Tisha Be’av at the Kotel, 1967

The atmosphere of celebration in Jerusalem was intoxicating. Jerusalem was intact and ours!

The hovels blocking access to the Western Wall for centuries are bulldozed following the Six Day War (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The hovels blocking access to the Western Wall for centuries are bulldozed following the Six Day War
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I arrived in Israel for the first time on my birthday, July 1, 1967, only days after the Six Day War. Months earlier I had scheduled a year of graduate school studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
During the first days of the war, the only news source was Egypt. The American news repeated those reports, and the news was totally frightening. I barely slept awaiting the outcome. Then I found myself safely parked in the university dorms of Kiryat HaYovel, remarkably absorbed in the two-month intensive ulpan, Hebrew-language classes.
The atmosphere of celebration in Jerusalem was intoxicating. Everyone just transitioned from mortal fear to the exhilaration of victory. Jerusalem was intact and ours!
The nine days before Tisha Be’av were coming. Given the high emotional conditions, I decided to take those days seriously and chose to follow tradition and not shave.
On August 14, the eve of the 9th of Av that year, it was unimaginable to forgo the first opportunity to attend Tisha Be’av services at the very site of the destroyed temples. The brave soldiers of the IDF had sacrificed too much to make that possible.
The bus stopped near the Jaffa Gate. I followed the crowd flowing to the Wall. Sheep carcasses in butcher shops hung right next to pedestrians. Vendors desperately hawked wares to all who passed. The smells of cigarette smoke, fresh pita and Arab sweets created a distinct aroma heavily mixed with the stench of urine from every corner niche.
The sight of the Wall popped into view. Wow. I recited the Sheheheyanu prayer, thanking God for keeping me alive to reach that moment in time.
Below me was an astonishing sight: Those hovels blocking access to the Wall for centuries only days earlier had been bulldozed, leaving a plaza of pulverized gravel and white stone dust everywhere. One small, lonely palm tree remained. Tables to the left of the Wall were stacked with books, black paper kippot and candles. Mincha prayer services were sprouting all over.
I found myself surrounded by a massive collection of Jews of all ages and ethnicities crowding around, breaking into smaller minyanim (prayer quorums) every few minutes as the setting sun gilded the wall. There was no one visibly in charge.
Everyone grabbed a book and candle. Outdoor lighting had not yet been installed, so dark soon took over, just as it did 2,000 years earlier. Random circles of people came together, spreading out over the dust lit by the flickering light of hundreds of small hand-held candles. We sat down in that dust and wept.
My circle was a total mix of Jews, each in their own accent and style, but we were one. We all heard the reading of Lamentations and recited the desolate verses describing what happened just above our heads 2,000 years ago.
Only weeks earlier, I had emerged from a different universe in the States. And now, in that never-to-be-repeated night, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder among Jewish brothers whose families had also survived the millennia in their different Diasporas. Somehow, miraculously, we felt each other sharing the same emotions, reliving and mourning the experience of the destruction of Jerusalem while overwhelmed by the awe of being blessed to be in the reunited Jerusalem that only a few weeks ago had been restored to our nation.
My shoes and pants stayed covered in the white stone dust all the way home. My family and my family ultimately immigrated to Israel, and I haven’s shaved off my beard since.

The writer is the gabbai of Beit Knesset Hameginim, Modi’in. He spent 40 years as the national or US West Coast director of Jewish organizations serving Israel and the Jewish people, and is the creator of ‘Super Sunday’ for North America’s Jewish Federations.