Walking through the Old City on Thursday, my ten-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Abba, do you know what the coolest part of being in Israel is? Everyone you walk past is Jewish and you are comfortable being around them as if they are part of your family.” I am so happy that at a young age, she already has an awareness of what it means to feel part of a people and the comfort it can provide.
A few minutes later, I stood at the Kotel davening, seeking desperately to tap into the sanctity and holiness of this most special place on Earth. To be honest, I ironically find the Kotel among the most difficult places to concentrate. There are distractions everywhere, including multiple minyanim happening simultaneously, birds flying overhead, and the hot sun reflecting off the stones creating a blinding brightness. Add it all together and I find it difficult to feel lost in prayer and transformed spiritually.
But on this visit to the Kotel, something occurred to me that indeed touched me deeply and uplifted me profoundly. As I finished davening Mincha, I looked around the Kotel plaza and saw the entire tapestry of the Jewish people. There were men in black hats and in Chassidishe garb, others with knitted kippot, and still others struggling to keep their silk or cardboard yarmulkas on their head. Some had prayed their entire lives and for others this would be their very first prayer. There were Israeli soldiers with their guns slung over their backs as they pressed up against the Wall. Though it was after 1:00 P.M., there was a Shacharis minyan taking place with a Bar Mitzvah boy reading from the Torah as his family and friends looked on with great excitement. There was a minyan of men who were all fasting for Yom Kippur Kattan, which is observed each Erev Rosh Chodesh. A Sefardi minyan, Ashkenazi minyan, a fast minyan and a slow minyan, people whispering their prayers quietly and those screaming them at the top of their lungs, all taking place a few yards from one another, all adjacent to the ancient and precious stones that have stood for thousands of years.
Perhaps the inspiration to be drawn from visiting the Kotel emanates not only from what is behind the Wall, but from what is in front of it. The Kotel is the anchor that unites our people and draws us together from wherever we may live. For now on, visiting the Kotel for me will be an opportunity to connect intimately with the Almighty, but also to attend a “family reunion” and to experience a cohesiveness that can transcend the differences we may have.
Later the same night, Yocheved and I had the privilege of attending a real family reunion as we met the BRS students in Israel for dinner. It was amazing to spend a few hours with our Boca kids and to hear from each of them about their favorite classes, their school tiyulim and the most memorable places they have visited for Shabbos. Their experiences vary as do their Yeshivas and Seminaries, but there is one thing almost all seem to have in common. They exude happiness, joy, a sense of confidence and of independence, a quest for self-discovery, and a zest for life.
Spending a year six-thousand miles from home brings maturity, responsibility, and the possibility of discovering aspects of oneself that would never emerge at home. Our children have the rest of their lives to “get on with their lives,” to get the degrees and to start working. There is only one opportunity, though, for a gap year that not only creates a gap before starting college, but also fills in the gaps of Jewish education with lessons that can only be learnt experientially.
What would a gathering be without a few words from the Rabbi and so I shared a simple and short message with our beloved Boca children. When Hashem summons Moshe to Har Sinai in this week’s parsha, it says “Alei eliy ha’harah v’heyei sham. Ascend to me on the mountain and be there.” If Moshe climbs the mountain, of course he is there, where else would he be? The answer is that Hashem understood a challenge that is even more pronounced in our time. Moshe had many people and things competing for his attention. Hashem is saying, I know there are countless emails, texts, phone calls to return and people waiting for you at the base of this mountain. However, when you are on this mountain with me, be with me not only in body but in spirit as well.
With cell phones, Internet access and technology in general, it is harder than ever to be fully present in whatever we are doing. We told the students that this year will only be meaningful and valuable if they can focus, concentrate, and be present in each and every moment. To connect to the amazing class they are hearing or to be part of the incredible conversation late at night in the dorm, or to be soaking up the connection to the land on the tiyul, they would need to disconnect from that which distracts them.
Yocheved and I, like many of you, look back at our year in Israel as a formative time that helped shaped who we are and provided skills and tools that have lasted our entire lives. Spending time with our students transported us back to that amazing time in our lives and reminded us how special it was. I hope when our students come back to Boca, you will be as inspired and uplifted from hearing about their experiences as we were this week.