Some 30 years ago a certain well-known rabbi in Manhattan came to Israel and brought much of his congregation with him, to a barren ridge where our forefathers and foremothers traveled to and from Jerusalem and Hebron. The rabbi and his followers left the ravages of assimilation and headed to the unknown. The rabbi swiftly gathered in Jews from all over the world and all over Israel to the cozy town of Efrat.
My son’s Efrat high school class recently returned from a weeklong trip to Poland. We met them at dawn at the Kotel. How appropriate to have gone during the month of Elul.
In order to be thoroughly understood, this is a story that must be rewound and fast-forwarded. We move back and forth between Biblical times, times of bitterness, exile, enslavement, times of the Kings – so many yesterdays. At the Kotel we are rewarded by a scene featuring a group of the proudest Jewish souls on the planet who, until this time, never really experienced anti-Semitism. This is a story about 16- and 17-year-old “caped crusaders” who wore huge Israeli flags draped around their shoulders at the death camps, the remains of shtetls, the memorials. They are not afraid to dance and cry in public. They have returned from what they describe as a cemetery the size of an entire country.
We rewind several days to watch them recite Kaddish along the train tracks, where the generations of their grandparents, people with the same names, once tread for the last time. And now fast-forward again to the free Jews dancing at the Kotel. From what are they free? From the threat of intermarriage and the burdens of being in the minority. They are free from having to look over their shoulders both to the past and the future and wondering what others might think. They are free to proudly wear the mantle of Heaven.
What is the antonym of “cowering”? At the Kotel, after a week of first-hand testimony of slave labor, brutality, murder, loss and ovens the powerful antidote is this: the Jewish melting pot, on Jewish land. Here is where the children of Manhattan congregants gather together with the children of Jews who feared Arab marauders, together with grandchildren of Jews who were slaves all over the world, Jews who wandered and prayed in all manners of exile – out of fear.
With their arms around each other’s shoulders, the boys dance in a giant circle, in the plaza in front of the Kotel. They sing a new song, one their teacher originated with the words, “Wherever we go, we are going to the Land of Israel.” At this tearfully joyful reunion, the parents are laughing and crying as well.
We ignore the piercing wails of the muezzin calling Muslim followers to prayer. This is the meaning of the words about the children returning to the borders: “v’shavu banim ligvulam.”