On Masa Yisraeli, the Western Wall belongs to everybody

This year we marked the 50th anniversary of our return to Jerusalem, remembering that heart-stirring moment when the first IDF soldiers arrived at the Western Wall.

By URI COHEN
October 15, 2017 21:52
3 minute read.
On Masa Yisraeli, the Western Wall belongs to everybody

What is the relevance of the Bible to our life today? . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Sukkot is one of the three holidays in which Jews often choose to go on pilgrimage to the Western Wall – as The Bible states: “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord” (Exodus 23:17).

This year we marked the 50th anniversary of our return to Jerusalem, remembering that heart-stirring moment when the first IDF soldiers arrived at the Western Wall and we’re overwhelmed with emotion. Our return to the Western Wall symbolized, more than anything else, the unity of the Jewish people in the holiest of places – a reality that we had been yearning for over 2,000 years while in exile.

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For years, prayer at the Western Wall was managed according to Orthodox custom, with a section for men and a section for women. For years, the other streams of Judaism demanded there be an egalitarian area where men and women could pray together. Courageously, 3 years ago Chairman of the Jewish Agency Mr. Natan Sharansky and Naftali Bennett, then Minister of Religious Affairs and the Diaspora succeeded in designating such a space alongside the Western Wall known as – “Ezrat Israel.”

In recent months, the expansion of this space has been at the heart of a vociferous struggle between the ultra-Orthodox and the more liberal streams of Judaism. At the heart of the issue is difference in perspective regarding religion and opposing worldviews. However, what many of these Jews have forgotten are the basic principles of Judaism – unity, love and acceptance of the other.

This year on Masa Yisraeli, a weeklong Jewish heritage journey, 25,000 Israeli 11th graders will be exposed to these basic principles. When they visit the Western Wall, they will be offered the choice of going to the egalitarian area.

Masa Yisraeli is a once-in-a-lifetime, transformative experience that strengthens the Zionist, Israeli and Jewish identity of 11th grade high school students. Through intense discussion and rigorous physical activity, students examine themselves as individuals, their relationships to their classmates, their communities, their country and their people. On the sixth and final day, they experience Shabbat in Jerusalem, examining Jewish tradition and their connection to Judaism – the common denominator that connects us all as a people, in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Students interact in discussion circles throughout the journey, an educational method that encourages connection and awareness of the need to listen, keeping an open mind, understanding of the other. Pluralism and different opinions are presented as positive and encouraged.



The Midrash writes that there are “70 faces of Torah” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16). Multiplicity of opinions in Judaism is not only legitimate and fuels thought, culture and creativity, but it has been a guiding principle since the development of the culture of dialogue and midrash in the Mishna and Talmud.

The 11th graders that participate in ‘Masa Yisraeli’ represent the full spectrum of Israeli society.

They are secular and religious, from the center of the country and from the periphery, from large cities and small kibbutzim, native born and new immigrants. They come from homes with different perspectives regarding Jewish identity, Judaism in the Diaspora and the State of Israel.

Masa Yisraeli is advancing an open and inclusive, national discourse as evidenced by Prof. Gad Yair, head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Innovation in Education, following a two-year study of the Masa Yisraeli program.

“Our findings show that Masa Yisraeli nurtures differences and allows for the expression of different opinions. Masa Yisrael helps youth fine-tune their identities through inclusivity and diversity.

The Masa Yisraeli journey provides a place for everyone, everyone can connect,” notes Gad Yair, from the book Masa Yisraeli, published by Yedioth Ahronoth this year).

The openness that is reinforced during Masa Yisraeli’s visit to the Western Wall can and should serve as a bridge to the entire Jewish world. It is precisely there, in the holiest place for the Jewish people, that every Jew must be given the opportunity to pray (or not pray) in their own way. It is every Jews’ fundamental right.

The writer is the CEO and founder of Masa Yisraeli.

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