'I know good things are about to happen to me and to Israel'

Wary amid terror fears, thousands of Jews receive priestly blessing at Western Wall

In a monotheistic trifecta, a stream of Jews, Muslims and Christians celebrate their different holidays in an ultra-tense Old City

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

Edna and Yitzhak Hananyah after attending Birkat Kohanim in Jerusalem, Israel, on April 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)
Edna and Yitzhak Hananyah after attending Birkat Kohanim in Jerusalem, Israel, on April 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)

Thousands of worshipers from all three main Abrahamic religions converged on Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday morning to celebrate their holidays during what the Israeli government has termed a “wave of terrorist attacks.”

A steady stream of Jews, the men wearing white prayer shawls around their shoulders, poured into the Old City under the gaze of hundreds of bulletproof vest-clad Border Police officers. The worshipers huddled near the Western Wall for Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, of Passover.

Half a mile away, Muslims were entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount, where several hundred worshipers had just agreed to leave after staying there overnight. The overnighters had holed up there following Saturday Ramadan prayers, which fell on Passover this year, in what many had feared could lead to a violent clash with police. On Sunday, several hundred Jewish visitors were allowed access to the Temple Mount. Their 30-minute, police-supervised tours, in groups of 20-30 pilgrims per tour, ended without incident.

Meanwhile, Christian tourists back from the Sunrise Service at the Garden Tomb flooded the Old City’s alleyways, affording a taste of summer, when, during calm years, European and American tourists arrive en masse during high season, to the delight of the local souvenir shop owners.

This year, the Old City’s monotheistic trifecta took place in the shadow of a string of deadly attacks in Israel. On Saturday, an Italian tourist died and several Israelis were wounded in what police said was a terrorist car-ramming attack in Tel Aviv. On Friday, two sisters on their way with their mother to the resort city of Tiberias were shot dead in a terrorist attack in the Jordan Valley; their mother is fighting for her life in the hospital. Terrorists in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip launched dozens of rockets into Israel in recent days.

These and other events have prompted police to augment their already-heavy presence in the Old City. Clusters of five to 10 police officers hung around many corners, some of them behind metal fences, their hands on assault rifles and their eyes warily scanning the pedestrian traffic.

None of it made a deep impression on Eliran Hardon, a 38-year-old man who last month relocated to Jerusalem from Petah Tikvah, and on Sunday attended the Birkat Kohanim for the first time to celebrate the move. “I feel elated. I know good things are about to happen to me and to the whole of Israel and I feel this much more strongly now,” said Hardon, who lives in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood.

Eliran Hardon waits for the light rail after attending Birkat Kohanim in Jerusalem, Israel, on April 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)

According to police, some 10,000 people attended the Birkat Kohanim, a similar turnout to previous years. But Efrat Elias, a supervisor for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government organization that manages the site, said attendance this year was lower. “There was a good number of people here, including many women, but overall it’s clear that the security situation has kept many away. Last year, you couldn’t move and this year you can negotiate your way forward even during the peak of the event,” she told The Times of Israel.

Edna Hananyah, who came for the Birkat Kohanim with her husband, Yitzhak, concurred sadly. “It’s unfortunate but the terrorists have kept many people away. Jews should be coming here no matter what.”

During the Birkat Kohanim, the women, in their separate section of the Western Wall area, turn away from the men during some parts of the prayer, to avoid seeing the Kohanim, members of what used to be the Jewish People’s priestly caste, who gave the prayer its name. In the men’s section, descendants of Kohanim bless the rest of the people, who raise their hands to receive the blessing.

An iconic moment of reconnection by thousands of people to customs predating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Birkat Kohanim takes place twice a year, on Passover and Sukkot.

In recent years, a growing number of Jews have been combining the Birkat Kohanim with another custom with origins in the Temple: Performing a pilgrimage to see a great rabbi. Known as “kabalat pnei rabo,” Hebrew for “greeting one’s rabbi,” it was introduced following the Temple’s destruction as part of a vision “that sought to transfer the now-ruined place of sanctity, the Temple, onto the great sages, the great rabbis of Judaism,” said Zvi Mark, a scholar of Hasidic movements at Bar-Ilan University.

It’s part of the reason why Hardon, the recent arrival to Jerusalem, was moved by the presence of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, on a balcony overlooking the Western Wall during the Birkat Kohanim. “You feel part of something great, together with the greats,” Hardon said.

One observer of the custom of greeting one’s rabbi, 42-year-old Ohad David of Pisgat Ze’ev, skipped some of the Birkat Kohanim altogether to see Rabbi Mordechai Sheiberger, the leader of David’s Or HaGanuz Orthodox Jewish community. “The Birkat Kohanim is a mass event. It has its place. But when you go see a rabbi who’s great, you get much closer to sanctity,” said David after visiting with seven other followers at the rabbi’s home in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

David, a father of five, left his two oldest sons, who were supposed to accompany him to Jerusalem, back home because of the security situation.

“There’s no question of abandoning the custom because of a few terror attacks, but there’s no need to pretend the circumstances are ideal for bringing children to the Old City right now,” David, 42, said.

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