June 5, 2012
What an extraordinary day we just experienced! I have never before conducted a bar mitzvah in Israel, and the opportunity to do so at the Davidson Center, at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, was a fabulous aspect of this trip for me, and I think for everyone present, Jewish or not.
It could not have been a better, more beautiful, or more powerful ceremony, both because of the amazing location and the way that everything came together so perfectly.
There are challenges associated with conducting a religious service in a national park in Israel, a clearly public space, and one in which you have essentially no control over many of the elements that go into creating a ceremony of beauty and importance. The Davidson Center is actually located just below the Western Wall Plaza, in an area known as Robinson's Arch, the remainder of a roadway that led to the Temple Mount and was destroyed on Tisha B'Av in the year 70 CE by the Romans. Actually, the section of wall here is no more or less the Kotel, the Western Wall, than the more famous section up above. It just wasn't accessible for those many centuries when Jews prayed to God at the holiest site in the world. While many b'nai mitzvah are conducted at the Kotel itself, it is a very, very public space, with many people walking through, and it has a particularly onerous issue for us. As the Rabbanut, the Orthodox rabbinate, runs the Kotel as a religious site, men and women must go to separate sections to pray. Thus, when there is a bar mitzvah there, the men are all close to the bar mitzvah boy, while the women must peer over a divider and try to participate vicariously—hardly an appropriate way for a an egalitarian religious tradition to celebrate a great simcha.
We decided, in consultation with our tour provided, ARZA World/Da'at travel, to choose between the Davidson Center, Masada, and Beit Shmuel, the headquarters of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. All have fine points to them, but the Davidson Center seemed the most promising, in the area of Robinson's Arch. There were several possible problems: the day could be very hot (so we scheduled the bar mitzvah for 8 AM). There could be as many as six other b'nai mitzvah that day right alongside us; tour groups could suddenly and loudly descend on us; or, in that timeless Israeli way, nothing would be actually organized in advance, as sometimes happens in a more casual society in the Middle East. We were told in advance that there wouldn't be anywhere to sit, so rabbi, please keep the service short!
In fact, the day was absolutely lovely, cool and extremely beautiful; there were no other b'nai mitzvah this morning; there were some chairs available, and many people could easily and comfortably sit on the giant 2000 year-old Herodian stone stairs; and everything was arranged, or arrange-able, in short order. And the service turned out to be simply perfect.
There is no easy way to describe the emotions of conducting a bar mitzvah, an affirmation of Jewish learning, commitment, family, and continuity at a spot so close to the very Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount. While we were surrounded with stones from the original Temple complex, we were able to celebrate a new link the great chain of tradition, the shalshelet hakabbalah, and to join in song, readings, and Torah at the foot of the very place that has been at the heart of our people's belief and history since Abraham brought Isaac to that same mountain of Moriah for the Akeidah 3800 years ago. There was much more to the service than the setting of course: Jake chanted, sang, and read with confidence and proficiency, his grandfather and parents were moved and touched and joyous, and our traveling community joined in heartfelt prayer and celebration. It was one of the most fulfilling and delightful b'nai mitzvah I have ever had the privilege of participating in, and I believe everyone shared that sentiment—including the family's close Israeli friends, who came in from Haifa for the bar mitzvah.
I have attached some photos taken by a photographer, Bruno Charbit, who was also the photographer for Wendy and my wedding in Jerusalem 5 years ago; I hope they make it through cyberspace and convey some of the meaning and great joy of the hour-long service, with memories for all of us to last a lifetime.
Even after such a great beginning, the rest of the day was far from anticlimax. We traveled through the new tunnel out to Masada, now a 1½ hour trip (it used to be 2½ hours). The continuing development of better and better infrastructure in Israel is a poorly documented story, but a very important one. It is now easier to travel from, say, Haifa in the north all the way to Masada than it used to be to go from part of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel is a very modern country with a spectacularly ancient heart.
Masada is always an outstanding site, a reminder of the brutal fight that our ancestors waged for freedom from Roman domination. Their zealotry and resourcefulness, and the extreme remoteness and security of the mountaintop fortress, allowed them to resist the greatest empire in world history for nearly three years. Actually, we are not really descended from the fighters of Masada, for they all died. The true ancestors of today's Jews were the scholars and students of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who established the first yeshiva in Yavneh as the Temple was about to be destroyed. But the Masada fighters, and their dramatic story, as told by Josephus in the first century, strike a chord even for American Jews today. They were willing to fight for their beliefs—15,000 Roman legionnaire soldiers against perhaps 900 men, women, and children—and ultimately to sacrifice their lives for freedom.
On the lighter side, our guide Muki provided two particularly delightful new notes for us. First, in explaining that the great Israeli archeologist Yigal Yadin in reconstructing Masada had left a black horizontal line showing where the original structures had stood and where the reconstruction began. Muki swears that one woman asked him, "So tell me, which part is the original and which part is the reconstruction, the top or the bottom?" He also took us to the very southern edge of Masada, and has us shout out the legendary old chant "Masada shall not fall again!, Sheinit Mitzada Lo Tipol." A chilling echo came back across the great chasm, as it must have when the Israeli army used to use Masada for induction ceremonies. And Muki swears the same women—an American, of course—asked, "Do those people always show up at the same time to shout that back to you?" To which he says he responded, in his South African Israeli accent, "Yes, madam; it's a good thing we weren't late today."
We then split into two groups in the afternoon: one went to explore Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls sects lived and worked and left a written record that has revolutionized our knowledge of the development of first century Judaism and Christianity, and the others to the Dead Sea to float and cover themselves in mud, and sit in sulphur baths.
Although I have had a long and deep interest in the Scrolls and the Qumran community, I have to admit, the Dead Sea was great...
We regretfully leave Jerusalem tomorrow morning and head for the north. It was a great day, and it has been an outstanding visit. On a political note, we will meet with the Reform Rabbi Miri Gold in Tel Aviv on Friday morning, which couldn't be more timely. She is all over the news here for her case breaking the Orthodox monopoly on state funding for Jewish religious work in Israel.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon