In my last post, I described my love for the city of Jerusalem. Obviously, I’m not alone and obviously those who live in the city have more of a say than I do but all of us who feel an emotional connection with Jerusalem and celebrate its meaning to our faith and to our people also have a stake in its future.
I have returned to Jerusalem 12 times since my year as a student. Each visit has strengthened my attachment to the city even as changes abound both for Jerusalem and for me. When I was a student in 1979-1980, the city had much more of a “small town” feel to it. The center of town was the only place to go to shop- and those options were limited- or to find entertainment. Now, different “trendy” neighborhoods have been developed, there is certainly more of a cultural scene and shopping malls on the outskirts of town make the “let’s go to merkaz ha’ir (the center of the city) and walk down King George St for fun a thing of the past.
Those changes are significant. But, the clearest change that has affected life in Jerusalem for the visitor and the resident is the change in the demography relating to religious communities in Jerusalem. Much more of the city’s area is dominated by ultra-Orthodox, haredi, Jews. In and of itself, this isn’t an problem. People have a right to practice and live as they choose and certainly one would expect observant Jews to find meaning in living in the holy city. But the problem that results from this is that the influence of this approach to Judaism can be felt everywhere in the city and makes it difficult, to say the least, for non-Orthodox Jews to feel comfortable in the city’s holy sites and synagogues and sometimes on its streets as well.
Just this week, three female Conservative Rabbinical students were told that they could not wear a tallit at the Western Wall and were interviewed by the police and nearly arrested. Their actions were considered offensive by the authorities at the Wall. It is inconceivable to me that this could be happening but it is happening and happening every day.
It wasn’t always this way. Pictures of the Western Wall from generations past show men and women standing together. More recently, in 1984, I led a group from my synagogue in Lansdale, Pennsylvania to Israel and on Friday evening, we had an egalitarian service in the Western Wall plaza just outside the area which is separated between men and women. No one raised a fuss, no one seemed to care. Such an action would be impossible today and this is only one example of what happens in the holy places in Jerusalem.
We can profess and feel a love for Jerusalem as our city of hope and peace but until all Jews are treated equally at holy sites and respect is given to Jewish women and to those who wish to pray with them, we will not feel completely at home in Jerusalem.
And, it should be said that it goes beyond just prayer. You might have read of the incidents of defacing of advertisements and signs in the city which contain pictures of women. This trend towards extremism threatens to undermine the sense of holiness and beauty the city offers and makes it more and more difficult for first time visitors to the city to develop the lasting deep connections that many of us have found.
The other issue facing Jerusalem that is so important is the question of the future of the city as a united city under Israel’s authority. This issue has to be worked out by the parties involved but I think it is important for those of us who love the city and who find great spiritual meaning in it to express our opinions.
Our people have waited too long and our brothers and sisters have sacrificed too much to regain control of our holy sites such as the Western Wall for us to claim now that it is not important to us as a people. Control of these sites and access to them are too important for us as a people to walk away from. But, Jerusalem covers a large area with many neighborhoods that have remained Arab neighborhoods since before 1948 and it seems to me that ceding control over these neighborhoods and the holy sites of other faiths, particularly Islam, in exchange for a real, secure and lasting peace is certainly reasonable. Whether that can be accomplished of course is not clear and I would hope that Israelis and Palestinians would get back to the negotiating table and work on all of the issues that divide them, Jerusalem among them. In the meantime, I believe that it is essential for both pragmatic and ethical reasons, that Israel respect the connections that Arabs have with certain neighborhoods of the city and put an end to efforts, whether politically or religiously based, to increase a Jewish presence in these areas through evictions or other means. Of course Jews, as any people, should be able to live anywhere they choose but in this case care and caution and respect for the homes and neighborhoods of others should take precedence.
I was born and raised in Boston and when I go back to that city or when I think about it in my mind, I feel a tremendous sense of connection even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years. To me, there is a certain sense of holiness that comes from the sense of home when I think about the area I grew up in.
Our connection with Jerusalem stems from the same place but with a longer, more communal memory. Whether we have lived in the city or only visited or only dreamed of visiting, it is a place which beckons to us and connects with us on a very deep level. May we always have the privilege, one which so many of other ancestors did not, of being able to travel to and live in this city which means so much to our people. But may it always be a city of peace for Jews of all kinds and for all of those who call it home.