By the thousands they flocked to the outskirts of Bethlehem last weekend – mostly religious Jewish men, women and children – spilling out of buses and flowing into the heavily fortified, concrete-encased shrine they refer to as "Kever Rachel,” or “Rachel's Tomb.”
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This was no ordinary day for these visitors. Their pilgrimage was meant to mark the eleventh day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan – the date the biblical matriarch is believed to have died. They came with an ample supply of wishes, hoping their prayers would be accepted by God on the merit of the mother figure, who the prophet Jeremiah said, "weeps for her children."
Matis Feld, a 36 year-old rabbinical student, prayed for his son.
"My son may need an operation, and I am here to pray that he won't need one," said Feld, a native of Brooklyn, New York. "There is a special power to prayer here that does not exist in every place."
With this year's calendar date coinciding with the Sabbath, worshipers descended upon the West Bank shrine – venerated by Jews for centuries – over the course of Friday, Saturday evening, and Sunday. An estimated 80,000 worshipers visited the site, which lies about 500 yards south of Jerusalem’s municipal boundary, under the protection of police and border guards, said Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman. He said no incidents were reported.
Incorporated within Israel's concrete security barrier in 2002 following the second Palestinian intifada, the shrine looks nothing like the domed stone structure depicted in turn-of the century photographs and sketches. A series of 13-foot-high concrete walls obscures the structure's exterior, which underwent extensive renovations and structural additions earlier this year.
In 2010, the Israeli government declared the shrine a "national heritage site." The decision prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to affirm an Arab member state proposal to designate it a Muslim holy site called "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque / Rachel's Tomb.” UNESCO said the tomb is "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law," according to an Associated Press report. The Israeli government roundly condemned the declaration.
Israeli historians argue that the site never served as a mosque for the Muslims, who buried their dead in a cemetery adjacent to the shrine. British financier Moses Montefiore "is said to have obtained a permit from the Turks to build another room adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb in 1841 to keep the Muslims away from the room of the grave and to help protect the Jews at the site," wrote Nadav Shragai, an Israeli journalist, who chronicled the history of Rachel's Tomb, in a 2010 study for The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Amid the humming of prayer chants and the swaying worshipers in the men's section, Moshe Benaim could be seen taking a prayer book from one of the shelves. Clad in an Israel Defense Forces uniform, he was about to recite the morning service.
"I'm here because it's a very important day," said Benaim, a 28-year-old quality assurance analyst with the IDF who was born in New York City and grew up in the United Kingdom before recently making aliyah. "We believe Rachel cares for every one of her children and have no doubts that our prayers, here, will be accepted."
Others, like Avraham Miller, a bearded Haredi man from Brooklyn who arrived in Israel as a student in 1965, sees Jewish prayer at the site as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. Quoting scripture, he noted God's assurance to a weeping Rachel that “Your children will return to their own land."
"The mother, Rachel, represents our passport to coming out of exile and returning back to Israel," said Miller. "That's why we come here to ‘daven’ [‘pray’]. It's special."
Outside the shrine – at a separate entrance for women, a lady with a head-covering spoke wistfully, as if she were coming to visit a beloved parent.
"I come here to my mother," says a woman, who would only identify herself as Yiscah, a 49 year-old Jerusalem native who teaches high school English. "Rachel is like a 'mama.'"
Asked what she would be praying for, Yiscah let out an anguished sigh before answering.
"I pray for all the things I don't have," she said. "I pray to be a better person and a better mother."