The narrow streets were dark and filled with sounds. Figures moved behind blackened windows in the overbearing buildings. Finger on the trigger, senses focused on my surroundings, I ensured my fellow Jews the right to pray at the grave of one of our revered figures.
I was filled with a profound sense that this was the right thing to do. We stood as symbols of modernity – guardians of the Jewish state. This moment embodied the spirit of why I joined the IDF, and it was one of the proudest of my life. While we were not welcomed, and while our presence required military might, we sought only peaceful access to a Jewish holy site and our ancestral roots.
During my recent IDF reserve duty, my fellow soldiers and I rode into the heart of Nablus to Kever Yosef to daven Selichot. It was an experience I will never forget. In my five-plus years as an Israeli citizen, innumerable experiences have instilled in me strong faith and unwavering confidence in our nation. It was in this spirit that I felt fortunate to be a part of this unique excursion.
Kever Yosef – Joseph’s Tomb – is near the ancient Canaanite city of Shechem, in the heart of the modern-day Palestinian city of Nablus. Believed to be the site of Joseph’s burial, it has been a place of prayer, worship and preservation by Jews for millennia.
Due to increasing tensions in the area the IDF had stationed soldiers to protect the tomb for Jewish visitation, study, and prayer. This era of Jewish guardianship came to an abrupt end, however, in October 2000, at the beginning of the Second Intifada,
Early that month, an armed Palestinian mob converged on the site, killing one of the soldiers on guard and causing massive destruction to the tomb. Following the attack, the IDF withdrew its presence from the site; it was a strategic weak point surrounded by armed, densely populated Palestinian areas within the city.
Since then, Jews have been unable to safely visit this holy place, and it has been continuously pillaged and defaced. Only those Jews willing to brave the serious risks associated with entering Nablus in very limited, organized military convoys have made it to the kever in recent years. Sadly, such visits have been few and far between.
A small group of Jews snuck onto the site in 2008 to perform some minor restoration work. But the tomb has been inaccessible to the Jewish public since 2000. Today, Kever Yosef stands as a desecrated ruin, a grave insult and dishonor to Jews the world over.
Based on requests coming in from many of his soldiers, my battalion commander decided it was worth the risk to visit Kever Yosef. He collected the names from each company of those willing to participate in this voluntary mission. The primary objective was to pray Selichot at the kever that night. This traditional prayer for forgiveness is said during the week prior to Rosh Hashanah.
I eagerly placed my name on the list and was allocated to the cover team assigned to hold a defensive perimeter around the kever. I was filled with pride to be part of a mission so noble in purpose.
The plan was to reach the kever in the cover of deep night, while most people slept, so as to create as little disruption as possible to the inhabitants of the city and their Ramadan celebrations. Once on site we had up to thirty minutes to pray and then leave by an alternate route.
Conditions upon our arrival, however, were not what was needed for an inconspicuous mission. Nablus turned out to be alive with Ramadan celebrants crowding the streets deep into the early hours of morning. The greeting accorded our armored convoy was less than hospitable. This did not deter us, however, and once we arrived in the neighborhood surrounding the tomb, we quickly set up our defenses. Soldiers began their Selichot prayers as soon as we were able to secure the perimeter.
When my turn came to enter the kever, I was filled with a sense of history, purpose, and pride in my Jewish nation. I stood shoulder to shoulder with my comrades, dressed in full combat gear, reading from my prayer book by the wan light of candles and flashlights. I prayed from my heart and with the deepest conviction for the forgiveness associated with the beginning of the new year.