I came on aliyah in May, toward the end of Iyar, just in time for Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day. As we mentioned in an earlier blog, the same Rabbi Yehuda Hazani, of blessed memory, who co-founded the Volunteers for Israel/Sarel project, also began the joyous flag-waving parade through the streets of Jerusalem to the Kotel on Yom Yerushalayim. While Yom HaAtzmaut was widely celebrated throughout the country, Jerusalem Day, the day marking our re-conquest of the Old City and the Kotel hadn’t yet become the gala, inspiring event that it is today. After the Six-Day War, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva would hold a festive dinner with speeches from government leaders and leading Rabbis. After midnight, students would join the Rosh Yeshiva in a joyous march to the Kotel. With each passing year, students would gather from other yeshivot around the country for the festive procession. Seeking to turn the march into a national event which would express the Nation’s eternal attachment to its Holy City, and proclaim to the world that Yerushalayim would never be divided again, Rabbi Hazani, who was studying at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, organized another parade for the following day. Plastering the billboards of the country with posters, he handed out hundreds of blue-and-white Israeli flags and had the crowds follow a lively band from Emancipation Park across from the United States consulate to the Kotel. Every year the crowds increased, swelling to fifty thousand and more. Women entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, while men and families walked along the walls to the Shechem Gate, where they paraded through the narrow main street leading through the Old Jewish Quarter, who’s name had been changed to the “Moslem Quarter” after the pogroms of 1929, when Arabs had slaughtered dozens of resident Jews and chased the Jewish population out from the Old City. How wonderful it is on Jerusalem Day to see Arabs cowering in their doorways and windows as the Jews swarm through all the gates our eternal Holy City!
That first year, being a greenhorn in Israel, the happy parade blew me away, walking side-by-side with so many proud Jews into the Old City, along the alleyways of the Moslem Quarter. When we arrived at the Kotel Plaza, Rabbi Hazani grabbed my hand and pulled me up onto the bandstand where a band led the joyous flag waving and dancing. Introducing me to the huge crowd as the director of Volunteers for Israel in America, who had just come on aliyah, he had me read out a Psalm in English for the foreign press. Talk about an aliyah! I felt 100 feet tall, as if I had suddenly become a giant Jew in my connection to Jerusalem and Clal Yisrael! That year, and every year since at the incredibly festive gathering at the Kotel, the joy is supernatural, above time and space, a spiritual high like no other, illuminated by the Divine Presence which still shines forth from the stones of the Kotel, and by the great light of Redemption that fills the air over the Old City as tens of thousands of Jews from all corners of the world pay tribute to God for His transcendental kindness in bringing us back to our beloved Holy City in fulfillment of prophecies of old.
I couldn’t imagine that there could be anything like it until the following week and the arrival of Shavuot. After the evening holiday meal at the home of Rabbi Hazani, I learned with Rabbi David Samson, the English-speaking hevruta he had arranged for me at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. In the wee hours of the morning, all of the students set off for the Kotel. As we walked along Jaffa Road toward the Old City, more Jews appeared from every direction, thousands of them, young and old, men, women, and children, Haredim, Hasidim, Religious Zionists with knitted kippot, even secular Jews. It was amazing! By the time dawn arrived, the Kotel Plaza was full!
Here I was, just out of New York, not knowing Hebrew, not knowing what the Torah was really about, surrounded by tens of thousands of ecstatic davening Jews, with the choruses of “Amen, yihe shamai rabbahs” ringing in my ears like the blasts of the shofar on Mount Sinai, standing beside Rabbi Hazani and a sea of Moses-like beards. What can I tell you? New York and Hollywood were blown out of my brain, like a dream that never happened, just like the Psalm says: “When the Lord brings back the captives of Zion, we were like those who dream.” I felt like I had been Star-Trekked into another time and planet – into another galaxy and totally different reality, into a living, vibrant, electrifying Judaism I had never experienced before.