A cool breeze soothed us into Shabbos spirit as we walked towards the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. Mamilla mall was quiet, the GAP and Ralph Lauren stores closed. All you could hear was the echoing footsteps of dozens streaming through towards the Western Wall.
We entered through the Jaffa Gate and joined the faithful throngs who walked through the Arab shuk. "Shabbat shalom!", the non-observant security guards manning the security checkpoint before the Wall warmly announced as we arrived. We passed through the metal detectors and stopped. Dozens of steps would lead us to the plaze, but the scene below was riveting. The Kotel was alive. It pulsated with the rhythm of thousands as they swayed, prayed and danced. The mens sectioned thronged in black, peppered with green IDF uniforms and flecks of white, gold and casual-wear. The women's section was a celebration of colour.
I had forgotten how spectacular the Kotel is on a Friday night.
Mesmerised, we made our way into the crowd. Inside the human sea, you could distinguish its varied currents. Just ahead, to the left was a huge contingent of Chassidim, their peyos swinging as they davened in ecstasy. To our right, a Shlomo Carlebach minyan, singing every word of the ancient prayers. Immediately to their left modern Orthodox Jews chanted a traditional Lecha Dodi. Behind my left shoulder a man in white, his eyes tightly shut, led the services word for word, loudly and clearly. Directly behind us was a group from Judea, knitted kippot on their heads and determination in their eyes. Even further back American students on the Birthright tour marveled at their first taste of the Kotel's Shabbos magic. On the right two dozen paratroopers danced in a circle, M16's bouncing on their backs; privates with arms on their commanding officer's shoulders.
It was a dizzying array of diversity. So many Jews; so many differences. Each group sang its own tunes and used its own siddur. You could tell their affiliation from the nuances of their garb and head-coverings. A thought flashed through my mind: "We're all in the same place, celebrating the same Shabbos. Why do we all have to do it differently?"
A soldier whirled by, joy splashed across his duty-weary face as the Chassidim next door proclaimed the Shema and a father lifted his son onto his shoulders. Yes, each group was distinct, but there was a comfortable peace within that diversity.
We all faced the same direction as uttered the same fundamental declarations of a shared faith, while celebrating the same Shabbos. Every group reverberated with energy, yet respected the goings on of others around it. Friday night at the Kotel is a reminder that we can live a different brand of Torah Judaism from the next community, yet we can still stand together.
In Judaism, unity does not require uniformity.