Paul Segal and April Angeloni from San Diego arrived in Israel this week to participate in the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America. But before jumping into any conversations about Jewish peoplehood or debates on the future of the Diaspora, they headed for the Kotel.
And there, in the large main plaza, Segal got down on his knee and - little box with massive diamond ring all prepared - proposed.
The happy couple then each went their separate ways: Angeloni covered herself and went over to the women’s section to pray for health, happiness and peace; Segal did much the same across the divide, in the men’s section.
“That part was a little sad,” she says. “I wish we had been together.”
Less than a week later, Segal and Angeloni made a second, different visit to the Kotel - this time joining in as the GA concluded its three day gathering in Jerusalem with a celebratory mass march from city hall into the Old City.
Led by a brass band and accompanied by soldiers, clowns on stilts, bongo players and shofar blowers in flowing white tunics and turbans - the marchers, waving mini Israeli, American and Canadian flags and hoisting placards reading “A Trip of a Lifetime,” set out across King Solomon Street, stopping the not-so-appreciative traffic along the way.
A blur of name tags, baseball caps, sunglasses, “I am a Zionist, ask me why” lapel pins, and very sensible walking shoes – the marchers then weaved around Jaffa Gate, along the perimeter paths and through Zion Gate of the Old City.
From there, snapping photos of Hassidic school children peering out through windows, and making pit stops to purchase Armenian pottery candy dishes along the way, the crowd swept across the Jewish quarter parking lot, and - no security checks needed - right into the famed plaza.
And then, if only for a moment, everyone looked a little lost. “What’s the program,” the marchers asked GA volunteers milling around in lime green T-shirts reading “Ask Me.” “Where do we go?”
“We should have made up maps,” quipped Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, as he navigated his way over to the new wooden floored platform off the side of main plaza - which has, as part of the government’s suggested compromise plan with the Women of the Wall, recently been made available for egalitarian services.
“We call it the Israel plaza,” Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett told the marchers back at city hall, before they set out for what would end up being the first big prayer event in the new section. “We have made history…and now all Jews can pray freely and together at the wall.”
But the point, as the green t-shirt volunteers explained over and again, was that there was no official program here, meaning that everyone remained free to go, pray and sing wherever and however they wanted to - together, or separately.
“We are not telling anyone where to pray or how,” stressed Michael Siegal, JFNA’s Chair of the Board of Trustees. “We want everyone to do what is comfortable for them. But what we are here saying, as a group, is that we are one people - and we believe in pluralism.”
As the sun began to set, and the muezzin of the Dome of the Rock began calling out for the Muslims to come to their prayers, the majority of the GA marchers made it clear what felt comfortable to them - and began making their way down the narrow paths leading down to the new section.
A few volunteers helpfully handed out blank cards and pens for anyone wishing to write up personal prayers to put in the cracks between the ancient stones, prayer books were handed out, and several hundred marchers, now still, began praying Mincha.
No one was around to ask the women to cover their shoulders. No one tried to stop the women’s voices which rang out loud and clear, leading the prayers. And no one objected as Angeloni and Segal held each other tight and put their heads together to pray at the stones. “We had not really realized this space existed. We had no clue about this development at the wall, before we heard of it at the GA,” admitted Angeloni, embracing her fiancé. “But we feel like we belong here,” added Segal. “This feels like home.”
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