Reporter's notebook'My coming here is holy warfare'

‘Impoverished, broken and in pain’: Thousands at Western Wall mass prayer for hostages

With 100 days of captivity fast approaching for abductees, crowds seek their salvation through God

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Jews pray for the army's success in the war against Hamas and the return of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on January 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Jews pray for the army's success in the war against Hamas and the return of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on January 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The secular Bar Timor family was among the thousands who came to Jerusalem on Wednesday for a mass prayer service initiated and led by the chief rabbis of Israel for the release of the hostages in Gaza and victory over Hamas. Attended by numerous relatives of hostages, the event was one of the largest-scale spiritual responses to the war and tragic events that sparked it, and it drew a mix of secular and religious Israelis.

Noya Bar Timor, who turned 21 on Wednesday, is a former surveillance officer who finished her army service just months ago. She told The Times of Israel that during the prayer event, she was focused mostly on her 14 sisters-in-arms who were killed by Hamas on October 7.

During Wednesday’s prayers, Bar Timor sat on the cold ground just outside the Western Wall Plaza, which was at capacity both in the men’s section and the women’s. Her younger sisters, Avishag and Tamar, sat by her along with Noya’s stepmom, Batia. The girls’ teenage brothers both managed to enter the men’s section while the father of the family, Noam, stood over his wife and daughters, bearing an assault rifle.

The Jerusalem event had a more religious and hawkish tenor than what is on display at the weekend rallies on Tel Aviv’s so-called Hostages Square, where thousands of demonstrators, most of them secular, gather to demand various political actions each week since the start of the war.

The Bar Timors traveled from Tzur Yigal near Netanya to attend the prayer rally. It was the family’s first outing in a long time because Noam, an importer of garden furniture, just finished a 3-month stint in the reserves. Batia, a full-time social worker, was left in sole charge of the house and their four underage children.

Despite the challenges and grief that the war is causing, Batia said she was not praying for it to end. Instead, she asked God to ensure a decisive victory for Israel.

“I really have a bad feeling that we’re done. We’re stopping the fighting,” Batia said. Ending the war now “is unthinkable. We cannot accept a return to the realities of October 6,” she added.

Noya Bar Timor, left, with her family at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on January 10, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Hamas’s October 7 onslaught saw terrorists kill 1,200 people in Israel and take another 240 hostages. About 100 have been released in prisoner swaps but more than 130 Israelis are presumed to still be held hostage.

Israelis appear largely united in their belief that Israel cannot return to the reality that existed before the attack, and the war has broad support across the political spectrum.

Still, there are divisions on strategy. And the desire to press on with the offensive at full force is rarely heard at the rallies for the release of the hostages that families and activists have been staging each Saturday night at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square. At those events, speakers often call for a ceasefire because the fighting “is killing the hostages,” as Udi Goren, whose cousin Tal Chaimi is being held in Gaza, said in a December 16 speech on the square.

More than 180 soldiers have died fighting in Gaza since the ground invasion was launched in late October, as have over 20,000 Palestinians, according to unverified data from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry that is presumed to include combatants.

Rabbi David Lau, right, and Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef pray with other rabbis at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on January 10, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Overlooking the thousands of people at the Western Wall Plaza Wednesday, the two chief rabbis of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, led the prayer from a southern balcony. Flanked by several other prominent rabbis, the two chiefs recited Psalms and a prayer for the safe return of all soldiers and hostages.

In between prayers, cantors sang selichot, penitential poems and prayers, their voices occasionally breaking with emotion. Worshipers wept as they prayed along, their murmurs reverberating in the air. During pauses, shofar horns were blown — a sound usually reserved for the High Holidays that the event’s organizers included in the event to request urgent divine intervention.

Men attend a mass prayer event for Israeli hostages in Gaza on January 10, 2024, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Brothers and sisters, we stand here impoverished, broken and in pain. We are living through difficult days for the People of Israel,” said Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, during a brief address at the start of the event. “Our brothers and sisters are being held by the enemy. Others, in the security forces, put their lives on the line” fighting in Gaza, he added.

“We are all one flesh,” Rabinovitch said, adding that “we have come here to cry out in sorrow and pain and ask the high heavens: God, please heal them. Watch over them. Bring them all in one piece back to us, right now,” echoing the “all of them right now” chant at largely secular rallies at Hostages Square.

Men pray near the Western Wall in Jerusalem on January 10, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Emmanuel Ohaiun, a 69-year-old worshiper at the Western Wall prayer service, said he’d come as a recruit of sorts. “There is the war [fought by soldiers] on the ground, and there is holy warfare that I came to fight,” said Ohaiun, who traveled to Jerusalem from Shlomi, a city in Israel’s north.

Shortly after the Western Wall event ended, another, less ceremonious prayer event began at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. It featured Idan Raichel, a popular composer and singer, performing some liturgies.

One Orthodox rabbi, Itamar Eldar, who spoke at the Tel Aviv event, encouraged listeners to his speech to look for unity between secular and non-secular Jews. “I live in Tel Aviv, I know about the differences [between people] but I also know about the partnerships that are possible,” said Eldar. “We need to find the bridges because we want to fix and to heal.”

Eyal Lahiani, right, speaks with a demonstrator at a rally in favor of a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Last month, demonstrators in favor and against another prisoner swap with Hamas faced off for the first time on the margins of the weekend rally at Hostages Square. Protesters from both sides traded accusations in heated tones opposite the Kirya army headquarters bordering on Hostages Square.

Rabbi Doron Perez, whose soldier son Daniel was wounded and taken hostage on October 7, nonetheless saw signs of unity at the Western Wall prayer event on Wednesday. “I saw every kind of Jew present: seculars, religious, Haredi, wishing and praying for a single cause,” he told The Times of Israel.

At the entrance to the Western Wall, activists raising awareness of the plight of the hostages held up signs with the hostages’ portraits. Banners and posters spoke of “100 days in hell,” ahead of the 100-day mark of their captivity on Sunday. Similar signs were on display at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv.

Perez, the head of the Mizrachi World Movement, noted that the prayer took place on the eve of the first day of the Hebrew calendar month of Shvat, on which Jews celebrate plants and the rejuvenation of nature.

Usually on the first day of the month, “the Western Wall becomes a place of tension,” Perez said, referencing monthly clashes between progressive Jewish women and ultra-Orthodox Jews over the women worshiping in egalitarian fashion at the holy site, where such behavior is forbidden. “Yet here we saw Jews of all sorts and denominations uniting as brethren,” Perez said.

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