We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this My Israel Story series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
Although I’ve visited Israel several times, my most impactful encounter with the Jewish state was the year I spent studying Torah at an American seminary for women in Jerusalem. Giddy with independence and thrilled to be in Israel, that year allowed me to gain critical insights into my values and priorities as an individual and more importantly, as a Jew.
The year was focused on Torah study, but punctuated with trips throughout the country to visit the sites so sacred to us as a people. We hiked, biked, boated, skied and trekked the length and breadth of the land that year with our trusty Jewish history teacher in tow, providing keen insights and context to the places we visited. We found it humbling to stand in the places some of our great leaders had stood and made critical choices that still impact our nation today. Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb were particularly moving, not to mention the battlefield where Joshua stood and prayed for the success of our people, causing the sun to stand still. We visited Tzfat, the city of Kabbalists, where we prayed in ancient synagogues used by those who composed prayers we say every week, walked the narrow streets of great Rabbis, and prayed at the graves of those who died defending our land and people.
With all the numerous sites we visited however, my most notable memory from that year took place in Jerusalem. Throughout the year, we had gone on walking tours of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem to gain context for when they were built, who lived in them and how the inhabitants lived throughout the years of foreign sovereignty. We had gained valuable insights and became very familiar with the city we all called home for our year away, but on the first night of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai, the city took on a new identity.
It is a widespread Jewish custom to stay up the entire first night of Shavuot studying Torah, and my seminary teachers had prepared captivating lectures to keep us up in fulfillment of that custom. At 4 a.m. however, we left our campus at the outskirts of Jerusalem and began the 1.5-hour trek on foot to the Old City for morning services at the Western Wall. As we merged onto a major Jerusalem thoroughfare, the four lanes were packed; not with vehicles, but with people! We walked and walked, gathering more and more Jerusalemites, and others who had come to the city for the holiday, until we were one mass, moving as one ascending the Jerusalem hills towards the ancient walls surrounding the Old City. The mood was festive, despite the early hour and the feeling of unity was so pervasive, it was tangible! As we walked through the Arab shuk with its shuttered shops and Israeli soldiers positioned every few feet, there was a feeling of belonging, to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel.
Witnessing sunrise at the Western Wall on that Shavuot morning, praying with thousands of people, listening to the reading of the Ten Commandments – it was a quintessential moment, and one that could only occur in Israel.