Seeing the Kotel for the first time…experiencing Shabbat in the Old City…a memorable interaction with a chayal…a fierce bargaining battle in the shuk… The city of Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem, is unlike any other and for the Jewish people it has been our spiritual center for millennia.
In celebration of Yom Yerushalayim (28 Iyyar/May 28) we asked OU leadership, writers and popular Jewish personalities to share their “Only in Jerusalem” experiences. Read what they had to say and share your own stories and memories in the comments below!
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the OU:
“Shavuot was the first chag during which Jews were able to visit the Kotel after the Six Day War. I was not there for that chag, but I and my wife, Chavi, were there for the first Sukkot. It was an amazing experience. Jews came from all over the world. The atmosphere was one of disbelief and awe. The sanctity of the place was so palpable that the crowd felt inhibited, and at first refrained from dancing and singing loudly. Once people permitted themselves to indulge their emotions, the songs of joy rose to the heavens.
With few exceptions, Jews did not yet live in the Old City, and many, including Chavi and I, needed a guide to direct us to the Kotel. The practice of holding many different minyanim had not yet developed, so that everyone there davened together in one large group. There was thus a powerful sense of achdut, of true unity. Over the years, visiting the Kotel has become something that most of us take for granted, but that first time was a privilege for which we shall always be grateful.”
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, Chief Operating Officer, OU Kosher:
“I go to Israel about two times a year—it’s usually a short trip. Each visit I always try to go and daven vatikin at the Kotel. Vatikin at the Kotel, to me, is what it means to be a Jew. You see all sorts of minyanim — Chassidim, Sephardim, Dati Leumi. Every minyan has its makom kavua. The minyan I daven with is the most eclectic group of people you’ll ever meet. Some have not missed davening vatikin at the Kotel in decades.
The minyanim become a chorus — different sounds and havarot but the same davening. But at the moment of netz (sunrise) there is total silence as everyone starts shemonah esrei at the same time and all of our hearts and voices meld into one.
A few minutes later, the davening chorus resumes.”
Mayer Fertig, Chief Communications Officer, OU:
“My work trip to Israel last summer was all-too-short, and soon in its final hours. Before leaving for the airport I walked to a nearby supermarket from my hotel across from the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem. My children, especially my then-seven-year-old son, had requested candy from Israel, and I couldn’t return empty-handed. Even if that meant inadvertently schlepping back items that are actually available at our local kosher grocery in Elizabeth, N.J. — Hebrew labeling would do the trick.
During the seven or so minute walk it occurred to me that Supersol had something even better than candy that I could bring back: an exciting bit of family lore that our kids were unaware of. I quickly called home to share it with my wife.
In the late 70’s, I told Chani, when I was about the age of our younger son, my grandparents Esther and Joseph Fertig a”h made aliyah. For several years they lived on rechov Keren Hayesod, a few dozen feet from the supermarket that I was approaching.
After settling into their new place, and before the homesickness set in that eventually brought them back to their grandchildren in New York, Zeidy volunteered with the mishmeret gevul, border patrol. He became a security guard at the Supersol just across the street, assigned to screen customers before entry.
This was not at all surprising. After a privileged childhood that included flying lessons, Zeidy had been a pilot in the New Jersey National Guard. After Pearl Harbor he promptly enlisted, hoping to quickly be shipped overseas to, as he once put it, “get a shot at Hitler.” That wasn’t meant to be, but that’s another story.
Simply put, on duty outside Supersol one day, Zeidy stopped a guy who had a bomb in his bag, which evidently the would-be bomber intended to leave in the supermarket before making his escape. This was in the days before the phrase ‘suicide bomber’ entered our lexicon and our consciousness; the man had no intention of killing himself, and so Zeidy was able to make an arrest. I was little when this happened and the story is short on details. Unfortunately, I never thought to ask Zeidy to elaborate.
When I arrived at the supermarket I ended my phone call and, before walking inside, stopped to greet the two security guards outside the door — a young man and woman — and briefly shared with them Zaidy’s experience in the late 70’s on more or less the very spot we stood. They were quite taken aback and thanked me for telling them the story. Then, I went in to buy candy.”
Nachum Segal, Host, JM in the AM/Nachum Segal Network:
“I was in Jerusalem during the blizzard of December 2013. There were many challenging, and sometimes tragic, situations that emerged from the rare multiple feet of snow that fell on the Holy City. There were, however, some lighthearted and bizarre moments as well that made this American chuckle over those four days.
Few seemed to understand the importance of clearing snow from the front of their home, hotel or shul. When I encouraged people to do so I was told that people do not have shovels. Evidently, there is a shovel shortage in Jerusalem. I promptly declared that on Tu B’shvat, which was a month later, shovels would be available everywhere. And while I know that garden shovels are not the same as snow shovels, they are certainly better than nothing.
I also watched in amazement as the maintenance staff at the hotel where I stayed tried to clear the snow by watering it with a hose. Yes: they watered the snow. In general, it was a comedic treat watching Jerusalemites trying to figure out how to get their car out of a snowbound parking spot. Simply driving in the snow is a skill, let alone getting in and out of a spot. At times I wanted to run over and say, ‘I am an American. I have expertise at this. Let me save you.’
Jerusalem is also very hilly and has very few snowplows. As a result, conditions were extremely challenging. It was the humorous parts of those few days that made me say ‘Only in Jerusalem.’”
Allison Josephs (Jew in the City):
“Several years ago, when my husband and I were living in Jerusalem, a cab driver with a big beard and black kippah picked me up. Partially because I’m me and partially because it was Israel we got into a discussion about how I became religious. At one point I asked the driver about himself – religious from birth or chozer b’teshuva?
‘Neither,’ he said. He explained that his father had died recently and for the shloshim he was taking on the entire Torah. The ride was coming to an end. I wanted to know what he would do when the shloshim ended.
‘Ani lo yodea.’ He responded. The car stopped and I was ready to get out.
‘When does it end?’ I wanted to know.
‘Machar,’ was his reply. As I ran out I called out to him, ‘Don’t lose it all! Hold onto something. It need not be all or nothing.’
A couple months later a cab picked me up. There was no kippah or beard on the driver.
‘At zocheret oti?’ he wanted to know. I didn’t. ‘Ani Moshe,’ he told me – the guy who had observed the whole Torah for his father’s shloshim. I wouldn’t normally do this because I don’t normally tell people what to do but I knew that he wouldn’t have outed himself if he didn’t want my nudge.
‘You don’t have to do it all’ I told him, ‘but get working on something. Then if you die tomorrow you won’t have to tell God ‘I don’t observe.’ You could tell him, ‘I was trying.”
‘In your merit, I will become religious’ Moshe repeated again and again.
I look forward to returning to the magical city of Jerusalem where I hope to see what the third ride with Moshe leads to!
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations:
“In 1966, I visited a number of Arab countries, ending up in Jordan. I was there as an official guest, a young Middle East specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was a graduate student. I made my way to the Kotel, which was then a narrow alleyway and dumping ground. I later visited the American consulate and, on the way out, witnessed the buses carrying Israeli soldiers to Mount Scopus with their shades drawn and a great deal of Jordanian security watching them. In addition, I noticed that there were some foreign troops monitoring the convoys’ progress.
I took some innocent photographs and within seconds was surrounded by members of the Jordanian legion, which, obviously, saw me come out of the consulate earlier and yelled that I was a CIA agent. Their commander eventually came and demanded my camera and after a brief exchange said I was under house arrest at my hotel, the American Colony. I went in through the front door and grabbed my small suitcase, which had my tefillin hidden in the lining, and I left out of the back of the hotel. It was near the end of my trip in any event, and I had done all that I had intended. I found a taxi that took me to the Mandelbaum Gate.
As we came near the checkpoint, I noticed the legion commander was walking there holding papers and engaged in deep discussion with a soldier. I hid out of view until we passed him and then quickly left the cab to get my papers processed before he arrived there. The clerk was extremely slow and I could see the pair approaching, albeit slowly. When I showed him that I had been vaccinated against small pox, which was then in evidence and required people to remain for five days, he said “we don’t care what disease you take to Israel.” In actuality, an American official put his inoculations in my passport because I did not want to remain. The paperwork finally finished. I approached the gate without looking back, it lifted, and I started to walk as quickly as I could without running so as not to draw attention. That plan failed and the commander started yelling that I should come back and they shouldn’t let me through. I was already in no-man’s land and I continued walking, expecting that I would be shot in the back at any time. I rounded the bend and saw the Israeli checkpoint and quickened my pace, feeling a sense of relief. As I came to the gate, the Israeli soldier on duty looked at me and said, ‘I think I can say welcome home.’ I hugged him and kissed the ground. Every time I arrive in Israel I hear those words, ‘welcome home.'”
Rabbi Ari Kahn, Educator and Author:
“Many years ago, during a particularly fearful time in Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular, I witnessed something that I suppose could happen anywhere in Israel, but is spiritually indigenous to Jerusalem. There had been a series of terror attacks; buses exploded and the death toll kept rising. People were more anxious than usual. I had some business to attend to in a bank in the center of the city, and approached the security guard at the entrance. He had found a unique way to do his job. As each customer walked in, the guard offered some haddasim to smell and asked each customer to make a bracha. Those who knew the bracha – which, from my observation, was the overwhelming majority – were allowed entry without further inspection, just a heartfelt’amen.’ One after another, Jerusalemites in all types of dress and appearance, pronounced the bracha and were answered with a loud amen. Jerusalem was safe, not only because of the tight security but because of the additional merit of the brachot.”
Naomi Linder Kahn, Editor and Translator:
“Almost thirty years ago, I was a new bride and a new olah, navigating my way through Israel’s bureaucratic maze, struggling to understand what was happening around me, to connect to my new surroundings and gain some control over my new life. On one particularly challenging morning, between two appointments in government offices on opposite sides of town, I was running late –and the skies opened up. The pouring rain was the last straw for me: I broke down and decided to splurge on a taxi in order to make up some lost time. After ten infuriating minutes in traffic, the taxi driver suddenly stopped the engine, opened his door, and said to me urgently, ‘Quick – get out of the car!’ As my frustration reached the boiling point, the driver grabbed the newspaper that had been lying on the front passenger seat, covered his head, and pointed up toward the skyline. A magnificent rainbow had appeared, but I had been so preoccupied and “stressed out” that I hadn’t noticed it. And then, this taxi driver unknowingly reminded me why I was here, why I had made aliyah, why Jerusalem was my home. ‘Make a bracha,’ he said. He pronounced the blessing, thanking God for remembering His covenant with mankind, and waited for me to do the same before returning to his seat behind the wheel. That one shining moment taught me so many lessons I hope never to forget.”
Aviva Rizel (Ask Aviva):
“One Jerusalem spring day in 2000, my friends and I decided to make the most of our day off from seminary. We decided to discover the Wohl Rose Park (Gan Hav’radim), so we took a bus from Har Nof over to Givat Ram. Not knowing that we were at the foot of the Supreme Court and opposite the Knesset, we giddily strolled around the floral gardens. Our adventure among the tulips started shifting as we heard a rhythmic chopping sound growing louder and louder. Then we saw it. The flowers all bowed away from the military helicopter as it landed. We ran towards it, an official ran towards us, yelling, “Atzur!”. We froze, and Ehud Barak disembarked. How much more important those tulips looked after that!
Adina Soclof, Parent Educator and Certified Speech Pathologist:
“It seems as if I was born with the song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav in my ears because I loved Jerusalem even before I saw Yerushalayim for the first time when I was 12. I always wondered how that could be.
The mystical part of me knows it is my pintele yid while the practical part knows it was my wonderful teachers at Shulamith, mostly Israeli, who stoked the embers. They inculcated within me a love and an unstinting pride in the land of Israel that has never left me. They taught us the songs of early chalutzim and lovingly described the landscape and geography of Israel with the old, tired, creased map that hang from the blackboard. I remember in 4th grade Mrs. Gopstien taught us that even Hebrew grammar was affected by Yerushalayim. You always went ‘up’ to Yerushalayim because it was the holiest place in the land.
Although we don’t live there, we are blessed that we go often to Israel and stay in, where else? Yerushalayim. When it’s time to leave my husband teases me because my last stop before we head to the airport is the Kotel. ‘I know’ he says, ‘You need to say goodbye.’
When we come back to the States, I spend a lot of time sending him emails with every You Tube video that has landscapes of Jerusalem, songs of Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem. I always tag on a message, ‘What are we doing here? It’s time to go home…to Jerusalem.’”