At Empty Western Wall, Praying for Those Who Aren’t Allowed In

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An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays as others participate in the Cohanim priestly caste blessing during Passover at the Western Wall, April 12, 2020.
An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays as others participate in the Cohanim priestly caste blessing during Passover at the Western Wall, April 12, 2020. Credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner

“I’ve lived in the Jewish Quarter for 40 years. I’ve never seen the Western Wall like this. It’s like seeing the Temple destroyed and waiting for it to be rebuilt,” says Yehoshua Zilber, 64, on the brink of tears.

The sight is truly astounding: the Western Wall Plaza practically deserted, the chirping of birds overhead louder than the voices of the few worshippers below.

Rabbi Yaakov Ades, leading the prayers, chants aloud the chapter from Psalms containing “from whence shall my help come?” – and the sound blends with the muezzin’s call from the Temple Mount. From above, Border Police officers observe the service.

“I feel like an emissary of the entire Jewish people,” Zilber says. “And I understand that God wants to show that ultimately He controls the world.”

As for who controls the nearly empty plaza, it’s the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. “It’s almost extraterritorial,” says a police official, requesting anonymity. As part of the emergency regulations for the coronavirus, the cabinet has allowed prayer three times a day at the Western Wall “for 10 people who live in close proximity.”

It was also agreed that the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, would give the police a list stating which people had permission to pray there, effectively letting Rabinowitz hold all the power.

“They decide who prays there and who enters,” the police official says. Someone from the foundation adds: “There are people who would pay a fortune right now to pray at the Western Wall. For a lot of people, the Western Wall is everything.”

The list is one thing, but the foundation is essentially permitting anyone from the Jewish Quarter who wishes to enter the plaza to pray. Residents say they are sometimes allowed in during prayers, and sometimes between services.

“To avoid having a lot of people seen by the cameras, sometimes they ask us to wait until the end of the prayer, then they let us in in pairs or a bit more,” one resident says. During my visit, I counted 20 people in the plaza.

A small number of Jewish worshippers pray during the priestly blessing amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Jerusalem's Old City April 12, 2020. Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

Other people are also allowed to enter sometimes, including police officers from the station at the site, people from the foundation who work nearby, and security guards. The foundation has also permitted a maximum of seven women to pray in the women’s section of the plaza and a maximum of two women in the Ezrat Yisrael southern plaza.

Rabinowitz has stretched the boundaries even further. At the traditional Priestly Blessing this week, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman was also let in to pray, having received a personal invitation from Rabinowitz, according to the U.S. Embassy. Rabinowitz also gave Friedman’s name to the police.

On the eve of the final day of Passover, the esteemed Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, known as the admor of Belz, also came to the plaza with several aides. An ordinary resident of Jerusalem who would have tried to enter the Old City would have been fined.

The foundation was upset about Rokeach’s visit. “When we found out, there was a lot of anger,” an official with the foundation says. “People would really do anything to come here if they only could, and all of a sudden this rabbi is let in. Important as he may be, it’s still upsetting.”

Rabinowitz, who also sometimes leads the prayers at the Wall, declined to comment, except to say, “He prayed just like you got to pray here.” Rabinowitz is a familiar figure to the police. He often attends police ceremonies and is close with some high-ranking police officials.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation stated: “It was decided ahead of the Priestly Blessing to dedicate a special prayer and blessing for the full recovery of the American people and the entire world, as a gesture by Israel to U.S. citizens and President Trump at this difficult time. The U.S. Ambassador’s arrival was coordinated ahead of time with the Israel Police and his participation in the minyan [10 men required for a Jewish prayer quorum] adhered to the Health Ministry’s distancing directives.”

The foundation said that “When the admor of Belz came to the plaza, the security personnel at the entrance explained to him and his escorts that he could not enter the Western Wall plaza with his escorts as it was against the regulations and directives. Unfortunately, the escorts did not heed the directives.”

In regard to prayer at the Western wall, the foundation stated that it “was asked, through an official cabinet decision, to ensure a regular minyan three times a day, with the participants’ names determined ahead of time, and these people committing to come regularly three times a day. Naturally, the foundation contacted congregants of the Hurva Synagogue, which is also under its responsibility and one of the few synagogues in the Old City that has services three times a day, and they immediately assembled a regular minyan of worshipers.”

Hundreds of thousands of views

Entry to the Western Wall area requires passage through at least one police checkpoint, and entry to the plaza itself is manned by security personnel from the foundation. Between prayers, foundation personnel allow entry to some people who plead to touch the stones. Nissim, 63, is hoping to obtain permission to enter. “I used to come here every day before the pandemic,” he says. “I study at a yeshiva here and look out on the Kotel every day. It’s the most important place, the remnant of the Temple. But I accept this situation. I haven’t been at the Kotel for a week, it’s very hard for me.”

Not everyone gets through. “Maybe you could let me in anyway?” a woman in her 60s asks the Border Police officers. When they find out she doesn’t live in the Jewish Quarter, they tell her to go home. Magen David Adom personnel who were called to the plaza for a false alarm and wished to linger for a few minutes facing the wall from a good distance were also asked to leave.

Meanwhile, in the men’s plaza, a mincha service that normally takes minutes stretches to nearly an hour. “We pray to God with full intention in every word,” says Avraham, 60, also a Jewish Quarter resident. “The public doesn’t have the privilege of praying in a minyan, but we do, and we feel a very great responsibility. I am not only praying for myself.” The prayers are streamed on Facebook Live and get hundreds of thousands of views. “People send requests to recite the Kaddish,” the mourner’s prayer, says one of the worshipers.

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