Today marks day 7 in our journey! Sitting here in the lobby of our Jerusalem hotel recounting the day’s events, I am grateful that we have all come to know each other so much better through our shared experiences and also for the care Rabbi Grushcow and our guide, Noam, have taken in shepherding us on this journey.
The complex interplay of cultural, religious and political forces in Israel seems to come into sharper focus here in Jerusalem. During our early morning wait at the security checkpoint at Temple Mount, Noam facilitated an impromptu discussion with Israeli (Srugim) Jews, originally from Canada and the United States, waiting with us. These chance encounters throughout our trip have really helped me to connect with the wide diversity of viewpoints in Israel and in this case, to better understand why some Jews are still driven to visit Temple Mount.
Temple Mount was beautiful and was a great starting place to understand why this location is so sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. However, my enjoyment was tainted by the need for the women in our group to don head coverings. This and the strict control on religious activity was a reminder of the reality of tensions which still exist here.
After a brief breakfast, we visited Yad Lakashish, an organization that focuses on preserving the independence and well being of the elderly in Jerusalem. Here we met many wonderful men and women who produce beautiful Judaica. I was struck by how this organization gave such happiness and purpose to the elderly.
We then travelled to the Mount of Olives, where the oldest, ancient, still active cemetery in the world is found. This was our group’s second visit here, but today we were there to accompany Gail in locating the grave of her great-great grandfather. With some help from Aaron, a Mount of Olives staff member, we witnessed the moment his grave was located, which for me was electrifying. It was an honour and privilege to be present while Gail recounted her great-great grandfather’s story and to participate in Kaddish following the Rabbi’s blessing; a very profound moment for us all, I think.
Our next stop in Jerusalem was the Jewish Quarter in the Old City to visit the Kotel. The egalitarian portion of the wall was closed for repairs so we could only access the “traditional” side where men and women are still not free to pray together, making it impossible for me to approach the wall with my whole family. Fortunately, Noam showed us a lesser known section of the Western wall called the Small Western Wall, where all were free to approach the wall and pray together. This section is in fact physically closer to the location of the original Temple than the Kotel. Noam explained the history of this portion of the wall with all of the children on the trip as props for his model!
After lunch, we had a very interesting discussion with Rabbi Uri Regev about the current state of civil and religious freedoms in Israel. I found it encouraging to see that the Reform movement was gaining a foot hold and that most Jews in Israel appeared to be adopting more moderate religious practice. However, many in Israel still do not enjoy the civil and religious freedoms we enjoy here in Canada.
Our last stop was a visit under the city to the archaeological excavation of the foundation of a portion of the Western Wall underneath the Muslim Quarter, the Western Wall Tunnels. Here we could approach the wall as its closest location to the original Temple and see the enormous stone foundation blocks placed there by King Herod.
Our day ended at the Jaffa gate as the sun set, turning the limestone to gold. Yerushalayim Shel Zahav!