After thirteen hours and thirty-five minutes of restless movie-watching, musical chairs, books, and other activities that would help pass the time on our flight, we finally arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon, January 26!
Settling into our dorms with our new family members, the hustle and bustle of unpacking and organizing, on top of the homework assignments that had been assigned prior to our departure, made it hard to find time to just take a breath.
When classes ended Friday at noon, we packed up and departed for Jerusalem. As this was my first time in Israel, I was very eager to experience Shabbat in the holiest city in the world, and finally take a break. Our first stop in Jerusalem was the infamous Machaneh Yehuda Shuk. We unloaded the buses and walked through the streets, trying to avoid the hasty Israeli drivers. I shoved my way through the crowds of people as merchants screamed in Hebrew and Arabic. The atmosphere and the smells that filled the shuk captured what Jerusalem is like before Shabbat. Our time in the shuk was brief, as we had to prepare ourselves for the shabbat before sundown.
The fifty of us headed out in our Shabbat clothes on our walk to the Kotel. I marveled at the orthodox men and women dressed in head coverings and tzit tzit, rushing to arrive at the wall before Shabbat started.
After about thirty minutes, we approached the wall. Together, lead by one of the core teachers, Alan, we conducted our own Shabbat service as we stood on a terrace overlooking the wall. The amount of people that stood below was shocking.
We then descended the path to the wall, where we joined the large mass of people. Along with a few girls from the group, I shuffled through the crowd to the center of the area where the women were congregated. There was a group of Argentinean-teenage girls dancing and singing to Havah Nagila. We jumped into the circle and together we sung and danced to Shabbat songs we had grown up hearing. Only at the Kotel could a group of strangers hold hands, link arms, and sing with one voice together without fear.
While we were dancing, an orthodox woman approached us and demanded that we stop. I looked over to the men’s section and saw them all jumping, dancing, and singing with pride. I looked back at the woman and saw her standing with a siddur in her hand, staring at the men. I wondered why we could only watch, as the men freely expressed their gratification for Shabbat.
In order to respect all levels of observance, we moved to the patio above the Kotel and continued our form of prayer there. We stood in a circle, with our arms around each other, and began to sing “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.” Some of the many soldiers who were guarding the wall joined our circle. Standing beside the people who fight everyday to protect our homeland, we prayed, united, at one of the most important sites to Judaism. That night in Jerusalem the atmosphere was surreal.