Photo from zalmi.blogspot.com
Today is Yom Yerushalayim, also known as Jerusalem Day. Yom Yerushalyim commemorates Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967. This day begins on the 28th day of the month of Iyyar in the Hebrew calendar. This date is significant in many ways, but one of the most important is the reclaiming of the Kotel for the Jewish people.
The Kotel has been in the news a lot lately because of the Women of the Wall controversy. The issue has spread from women fighting for the right to wear tallisim, tefillin, and sing aloud at the Kotel, to the right of Jews of every denomination to be able to pray there in the custom that they prefer – and not be limited by the local orthodox custom.
I personally believe that for a universal Jewish symbol, such as the Kotel, there is no such thing as a “local custom.” Just because there are Jews that live in close proximity to the Kotel, and there are Jews that are employed by the Kotel landmark, does not mean that their customs take precedence over another Jew’s from Australia, Denmark, the United States, or anywhere else in the world. The Kotel belongs to every Jew, and every Jew has the right to feel at home there.
When I was “coming up” in the orthodox world, I met quite a few baalei teshuvahs who had spent time in Israel. This was in the 1990s. Many of them mentioned that they began their journey through an orthodox person coming up to them at the Kotel and asking if they needed help with the davening, or helping them to put on tefillin, or asking them if they had a place for shabbos. The Kotel was used as a kiruv opportunity for many of the “locals” who lived and taught nearby. What the heck happened?
How have relations deteriorated between the orthodox and the secular to the point where both sides see the other as enemies? Both sides can only lose by cutting off the other. How is it that a religion that prides itself on valuing the neshama (soul) over the guf (body) is so judgmental about outer appearances? Why is a man not wearing a kippah or a woman wearing pants automatically dismissed as a lost cause? Doesn’t someone not wearing a frum uniform still have a Jewish soul? Aren’t they still a life put here on earth by Hashem?
I can tell you that this kind of dismissal hurts first hand. I remember when I first joined my orthodox community and was “shul hopping.” I was trying to find a congregation where I would feel comfortable as a newbie to the orthodox world. Being a rather shy person who doesn’t like large crowds, I first went looking at some of the smaller congregations in my area. I found one synagogue that didn’t have a lot of young people, but was quaint and cozy, and the davening didn’t go so fast that I couldn’t keep up. I went there for a month or two, until one day, there was an onsite shul barbecue.
The barbecue was on a Sunday, the day I normally spent time with my parents. I invited them to come along, excited to introduce them to my new spiritual stomping grounds. I felt a little bit anxious, because my parents were not quite as excited about my new found religious zeal as I was. I was hoping that the small size of the group and the fact that many of the congregants were in their age bracket would help make them feel at home.
Looking back, I know that we stood out by our mode of dress. My father did not wear a kippah (he may have taken one from the kippah bin in the lobby after arriving), my mother wore slacks and short sleeves, and neither she nor I were covering our hair. Although I had been davening there for a some weeks, I really hadn’t gotten to know the majority of the congregants beyond saying, “Good shabbos.” We did get some curious looks at the food booths, as if to say, “How did they find their way here?’
I found the inner sanctuary to be beautiful, and knew that my mother would appreciate seeing the inside. I asked her to come indoors with me so that I could show her the shul. We went inside and as I opened the door to the women’s section, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned around to find an annoyed middle-aged woman staring us down.
This “keeper of the crypt” informed me that no one was allowed inside the building at this time. I tried to explain that I simply wanted to show my mother the beautiful interior of the shul. She reiterated that “they” didn’t want people “running around” inside the building and making a mess during the barbeque. Indignant, I took my mother’s hand and we marched away out of the building, as the woman stood like a sentry blocking the door to the beis knesset.
I believe that if my mother and I had been dressed in below the knee skirts, long sleeves, and wigs it would not have been a problem if we wanted to take a peek inside the shul. It was the fact that we were obvious outsiders, and didn’t belong, that was the real problem. However, I did belong more than she knew, as one of my husband’s relatives was actually a board member of the shul. My husband let his relative know what happened, and he gave her a call. To be fair, she left an apologetic message on my answering machine. But, being an immature person in my early twenties, I chose to ignore the call instead of explaining why her attitude had been so hurtful.
You see, I was so hoping to make a positive impression on my non-frum parents. I wanted them to see how non-judgmental and welcoming the orthodox community could be. I was not off to an auspicious start.
You never know what spark lies within someone. Fortunately, I was already committed to a life of torah observance, and I wasn’t going to let one Debbie Downer get in the way of my goals. However, my parents, not so much. It isn’t that this one woman caused them not to be religious. That decision was due to many factors that took place mostly before I was even born. It’s that this woman could have made a possible difference in causing them to become religious. At the very least, she could have made a kiddush Hashem and left them with a positive impression of religious Jews. One positive interaction is all it takes.
This to me, is the tragedy of the Kotel controversy. How many opportunities to turn Jews onto Judaism have been missed? How many Jews have come to their homeland, only to be made to feel like they don’t belong? Is the kiruv boom over, and a new wariness of secular Jews taken over? It’s ironic that this is all coming to a head at the holiest Jewish site in the world. Can we really expect the Beis Hamikdosh to be rebuilt under this growing sinas chinam (baseless hatred)? Yom Yerushalayim is a day of unity and celebration for every Jew. Those of us who are outwardly religious need to be aware of the power we hold in our hands – the power to turn a spark into a bright flame or the power to extinguish that spark forever.