It’s easy for things you haven’t experienced to feel abstract, like just a story somebody’s told. Your imagination paints a picture, and that’s all you’ve got. Experiencing Israel was the way the Jewish story became real to me. In one moment my experience of Judaism shifted from an abstract and intellectual understanding to a visceral feeling for the Jewish people.
Confession time: before going to Israel, I had never had a substantial conversation with a Jewish person. I’m not exactly sure how I went that whole time with such a deficiency. Judaism was just intellectual to me.
Well, going to Israel remedied my deficiency. Talking to and interacting with Israelis themselves, seeing them live their day to day lives, and walking on their streets made me feel for the nation, but one instance, in particular, made the Jewish experience real, and that was the night we went to the Western Wall.
We were planning on going in the afternoon, but Shabbat was coming in that evening. Our guide wisely decided to have us wait and go to the Wall just as the sun would set.
With a couple of friends, I went to the men’s side. Orthodox – or as they prefer, observant – men were sitting and studying in the courtyard. I had been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the feeling was totally different. In the Church, while it was a profound experience for me and my Christian faith, it felt like a tourist attraction, with people milling about trying to “get a look” at the site. It didn’t feel the same way at the Wall. Of course, I was a tourist myself, but at that moment I didn’t feel like one. At the Holy Sepulcher, I had been struck by the realization that thousands upon thousands of pilgrims had walked the steps, but I didn’t feel like a pilgrim myself, more an observer of one. I had been there, as a Christian, in the holiest Christian site, and I couldn’t help but feel like a tourist.
The Wall made me feel like a pilgrim, even though I’m not Jewish. I had already been amazed by the immensity of the Temple complex when we saw a model of it at the Israel Museum, and the Wall itself didn’t disappoint for size. The stones felt like they were a part of something great, and since I knew what the Temple had looked like, I could imagine the Temple being rebuilt on top of these stones, built even higher, stretching out over Jerusalem.
I stepped forward toward the wall. A Jewish man tried to give me a Tefillah, but since I’m not Jewish, I had to politely decline. My friends and I stepped closer. To our left, the Orthodox men were praying, leaning back and forth. To our right were people dressed like us, nicely but modern, and they were no less fervent. A chorus of Hebrew was emanating from the Wall, a hundred whispered, a hundred cried-out prayers.
As part of the crowd, we made it just five feet from the Wall. In front of me, a kid who looked like he’d barely made it past his Bar Mitzvah was praying under his breath, crying softly, leaning his head against his arms on the Wall. Beside him, an older man in traditional Orthodox garb was nodding, praying in Hebrew, just out of sync with the other Orthodox men further to his left.
The boy finished praying and looked back. Wordlessly, he nodded to me and moved out of the way for us to touch the Wall. I stepped forward, my mind whirling, and put my hand on the Wall.
I felt like I was touching the hope of the Jewish people. Before my eyes, I could see the Temple leaping up and being remade, and I understood why this site was more important than all others. I could feel the breath of the man to my right, a burly man praying in English, and my hand felt the stone worn smooth by the hands of who-knows-how-many Jewish men before me.
I remembered that this was where Jesus taught, and I remembered that we have the blessing of no longer needing a temple. That hope I felt shifted into joy.
All this happened in an instant.
I stepped back again, quietly, and let a friend of mine touch the Wall. He put his hand where my hand had been, looked up the Wall, and stepped away. He turned to me.
“Cool,” he said, breathlessly.
We walked back up to the others. We had somewhere to go.
I’ll always remember when I met God at the Western Wall. It made me feel for the Jewish people, and it reconnected me with my own faith. Now, when I think of Jerusalem, I think of the Temple. I’m reminded of the Jewish hope and the Christian joy. The Wall reconnected me with my faith more than any other site and exemplifies what is special about Israel for Jews and Christians alike. Our faiths are intertwined, and encountering Judaism helped me deepen my own love for Christ.