When I️ was younger I️ used the word “holy” interchangeably with the word “magic”. Enthralled by my teachers’ mesmerizing illustrations of the Kotel from a very young age, my first trip to see it in person was surreal. I️ was 12 and naive but so fascinated by the entire experience and the history behind it that I just could not wrap my head around. In the five years between then and now, I’ve had the privilege of returning to Israel four times on six different programs. As you can probably imagine, encounters that once seemed so enchanting have faded into somewhat of a routine over time.
Two Shabbats ago I went to the Kotel, a pursuit that has become custom to my week. There, I️ encountered something that jolted that routine and pioneered complete transformation in my perspective. Upon stepping through the metal detector at the end of the security line I️ caught a glimpse of the plaza below and noticed an unusually gaping, empty area in front of the Kotel usually covered by singing and dancing people. As I️ approached I️ saw a line of teenagers locking hands and wearing blindfolds to mask the Wall that stood before them. From murmurs in the crowd I️ realized that this group of people had never before been to Israel or seen the Kotel, and they were waiting for their trip leader to finish up his speech so they could remove their blindfolds. The crowd surrounding was frozen in anticipation of witnessing the reactions and awaited the end of the speech just as much as those who stood there behind the dark bandanas. The beauty of it all was that the teenagers in front of us possessed the wonder of children experiencing something for the first time. They were unafflicted by the desensitization of true holiness and awe. I️ think the crowd was so invested because we all wanted to experience that feeling once again, even if it was through another person.
The blindfolds were removed and the amazement that glistened in their eyes was present to a degree that I️ cannot articulate in a blog post. I️ decided in that moment that I would strive to restore mindfulness and genuine appreciation back into my everyday life. Living in Israel for the year, I️ encounter things on a daily basis that would cause anyone’s jaw to drop to the floor, and I’ve become so accustomed that I️ just walk by. Therefore, mindfulness is a new goal of mine.
Last week I️ initiated this effort by joining over 35,000 Jews for Shabbat in Chevron. Unlike all other Shabbatons I’ve been on which were structured and hosted by a specific organization, this Shabbaton was a country-wide free thrall. Because Chevron is technically Arab territory, Jews only have full access to the city for 10 days a year. We fought for this specific Shabbat to be included because of the parsha. Chayei Sara is when we read about Sara’s death and burial in the double caves which to this day stand in Chevron. Many people believe that aside from the Kotel and Temple Mount, Chevron may be the holiest place because along with Sara are buried all of our forefathers and mothers.
These 25 hours of full access to the city and caves were maximized to their absolute fullest. Schools and buildings housed thousands of people who covered every inch of floor with sleeping bags. The anticipated discomfort of sleeping next to strangers on a classroom floor vanished as soon as the excitement of the weekend was learned to be mutual. After extravagant dinners held in massive tents in the city center, every Jewish home, building and organization welcomed people through all hours of the night for onegs and celebration.
The next day was when the impending danger became apparent to me, and I️ realized the threat that the Jews brave enough to live in Chevron face every day. I️ was on a walking tour with about 300 other Americans when the Israeli soldiers lining the street seemed to be more prevalent. We were told this was because we were entering the Arab-only residential area, but not to worry because they were on lock down and could not leave their houses (but that didn’t stop them from opening their windows and standing on their roofs). They watched us dance and sing as we paraded through their neighborhoods, and the next thing I️ knew the Israeli soldiers were shouting orders in Hebrew and people bolted in many different directions in utter fear and confusion. The situation was quickly taken back under control, but for minutes, which felt more like hours, I️ wasn’t sure what was to come. Were rocks being thrown from windows? Were guns being fired from rooftops? For the first time ever, I️ genuinely feared for my life. Word later divulged that there was an incident of tear gas being thrown from a rooftop (although there is no credible source which verified that). I️ realized the reaction of the soldiers was extreme because the potential for harm was extreme - and that’s a harsh reality that not only residents of Chevron, but that all Israelis face daily.
Although terrifying, the possibility of that experience may have been in the fine print of what I️ signed up for when I️ decided to live here for the year. And maybe it was necessary in order to spark the awareness and appreciation that drew me to Chevron in the first place. I️ regard the greatest privilege of studying in Israel being able to simultaneously walk through history as well as experience the now, and those are two departments which have not been lacking in these past couple of weeks.
Sydni Burg is a 2017 graduate of Solon High School. She is spending this year studying in Jerusalem in a seminary called Midreshet Moriah. There, she takes religious classes on all topics, books, concepts and laws of Judaism.