We began our Shabbat by making our way to the Kotel, or the Western (or Wailing) Wall. Widely touted as the most sacred landmark to the Jewish people, the retaining wall of the Second Temple is also the spot where people put folded-up pieces of paper with prayer written upon them into the cracks between the stones. Many in the group found this to be another spiritually moving moment in our trip, as the Wall is one of the more visible landmarks in Israel. I would venture to say that this visit was among the most anticipated by our travelers.
Following the moments at the Wall, we made our way through the Old City to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was crowded and special and sacred. We learned a little about the story of the events surrounding that location- the crucifixion of Jesus, his death and his burial. I can say that, personally, it is always a highlight of the trip when we see the intersection of Judaism and other religions. While we were struggling to understand the relationship between historical fact and religious meaning, I have come to understand this simple truth about Israel: in most circumstances, the history is reflected in the ritual. But in this country, tradition makes the history.
The trip then continued with our Bnai Mitzvah service, where Zoe and Jolie Vandegrift, Simon Rappoport, Mandy Rappoport, and Haley Lieberman all read from the Torah. While the setting was beautiful, what was truly remarkable was the fact that each of these individuals has taken this process quite seriously, as have their families. It meant a lot to each of them, as reflected in their speeches, their parent blessings, and the tears that streamed down our faces. Yes, I did use the word “our” previously, as, between the five of them, there was not a dry eye in the house. It is hard to believe that, just over a year ago, many of the families did not know each other. After the connections were made in Atlanta before we left, those connections were deepened throughout the last week. And, this evening, we were one big family. And it was phenomenal. A Mazel Tov to Zoe, Jolie, Simon, Mandy and Haley- you continue to impress me!
The celebratory dinner began with the kindling of the 8th night of Hanukkah, thereby bringing to a close a current trend throughout our trip: gathering around dinner to light the Menorah. While sad to conclude the festival, the food was delicious and the company was fantastic. With about 15 minutes to go, a few folks held up a chuppah and…Jonathan and Rebecca Rice renewed their vows! It was a great surprise and a lovely and beautiful moment that I will never forget.
For New Year’s Eve, we went to a few different places. My group went to Ben Yehuda where the energy was high and ended up counting down with a couple hundred people in Kikar Zion at the base of the pedestrian mall.
It’s been a great day – Mazel Tov to ALL of us!