program they announced that there were hundreds of thousands of people in the immediate area, maybe as many as half a million, that the jam packed crowds went back all the way to the Jaffa Gate (about a mile away) and that buses from all over the country were stopped throughout Jerusalem and backed up half way across the city because they could not even get near the Old City.
They estimated that nearly one million people were here or on their way here and could not get any closer.
Immediately the people around me began a discussion as to whether we should say the special bracha (blessing) for when 600,000 Jews gather together (…Chacham harazim). We could not see 600,000 people from where we stood, but if we were all connected through the roads and paths, would it qualify if we could not all see each other?
Also we could not be sure if indeed there really were 600,000. Often numbers of people in crowds are overestimated. So we decided to say it without Shem Hamalchus (Hashem’s Name). I took out of my wallet a card that I keep for these unanticipated opportunities that has a list of special brachos that one does not say too often, so I would not mispronounce a word, and happily said this bracha.
Even in its abbreviated form without Shem Hashem, it was an overwhelming feeling that I cannot describe to say a bracha that I have never had the chance to say before.
This was not a crowd that was schmoozing while those on the platform made boring and sometimes even self aggrandizing speeches like the Soviet Jewry rallies of the late 70’s. No, here, everybody had their hearts and souls in it. There was a collective yearning and crying out to HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One Blessed is He).
It was a prayer to annul the decree of the expulsion, a prayer for the safety of Jews in Israel and around the world, a prayer that Moshiach should finally come and rebuild the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple). Some were crying, some were standing still in meditation and thought, some were screaming out, but all were davening (praying).
Prayers were led by well known Rabbis, Rebbes, laymen and children. Tzedakah (charity) was given in abundance as beggars circulated the crowd. We were all from different backgrounds and dressed in different ways, but this time we were all their together.
Tehillim were said verse by verse. Others were recited low, but together. Selichot and bakashot were intoned with cries of Hashem, Hashem Kel Rachum v’Chanun, etc., Shema Yisroel and Hashem Hu haElokim. The feeling was indescribable.
And just as I was really getting into it, Yaakov says to me, “Abba, my stomach hurts and I feel like I’m going to faint.” Just as I am reaching for some water to give him, his eyes close, he turns a little pale and sinks to the ground.
People quickly move out of the way and I try to revive him. Others begin to help me. One person lifts his legs, presumably so the blood will flow back towards his head. Another pushes the water bottle out of my hand because I am about to splash some on his face. He thought I was going to pour it down his throat (maybe I was going to…I don’t remember…) and warns me not to give him water yet. Some water splashes on his face anyway and he comes to and has no idea what happened. Another person came over and began taking his pulse and announced it was okay.
Baruch Hashem, after a few minutes Yaakov was slowly able to get up and then we gave him a little water at a time. It turns out it was sun stroke and he didn’t drink enough during our tour of the excavations and subsequent standing at the Kotel. But as I said above, he at least got to sit for the next hour, unlike the rest of us. 15 minutes later some medics showed up. Somehow they had heard someone around here had fainted. By this time Yaakov was doing much better, but they checked his blood pressure anyway and agreed that he was fine.
While keeping an eye on Yaakov, I tried to refocus. When he fell, I tried to catch him and subsequently dropped my “program” that had all the prayers, it was now gone, so I had to look on with someone else when possible and do some of it by heart. Consequently, my mind wandered a bit as I looked around at the now completely packed plaza.
There were people everywhere one looked. I kept expecting to hear bugles announcing Moshiach’s arrival. Then all of a sudden, I heard bugles! I turned around and there, towards the front were two silver bugles sticking up from the crowd, being blown.
I, unfortunately, did not see Moshiach anywhere, though. But I did remember the Rambam saying that in a time of pain and peril when the community gathers together to beseech Hashem for relief and salvation, that the shofar and bugles should be blown.
As I listened to the bugles I looked heavenward half expecting the sky to open and the Third Beis Hamikdosh to descend among clouds of Glory. But, alas, no matter how hard I meditated on that happening, the blue skies remained serene.
When it was over I finally got my b’rov am hadras Melech opportunity, when over 250,000 people davened Maariv together. Awesome quiet for the Shemoneh Esrei and then awesome thunder for Y’hei shmai raboh…
And then it was over. We decided to wait a while before heading out to let some of the crowd thin. Twenty minutes later it made no difference since even though people were leaving the plaza, just as many people who had not made it to the Kotel area were coming in.
So we joined the slow, calm throngs who were making the reverse pilgrimage home. Indeed, a pilgrimage it was, as I then thought about the olei regel who would come to this place three times a year en masse. Was this what it was like?
Earlier in the day as I had climbed the steps against the Southern Wall and stood near the Chulda Gates through which millions of Jews had once walked on their thrice annual pilgrimage to the Beis Hamikdosh, I turned around and looked down at Silwan, an Arab neighborhood, once the home of Dovid HaMelech (King David) and at the surrounding hills. I imagined hundreds of thousands of Jews descending the hills and then making their way up Har HaMoriah (Mt. Moriah) to the Beis Hamikdosh.
And as I found myself among the crowds trying to leave and others just standing around trying to hold on to the moment, I said to myself this must have been what it was like.
It took us about an hour to make our way out of the Old City and back to our car and then another hour to get home. What a day…what an evening…one of the most amazing of my life.
When we were waiting for the elevator in our building, I turned to Yaakov (our 13 year old who is the least happy being here in Israel) and said “You know, if you lived in the States, you could never, ever have an experience like we just had, and I don’t mean the fainting part!” He smiled and answered, “yah, but we don’t live in the States, do we?” and I my eyes started to tear again.
Moving here has been hardest on the older children. Jennifer and I pray daily that one day they will understand better why we moved here, why we felt and feel it is so important and most of all, that they will agree and feel it was worth the effort. This experience was surely one big step in that direction.
For pictures of the Prayer Rally click here:
Shabbat Shalom and have an easy, but meaningful, fast.