Editorial: Glimpsing Jerusalem \ \

I will never forget the night it all started. My friends were in my dorm room just chilling out. The phone rang:

‘Hello…,’ I queried politely.

‘Hi. Is Batia there?’ A female voice asked.

‘This is she,’ I replied a little guardedly. I’m always leery about
strangers calling.

‘Well, this is Sarah Raful from Hillel, and I just have one question to ask you…’

‘OK…’ I answered, prompting her to continue. In all honesty the name didn’t really sound familiar to me, and I feared she was a telemarketer trying to
sell me something.

‘Do you want to go to Israel?’ Now that was a strange question indeed.

‘Yes, I do I want to go to Israel.’

‘Well, congratulations, honey, you’re going…’

The scene replayed over and over in my mind while in the El-Al terminal waiting for our flight to be called. I stood to the side and looked around me. There were religious and non-religious women with babies bouncing on their hips. There were men off to another side of the terminal dressed in Talitot, traditional praying shawls, and reciting Maariv, the evening prayer. Many were speaking Hebrew. Eleven and half-hours later, we landed in Ben Gurion airport. We were all exhausted but our excitement lent us the strength to carry on. This would be a common theme for the rest of the trip.

We got through customs and baggage and waited for missing members of our group to arrive. Then a man led us down a hallway to the exit. A tall girl waited at the exit doors with a flower, a bag and a huge poster welcoming me to Israel. It was my best friend whom greeting me in such a fashion. We had met three years earlier in school. She’s Israeli and came to America because her father was on sabbatical. We had not seen each other in three years. That was my first image of Israel.

There would be other images of Israel that I would take home with me. The market place of Ben Yehuda Street is one of these images. I was on a mission, searching for a ring in the shape of the Western Wall with my sister’s name on it. My friends and I tried one shop after another with no success. We went into a promising-looking shop called Peninat Yerushalyim, or Jewels of Jerusalem. We stepped inside. I asked a salesman if he had any of these rings available. He replied he did and that I should choose which one I want. We bargained for a half-hour and we were at a stalemate. Another salesman came over and the bargaining continued again. In the end we both came away happy. I would meet up with this salesman a few more times while in Jerusalem. He would greet me the same way each time: with a loud, carrying ‘Shalom!’ and a large welcoming hand gesture. Each time he did this, I would hide my face.

Another experience was visiting the Western Wall. In the synagogue, during every holiday, my friends and I would sing B’shana Haba’a B’Yerushalyim, or next year in Jerusalem. Now here were all of us from UMass, all 59 of us, just one group out of hundreds of young Jewish-American students participating in the Birthright Israel 2001 trip. Our group leaders took us through the old city and made us wait in an enclosed alleyway. Our tension grew. My friend and I grabbed each other’s hands for strength and support. The leaders told all of us to hold hands and close our eyes. Trust them, they said. They wouldn’t let anything happen to us. We let go of our very human fear of the unknown, closed our eyes while we held each other’s hands, and started to walk. They placed each of us near a cold metal fence. I stood there with my eyes closed listening to the muted hush of prayer and movement. Tears ran down my face. I opened my eyes and there it was: the Wall in all its glory. So huge from where we stood that the people looked like dolls. I stood there crying and thinking, ‘I’m finally here. I’m finally here.’

At that moment we were in Jerusalem. The leaders took us down to visit the Wall up close. The women all walked as one to the women’s section. Modestly dressed women prayed in front of the Wall. I waited till a woman finished praying and I stood in front of the Wall, I reached my hand out and touched it. It was a warm day…but the Wall was cool. The stone was smooth under my fingers, worn by millions of hands touching it over thousands of years. Hundreds of thoughts ran through my mind, racing like bothersome gnats. I closed my eyes, put my forehead to the Wall and said the Shema, a traditional Jewish prayer. ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is Our G-d, the Lord is One.’

Batia Charpak is a UMass student.