With Israel halfway through its fifth consecutive winter of depleted rainfall, thousands of Jews assembled Thursday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem to pray together for rain.
The event was organized by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and supplications were led by the chief rabbis of Israel, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, along with other prominent rabbis.
This year is shaping up to be the fifth parched year in a row and, according to some experts, the worst drought season in 40 years.
The country has received just 45 percent of its multiyear average rainfall for September through November. It has only rained twice in December, and the forecast for the coming days is mostly sun with only a little light rain in the north.
“I call on the public to participate in this event on the 10th of Tevet,” Ariel said when announcing the event earlier this week, “and to bring umbrellas, because together we will tear open the gates of Heaven.”
Some had criticized the agriculture minister for relying on prayer to bring water to the country, calling it voodoo, or state-sponsored prayer by what is meant to be a secular government. But Ariel, of the national religious Jewish Home party, met his critics head-on, saying it couldn’t hurt, and could help.
He also pointed out that his ministry and others have been working diligently to find new water sources for the country.
“I am someone who doesn’t rely on miracles and does everything I know as agriculture minister, together with the energy minister and finance minister, to find a solution to the water crisis,” he said in an interview with the Hebrew-language Ynet news site.
Among those efforts, he said, was drilling for underground water sources in the Golan Heights and the Galilee, building additional desalinization plants to supplement those already in existence, and conducting agricultural research to create plants that require less water.
To those who say the rally amounts to state-sponsored prayer, Ariel said: If you don’t believe in it, don’t come to the rally.
It was not the first time that a prayer rally has been held to bring rain to Israel. In four of the last eight years, the Chief Rabbinate has held prayer rallies for rain. Earlier this month, one of the chief rabbis called on the public to add an additional prayer for rain to their daily prayers, one that traditionally is put into usage when there is a drought.
Since last winter the Sea of Galilee has received just 10% of its annual average inflow, and by February had reached its lowest level in nearly a hundred years.
The situation in the lower Jordan River is even worse. Today, the river’s flow is down to just 30 million cubic meters (7.9 billion gallons) per year, less than a quarter of its historical levels. London’s River Thames, in comparison, discharges about 2 billion cubic meters (530 billion gallons) annually.
Although Israel can produce all the drinking water it needs from five desalination plants it has on the Mediterranean coast, the drought has seriously impacted agriculture.
Israeli meteorologists predicted in early December that the coming months would be drier than the average winter.