To the tens of thousands of Jews who flocked to the traditional priestly blessing near the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Monday, the experience was about connecting to God and the Jewish People.
This also applied to the four middle-aged sisters who stood at the entrance to the Western Wall’s women’s section. To them, the blessing, known in Hebrew as Birkat Kohanim, was also about reconnecting with each other: The four sisters travel here twice a year from the Tel Aviv area to attend the mass prayers that occur on Sukkot and Passover.
“It’s our very own reunion,” said Malka Hasson of the biannual trip, which the sisters make without husbands or children.
This year, the reunion had a “remedial” quality, Malka Hasson said. Echoing a sentiment shared by multiple worshipers at the Western Wall on Monday, Hasson explained that the prayer showed her how Judaism remains central to a great many Israelis despite what she viewed as unprecedented expressions of anti-religious sentiment.
“Last month, I was shocked to see a large group of Jews preventing other Jews from praying on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv. It only strengthened our resolve to come here, where the togetherness and unity I’m seeing is remedial,” Hasson, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Beit Aryeh, told The Times of Israel.
The events she referenced happened at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on September 24 and 25. On the 24th, secular protesters shut down public prayer events over organizers’ attempt to place a divider between men and women, against the directives of the municipality and the courts. City officials said the divider forced sex segregation in a public space and thus would not be allowed. Activists again disrupted prayers the following day, though several people at the scene said they did not see a divider then.
Many view the pushback by seculars and activism against elements of Orthodox Jewish behavior as connected to the conservative push by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which comprises his Likud party and five religious parties.
Secular activists describe a sense of creeping religious coercion in various aspects of public life, and viewed the mass prayer in a square at the heart of Tel Aviv, the bastion of Israeli secularism, as an attempt to increase religious influence in the public space. The organization behind the event, Rosh Yehudi, has made no secret of its efforts to bring secular Israelis closer to religion.
Like millions of Israelis, Hasson and her sisters describe themselves as traditional: a loose definition for someone who is religious or has a religious sentiment and observes some key aspects of Halachah yet does not necessarily practice Judaism or pray every day, as Orthodox Jews and Haredim do.
Eliezer Moshia, a 39-year-old rabbi who divides his time between Jerusalem and New Jersey, leads a more devout lifestyle that puts him somewhere between Haredi and the Sephardic modern-Orthodox lifestyle, he said. The Birkat Kohanim made him, too, think of what happened on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, he said.
“I try not to think about it too much because it makes me sad,” said Moshia. “One thing you can be sure of here is that no one will stop you from praying,” he said smiling.
While that’s not always accurate – Orthodox worshipers regularly disrupt prayers by Reform and Conservative women at the Western Wall – Moshia’s impression does reflect how multiple people interviewed by The Times of Israel at the prayer drew reassurance from it at a time when religious tensions between Israeli Jews appear to have reached unprecedented levels.
The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, also addressed the internal conflicts in a short address to a crowd of about 50,000 gathered at the holy site. “This year, we received more than anything the blessing of ‘And He shall give you peace.’ This is a prayer that we all carry in our hearts to our Father in Heaven, asking Him to remove baseless hatred from us and to spread the sukkah of peace over us,” Rabinowitz said.
Also attending the event were Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, and the Ashkenazi one, David Lau. Yosef has come under intense criticism this week for saying in a recorded weekly sermon that eating non-kosher food makes Jews “stupid.” Neither chief rabbi spoke at the event.
The women who pray in the Women Section of the Western Wall turn away from the men in some parts of the prayer. This is meant to avoid seeing the Kohanim, descendants of what used to be the priestly caste of the Jewish People, who gave the prayer its name. In the men’s section, the Kohanim’s descendants bless the worshipers, who raise their hands to receive the blessing.
However, many worshipers, including the four sisters, remained in the area behind the men’s and women’s section for the prayer’s duration. Malka Hasson said this was due to crowding in the women’s section. Both it and the larger men’s section were packed Monday.
Worshipers, most wearing white prayer shawls, were rubbing shoulders in the men’s section as many of them rocked back and forth in prayer while shaking their lulav, palm fronds, which quivered overhead like antennas. Cantorial songs and prayers blasted from powerful speakers.
“It leaves you feeling uplifted and connected,” said David Abergil, a tourist from Toronto, Canada, who attended the prayer with four boys. The smallest, aged four, was sitting between the legs of a bookcase used for keeping prayer books, inspecting the event from the safety of the furniture. Abergil’s wife was praying in the women’s section with their three daughters.
“It’s very powerful, we’re in a holy place with thousands upon thousands of Jews of all types: Hasidim, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Litvaks, people who are not religious, people who are trying to be religious, people who became religious, and that’s pretty unique,” said Abergil, a Modern-Orthodox Jew in his thirties.
The fact that the blessing comes from Kohanim compounds the moment’s significance for Abergil, he said. “They’re the anointed people, they’re the closest to Hashem,” he said. “So this is as close to Hashem as you can get.”
Birkat Kohanim was the second time in under a month that Chaim Bleich, a Jewish-American tourist from Brooklyn, “felt blessed,” as he put it. The first time was on Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, at the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary whose final resting place is the focus of the world’s largest Jewish pilgrimage outside Israel.
Wearing colorful clothes and non-prescription, white-frame eyeglasses, Bleich advertised his Uman credentials with a tasseled, red skullcap that read “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman.” The blessings for Bleich “are just an extension of the holiness experienced in Uman,” he said.
Bleich and a friend, Chaim Moskowitz, came to the Birkat Kohanim “almost by accident,” Bleich said, after a friend of his, Joshua Krauss, mentioned it was happening.
Standing outside the men’s section, the three friends added a significant splash of color to the event as they wore colorful shawls atop their white t-shirts.
“It’s a numbers game,” said Krauss. “We’re at the holiest place on earth, the closest thing to a remnant of the Great Temple, and we’re being blessed by thousands of people. It just adds up and lifts you up!”
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