Thursday July 5, 1985. A date that will be forever etched in my mind. The day my family made aliyah to our Holy Land. I was 9 years old at the time and felt a lot of enthusiasm having flown half-way around the world from Brooklyn. To this day, I vividly recall the emotion in my father’s voice as he gathered my mother, siblings and I and told us “We can’t start Shabbat without first going to Yerushalayim.”
What excitement. My first time at the Kotel. I couldn’t believe that the picture we had hanging on the wall of our house in New York was in front of my eyes, far grander and real than the two dimensional picture I had looked at my whole life up until that moment.
I looked around and saw Jews of all walks and colors surrounding me. All coming to the Kotel. I recall asking my father in surprise “Can it be that everyone here is Jewish?” This was a novel concept for a young American boy who had just made aliyah. All of a sudden everyone surrounding me was Jewish. This is the moment when I internalized that I was finally home.
In high school, Yom Yerushalayim was always a very special day. My Yeshiva locked its doors, and all of the students loaded buses and went to Yerushalayim. We would hike Yerushalayim, getting to know the city’s paths and uniqueness, and we would dance in the National “Rikud Degalim” (procession and dancing with flags through the streets of Yerushalayim, which ends at the Kotel with tens of thousands of people). These are unforgettable experiences that etched within me a deep connection and a great love for the Kotel.
It pains me that we do not all have this special connection and bond with Yerushalayim and the Kotel. OU Israel runs 23 OU Israel Youth Centers in peripheral communities throughout Israel. Our goal is to inspire and empower youth, many who come from difficult backgrounds, to maximize their potential and become contributing members of Israeli society. A few years ago, I brought one of our donors to meet the kids in our OU Israel Youth Center in Tiberias. She wanted to help them fulfil their dreams so she asked them, “What do you want?” She was expecting them to ask for a new pool table, a trip, or a PlayStation. Instead, she was blown away by their response.
“We’d really like a trip to visit Yerushalayim,” they answered. She was floored. The youth were 17 years old. Most of them had been living in Israel their entire lives. Yet, they had not had the Zechut (merit) to walk the streets of Yerushalayim, breath in the City’s holy air, or kiss the Kotel.
Since then, every year we bring our OU Israel Youth Center participants on a trip to Yerushalayim. We run a special Selichot program during the High Holidays with Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, at the Kotel. You can feel the inspiration in the air as these young men and women experience Yerushalayim for the first time. This is the same feeling we see when the OU brings teens and young The thought that for the first time in decades due to the coronavirus pandemic we may not be able to bring thousands of youth to Israel this summer pains me tremendously
adults from North America to Israel for the summer (through NCSY, Yachad and Taglit summer programs).
While the status of summer programs in Israel has not yet been decided, the thought that for the first time in decades due to the coronavirus pandemic we may not be able to bring thousands of youth to Israel this summer pains me tremendously. After spending endless hours working on enabling these kids to come to Israel, their trips may be delayed, and they may not be experiencing the Kotel for the first time this summer.
Yerushalayim has the unique ability to forever impact the soul of a Jew. Those of us who merit living in Israel and Yerushalayim after 2,000 years of exile and endless yearning should not take this for granted. It is incumbent upon us to virtually hug Yerushalayim on Yom Yerushalayim and to embed Yerushalayim deep within each and every one of us. We cannot miss this opportunity. Rather, we need to hug Her with both of our hands because Yerushalayim will forever be the eternal light for the entire world.
The author Rabbi Avi Berman is the Executive Director of OU Israel. OU Israel runs youth programs for native Israeli and English speakers in Israel as well as an array of English programs for Anglo olim and visitors.