Today marks the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem on the Jewish Calendar.
Modern Jewish history, in the context of Jewish history per se, notifies this day as one of the most significant, miraculous, and inspiring marks on the Jewish calendar. When one reads of the melancholy mood of the Jewish world on the eve of the sixth day war, and the extent to which existential threats were vanquished, it is a wonder that the most recent of Jewish national festivities is not marked with greater prominence and respect. The days seems to have been politicised as a religious Zionist celebration, but it’s influence should extend far beyond this demographic.
There are many that have personal experiences both within Israel and around the world, recalling the famous broadcast when Motta Gur declared that “Har Habayit Beyadeinu”- the Temple Mount is in our hands. It was one of those “never forget when” moments of modern history.
Although this occasion narrowly preceded my lifetime, I have twice had the experience of participating in the march from Mossad Harav Kook to the Kotel for the celebration of Yom Yerushaliem. Joining tens of thousands of people to dance through the streets is quite a celebration and on both occasions I felt it to be amongst the most exhilarating and spiritually uplifting Jewish experiences I have ever had.
The second of the occasions where I joined this march was only a few years back. I had started my day in Amsterdam, where I flew in the early morning to Zurich. I had been considering whether or not to daven prior to my first flight. It occurred to me that my chances of locating a Minyan prior to a flight boarding for Israel were reasonably high, so I did indeed wait until I got to Zurich.
So there I was, a solitary Jew at the busy Schiphol airport, awaiting my boarding call. This was the culmination of some days in Europe, where I had seen up close for the first time in my life the impact of the Shoah. I had been to museums, memorials, genealogical centres and had a chilling and humbling experience as I contemplated the death and destruction of European Jewry. Everything I saw was presented to me in the past tense, as a world that once was, but never again would be. It was a tribute to a lifestyle that had, as far as the locals were concerned, been destroyed.
As I was reflecting on this, the first incident of my day then occurred. A lady came up to me with a toddler and a baby. The approach was rapid and I was somewhat relieved when she started speaking in Hebrew. She asked me to mind her baby while she took the toddler to the bathroom. Without waiting for an answer, I found myself with a sleeping baby in my arms. I thought how amazing it was that Jewish people are like family. This lady had no idea who I was, but by virtue of having a Kippah on my head, she felt comfortable leaving her baby with me, a complete stranger. However drama was then to ensue. My boarding call came, and the lady was nowhere to be found. Ten minutes later, and my final flight call came. In a state of panic I was attempting to explain to the disbelieving flight attendants that I had been left with a random baby. In the nick of time the mother of the baby then returned, also somewhat fluxed. She was not on the same flight and had been unable to find me!
My flight arrived, and I had a little under two hours in transit in Zurich. Identifying the connecting gate lounge was not too difficult. The activity, noise and anxiety levels appeared very high from some distance. The minyan I was seeking started to assemble as I arrived, made up of a group of French charedim and some dati leumi Israelis. Everything was going fine until some of the group wanted to say a tefillah chagigit and recite Hallel for Yom Yerushaliem. This was rejected by the charedim, and we lost the minyan, at least until some other less than enthusiastic Israeli supporters were convinced to join us.
I arrived in Israel late morning, and took transport straight to Jerusalem. By the time I had sorted my accommodation and settled, I was ready to walk straight into the festivities. The contrast was amongst the most remarkable experiences of my life. Thousands of young people with flags danced through the street. Shvatim of Bnei Akiva, yeshivot, chayalim, and many others sang and marched down Rechov Yaffo, through to the Kotel Hamaariv. I heard songs that I had not sung for years, even decades. The energy, vitality, spirit and youthful vibrance of the scene around me was surreal.
I stopped to stand on a street corner for about half an hour, just to observe the scene and absorb the atmosphere. Every so often I saw people who I knew. Here was I, an Australian Jew from the other side of the world, experiencing coincidence after coincidence. None however was as amazing as the moment where I saw the young mother who had passed me her baby that morning in Amsterdam.
Reaching the Kotel later that night was the crescendo of the experience. As I looked down from the promenade above I could not feel the exhaustion of the travel. I could only continue to think that I had traversed from the past to the future. I had left the death, destruction and past tense of Europe that morning, and had arrived to the life, purpose and future tense of Israel that evening. Whilst everything in Europe was no more, everything in Israel was now here, and I had journeyed through the (almost) entire transcendent path of Jewish destiny within a single day.
Touching the walls of the Kotel, always a “hands on” Jewish experience, evokes strong emotions. I lay my hand on the wall and thought of the many millions of Jews who had longed to stand in this place for the past two millennia but who were not extended the freedom or opportunity to do so. I now felt like I was actually touching the past, that I was almost there at the kodesh hakedoshim that stood above, a matter of meters away.
Yet I also stopped to remind myself that the Kotel is just a remaining remnant from the destruction of the Second Temple. It is actually a retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount that housed the Bayit Sheni more than 2,000 years ago. I reflected on the words of my Rabbi – our generation has been delivered from the global dispersion of all corners of the world to within a few meters of the kodesh hakedoshim. Do we as the Jewish people now have it within us to advance just a few meters more? Can we return the Jewish world to its spiritual epicentre and to avodat Hashem in the holy mikdash?
Yom Yerushaliem Sameach