It's a sight I never thought I'd see--the student body of an entire yeshiva waiting patiently to ascend the Temple Mount early on a sunny morning between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
For the past three years, with the acquiescence of Israeli authorities, the Temple Mount has been completely off-limits to non-Moslems. The slightly ironic reason given was that Jewish or Christian presence on the Mount might inflame Arab passions and lead to violence. (Er, how would you describe what we've had for the past three years?)
A few months ago, the Jerusalem police chief announced that he was satisfied that things would stay calm, and he advised re-opening the site.
The first small groups began ascending some six weeks ago with little fanfare and minimal Arab reaction. Inspiring reports from people who had undergone preparations according to halacha and undertaken the trip started to filter through Jerusalem by word of mouth and over the Internet.
This morning, while on an errand to place a note in the kotel for someone from abroad, I came across the group from the yeshiva in Maale Adumim. There must have been over one hundred young men, dressed in white shirts and crocheted kippot, who quietly assembled with their teachers outside the Mugrabi Gate, just to the south of the Kotel. The bareheaded police officer on hand gave them a rundown of forbidden activities while on their expedition. No praying, not even quiet moving of the lips; no prayer books allowed. And a police escort would keep them in line. The group was divided into three, with groups of around 30-40 people each allowed up at a time.
As the young men disappeared through the green gate at the top of the path, two Arab workers repairing a section of an inner wall that collapsed last week, stopped their work to take in the sight.
At the top of the first flight of stairs into the Jewish Quarter, a gaggle of religious high school boys were finishing their breakfast before heading to daven at the Kotel. They too couldn't help noticing the large contingent of white shirts waiting by the Mugrabi Gate. One of them asked the rebbe in charge what they were doing. "They're just acting on the idiotic ideology they have, " the young black-hatted teacher spat out. When I asked why he had a problem with the action of the Maale Adumim yeshiva boys, he smiled and told me that "Haredim just don't believe we should be up there."
That's the position of Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, himself Haredi. "It's neither correct or smart," for non-Moslems to go up to Har Habayit, Lupolianski asserts. In a bizarre expression of logic, Lupolianski says that the fact that the Wakf, the Moslem religious authority, has not been overly vociferous in their opposition only proves that they and not Israel, are in control of the site. Of course this is the same mayor who told reporters in a pre-election interview that he was "unaware" that Jews had been denied access for the past three years.
Things are quiet in the Jewish Quarter. The pre-Sukkot bustle hasn't quite started yet. Stopping for breakfast at my favorite Old City cafe, Menorah, named for its proximity to the life-size solid gold replica of the menorah that will grace the Temple when the time comes, the array of passers-by is astonishing.
Arab boys balancing large trays of freshly baked pita on their heads walk in one direction. Pious Jews wearing tefillin pass the other way. An incongruous-looking man in a blue suit walks purposefully by holding a stepladder in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Policewomen sagging under the weight of their ceramic vests stroll on patrol, and the odd tourist looks warily around.
I pay a visit to Benny, the former owner of the cafe, who inexplicably has chosen a period with no tourists to open a Judaica store down in the nearby Cardo. Benny jokes that he's the last Jew before the Moslem Quarter--and indeed, the four full-size Israeli flags hanging outside his store are among the few signs of Jewish presence between here and Damascus Gate.
Benny and his brother, who runs a jewelry shop a few steps away, are optimistic that the up-coming Sukkot holiday will finally bring some foot traffic to their stores.
If you want to make Benny's day, go to his website at www.rozen-cardo.com and order something. Tell him Judy sent you.