This blog post was written in collaboration with Jax Steager.
We started our morning in a park with Jhos, talking about names: the name of the city of Jerusalem and the name of the nation of Israel. Hebrew is a mutable language; words offer many interpretations. Encoded in the word Jerusalem is the concept of wholeness, and one possible meaning of the word Israel is the idea of a direct connection with G-d. With that in mind, we entered the Old City for the first time. Jerusalem is home to some of the most holy sites of the world’s major religions. Today we visited two of them.
Our approach to the kotel, the Western Wall, was filled with happy families singing and dancing. Thursdays are Bar Mitzvah days in Israel, and many young men were headed to read the Torah at the Wall. Once in the plaza, men and women are separated. We approached the Wall and were pressed on all sides by women reaching to touch the stones, pray, and insert their notes into the cracks. As we stepped back, we couldn’t help but notice many women standing on chairs to peer over the gender divider (mechitza) at their sons and brothers reading their Torah portions below.
Taking a deep breath, we moved on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We observed the crowds of pilgrims lining up to touch the top of Calvary (traditionally thought to be the place where Jesus was crucified), the stone where his body laid, and his tomb. Just as we saw at the Western Wall, emotions ran high as people came face-to-face with the holiest places in their faiths.
We had a long, thought-provoking afternoon in which we journeyed between West and East Jerusalem. Our tour of the political divides in Israel was provocative to say the least, but what we carried with us is a deeper, more personal understanding of why Jerusalem is so important to so many. It is important to the pilgrims because it is the place where they can make a direct connection with their God, and it is important to the locals as they strive to make their home whole.