When I penned this last week for the Detroit Jewish News, Joseph’s Tomb had not been set on fire by Palestinians twice. Yet. The thought of the Palestinians petitioning UNESCO that the Western Wall should be declared a Muslim holy site went beyond the pale of imagination.
But here we are. According to the world authorities, Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Machpelach have no Jewish connection. Will this be enough of a shakedown to shake us out of our complacency?
On Oct. 8, The New York Times published an article that disregarded any Jewish historical claims to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Ask the average pre-bnei mitzvah adolescent attending a supplementary congregational Hebrew school why this is so troubling and you may get some blank stares.
In a 2007 study from the AVI CHAI foundation, one Jewish educator lamented that in the ever-shrinking hours of a child’s Jewish education, “we have lost the battle for time.” The paucity of contact hours spent at Hebrew school means that our Jewish kids are getting a minimal Jewish education. They learn to decode Hebrew enough for Hebrew prayer and bnei mitzvah preparation. Through experiential learning, they get the basics of the Jewish holiday cycle and maybe a sprinkling of Torah stories. Teachers need to accomplish this within five or less hours of weekly instruction, all the while dealing with the disruption of kids arriving late or leaving early because of extra-curricular activities.
That means teaching Jewish history – from our most ancient beginnings in Judea, through the Roman exile and all the way up to the birth of the modern State of Israel – has mostly met the chopping block. If you need evidence, visit the resource room or library of any temple or synagogue and you will see volumes of history textbooks printed in the last decade languishing on the shelves.
I speak from experience. I have taught Hebrew school in one capacity or another here in Detroit and in Western New York for 13 years. I have been trained on several curricula that attempt to infuse experiential history lessons into the classroom using both traditional and the most up-to-date methods of the Digital Age, only to scrap carefully constructed lessons for the sake of time.
As a parent, a Jewish educator, and a writer who has been observing media coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict since college, I cannot help but notice an ominous connection between the neglect of teaching Jewish history and the rise of the distortion and demonization of Israel and of Jews in Israel, on the American campus and throughout the world.
American Jewish kids with a minimal education, or no Jewish education after their bnei mitzvah, are blindsided when they reach the college campus and do not know how to respond when confronted with organizations on college campuses calling to boycott “apartheid” Israel.
As parents and Jewish professionals, we are doing ourselves a disservice when we let our children’s Jewish education take a back seat to our many other priorities. Our children need to learn Jewish history – to see where we have come from and what past generations endured to maintain their Judaism – to shape their own Jewish identity and destiny.
This year, after much soul searching, I decided to “home Hebrew school” my own child. I do not recommend this for everyone. Ideally, Jewish learning needs to take place in a communal setting and with lively discussion. Believe me, getting your own kid to take you seriously as a teacher is no cakewalk, but with the promise of a treat after a certain amount of studying has been accomplished, we settle down and get to work.
Each time, we get through one chapter from an age-appropriate textbook. Fortunately, there are many educational resources and videos online to make ancient Jewish history come alive. Right now, we are working our way through learning about ancient Judea and the Jewish revolts after the Romans conquered Jerusalem.
Even as Israel works hard to preserve its antiquities, there are some who wish to erase them. As we sat learning the other night, an online news source reported that Palestinians had destroyed a 1,900-year-old cave in the Gush Etzion region that dated back to the Bar Kochva revolt. If you had never heard of this era in Jewish history, I encourage you to look it up.
After years of waiting, finally I got to take a tour of the passageways below the Western retaining Wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem.
In 1967, when Israel reunified Jerusalem after capturing the Old City from the Jordanians, the Jewish Quarter of the Old city lay in ruins. For nineteen years, Jews had been kept away from their holiest site from the Jordanians. Jordan had destroyed most of the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. Most of the Western Wall, the remnant of the Holy Temple that stood two thousand years ago and was destroyed in 70 AD, was buried in rubbish.
When Israel recaptured the Old City from Jordanian rule, Israeli authorities pledged that they would restore the Old city and do extensive renovations along the Western Wall, and then continue these restorations to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. After decades of painstaking excavations, the tunnels were opened to the public in 2002.
For complete details on the history of these excavations, click here.
When most people think of the Western Wall, this image comes to mind:
Actually, this is only a small portion of the enormous Western Wall that King Herod (truly the Donald Trump of his day) had constructed as a retaining wall to expand the Temple Mount to support the Second Temple.
Today, this massive wall is buried and where over the centuries, the Moslem Quarter of the Old City was built over the rubble.
So, we began our journey under the Western Wall at the extreme left corner of the above photo:
Appropriately, for Chanukkah, our guide was Mattisyahu (no, not that one), originally from Atlanta, who used Toby as a volunteer:
Below the surface, there are narrow passageways, but there are also cavernous rooms. The visitor is taken back to the First Century, the heyday of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.
The Western Wall Tunnels provide an odd mixture of tourists
devout women wishing to pray in the quiet subterranean solitude,
and construction workers. In the distance, down a tunnel not yet open to the public, there are the noises of hammers and drills as further excavations are meticulously conducted as to not disturb the houses in the Moslem Quarter overhead. There are new discoveries made every day.
Down here, even construction work is holy.
In Judaism, if Israel is the Jewish state, then Jerusalem is Judaism’ holiest city and its eternal united capital. But it is also holy to all faiths. As recognition of this, ever since Israel reunified Jerusalem after capturing it from the Jordanians after the 1967 Six-Day War, it has made sure that all of Jerusalem’s religious sites are open, safe and accessible to all religions.
This is why though I am a practicing Jew and a Jewish educator, for one of my first post-Israel posts, I wanted to show you the walk of the Via Dolorosa. As you look at these photos, keep in mind how preserved and maintained are these stations. Keep in mind that my family walked the streets of the Old City safe and without fear because of the constant present of the Israeli Defense Forces. Keep in mind that all religious sites in Jerusalem are open and accessible to all faiths. This was not the case before 1967.
The week our family visited Israel was during Christmas. We saw thousands of Christian Pilgrims walking Jesus’ final steps: