June 18, 2024
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“For There the Tribes Settled, As A Testimony To Israel”: Yom Yerushalayim From A Local’s Perspective

Jerusalem—On Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim), a number of unique activities take place in the reunited city. The evening before, the holiday is welcomed in with an all-night celebration at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, the Religious Zionist School founded by Rabbi Abraham Kook decades before Israel’s founding. The late afternoon also plays host to the Rikudegalim (Dance of the Flags), a 65-year-old tradition of Jewish youth dressed in blue and white marching around the capital city waving Israeli flags. However, this year I had the opportunity to spend a large amount of time in a part of the city which is often pushed aside for political reasons: the Old City that was recaptured and re-established under Jewish sovereignty in 1967. By walking through the ancient streets of Israel’s capital on the day of her release, I’ve gained a completely new perspective on my favorite day of the year.

This year, for the first time ever, Hesder students from the entire country gathered at the Western Wall for a mass Yom Yerushalayim morning prayer. This ceremony, organized by Rabbi Elisha Avner, drew in a record crowd of thousands of Israeli youth and adults, and the overcrowded Kotel Plaza was full of the sounds of singing and dancing to the celebratory Hallel prayer. The celebration was also attended by several leaders of Religious Zionism, including Rabbi Chaim Druckman, considered to be the rabbinic leader of the Israeli Orthodox religious world; Minister of Knesset Yoni Stoven, and vice Minister of Education Avi Wartzman. Even the lengthy two- hour prayer didn’t dampen the spirits of those gathered, and the celebration ended with all of those gathered dancing in one large circle, singing thanks to God at the site taken back by Israeli paratroopers 46 years earlier. The emotions, the happiness, joy, and thanks, were truly palpable in the air as all went their separate ways after.

My day continued with a tour of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. We had the opportunity to hear from Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the French-born dean of Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim and a well-known rabbinic leader of the Old City of Jerusalem. Starting with the story of his school, Rabbi Aviner told us of how Jewish settlers in the late 19th century bought the property to start a yeshiva as close as possible to the Temple Mount. Originally known as Torat Chaim, the school hosted many distinguished Jerusalemite rabbinic personalities, including Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, and Rabbi Aryeh Levin. In 1948, the building had to be abandoned with the Jordanian occupation of the Old City and given to the yeshiva’s Muslim guard. However, after the Six Day War in 1967, it was given back to the IDF by this guard, who said that the building saved his life during the close combat in the main streets outside. To this day, many IDF veterans of the Six-Day War return to pray at Ateret Kohanim on Shabbat, passing on their legacies to the students there. After recounting a few stories of miracles that he witnessed during the Six-Day War, Rabbi Aviner bid us a happy holiday and returned to teaching his students studying in the adjacent Bet Midrash.

Our guide, Yaakov, took us to a number of Jewish properties in the Muslim Quarter, including the Wittenberg House and Bet Hatzalam (the Photographer’s House), each with its unique story of acquisition, loss in 1948, and miraculous recovery in 1967. We were welcomed by the Jewish owners, told their stories, and shown up to their rooftop gardens and playgrounds, each with a gorgeous view of the Jerusalem skyline, the Temple Mount, and the Judean hills in the background. It was especially heartening to meet with these owners and hear stories of how their grandparents acquired the homes, and of the former glory of the ex-Jewish Quarter.

As we left Bet Hatzalam, one group stood out: a gaggle of older men dressed in older IDF uniforms. After producing my credentials and introducing myself, I found out that they were a group of Six-Day War veterans going on their annual tour of the Old City on Jerusalem Day. While the group did not have much time to talk, all the veterans agreed that the experience of walking through the city that they helped free is always surreal, especially on the day that everyone celebrates her freedom.

Our tour’s last stop was at the Kotel Hakatan, a small part of the Western Wall located in the Muslim Quarter. Unlike the larger part which has expanded greatly over time, this smaller section is still small and cramped, echoing what the main wall must have looked like when it was recaptured in 1967. Crowding into a circle and singing Jerusalem classics like “Im Eshkachaich Yerushalayim,” it was not difficult to connect to the Old City and to appreciate how far she has come since she was freed in 1967. Before parting ways to daven Mincha at the bigger Kotel, Yaakov left us with the following words: “Jerusalem is for all of the Jewish People; it connects all of Am Yisrael. Today, you had the opportunity to experience the feeling of Jerusalem. Spread the word, and make sure to come back again.”

Jerusalem: The City That Unites All Together

In Psalms 122, Jerusalem is known as “Ir Shechubra La Yachdav,” The City that Unites Within It.” For those who have spent time in Israel’s capital as residents or tourists, there is no denying the feeling of connection that is unique to the city. This sensation is hundredfold on Yom Yerushalayim, the celebration of her release from Jordan occupation. On this day, the open city opens up even more with a celebration that even the least connected tourists can enjoy. This year I had the unique opportunity to speak to tourists and outsiders who were celebrating Yom Yerushalayim for the first time in Jerusalem, to hear about this special experience of the City that Unites.

William from Slovakia, visiting Jerusalem as part of a European tour group to Israel, was pleasantly surprised with the Jerusalem Day spirit. “Jerusalem Day is very cheerful, much more so than I expected. Children are dancing, everyone is celebrating, and I also feel part of it.”

Yang Yang of Nanchang, China, was visiting Israel for two weeks with her boyfriend when they accidentally ended up in the Israeli capital on Jerusalem Day. “It was really nice to see everyone singing together; very fun to be part of it.”

Yom Yerushalayim is a special day for all types of Jews. Even the least observant join in the celebrations, feeling connected to the joy of the reunited city. David Sunshine, on pilgrimage to Israel from Dallas, TX, extended his stay in the capital city when he heard Jerusalem Day was close. “It’s amazing and beautiful to see how Jews have embraced their Jerusalem pride, to show their connection to the city,” he told me while waiting at the entrance to the Temple Mount. “As a Reform [Jew], it’s not always easy to feel connected to Judaism, but seeing everyone here reminds me why I’m proud to be Jewish.”

John B., in Jerusalem on business from his native Dallas, also saw this connection as he watched the Rikudegalim (Flag Parade) later in the afternoon. “I’m really blown away by the pride that everyone here has,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of youth marching through the street carrying Israeli flags, “Everyone here feels much more connected because these celebrations are recent events, not ancient history.”

Rudi from Holland, not a stranger to the Jewish State, said that the celebration and the city had changed a lot since he came to work on Kibbutz in the late ’70s. “Back then, it was very easy to get into all parts of the city, especially the Temple Mount. Now, some parts are closed off to tourists and Jews, but today, you cannot notice that loss. Everyone is just happy to be here.”

So, on Yom Yerushalayim, as the city celebrated its freedom, there is no denying that she is truly an Ir Shechubra La Yachdav.

By Tzvi Silver

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