By Jonah Bennett, Mitzvah Corps Israel 2017 Participant
When Jews think of the holiest place in the world, most think of the Western Wall, the Kotel. After all, it is a metaphor of enduring Judaism, standing tall in the midst of waves of intruders and anti-semitism. However, the beautiful part of Israel is that each visitor can create their own Jewish path and find a niche of Israel that represents their “holiest site.” For me, that place was Independence Hall.
I stood, tears falling down my face, as the Hatikvah was recited by all in the room, some 120 of us. Jewish historical books, such as the Torah and Talmud, talk frequently about Jerusalem and its holiness, but Independence Hall, of course, is not mentioned. As a modern day Jew, to experience a “holy moment” where I connected with God in a place that was not Jerusalem at first seemed wrong. After all, the greatest Jews, such as King Solomon, Rabbi Hillel, and our patriarchs and matriarchs, lived their lives according to what God said, or outlined, in the holy books. And as a Jew who strives to live his life according to Jewish values and ideals, I was torn about whether I felt correctly about my “holy place.” Could God strike me down because of these sentiments?
Immediately after Independence Hall, our group went on a tour of South Tel Aviv, exploring underprivileged neighborhoods and learning about the struggle that refugees, who are oftentimes not Jewish, endure in the State of Israel. At the end of the tour, we discussed the many conflicting statements from the Torah, the Talmud, and modern day Jews regarding the refugee crisis. As I looked at those conflicting statements, a thought came to me: Judaism has many aspects that don’t necessarily agree with one another. With that thought, I remembered the old words that I have heard over and over from my Jewish mentors: find your own path to God.
So looking back, while I didn’t experience my “holy moment” in Jerusalem, I still had a Jewish experience built around Jewish values. For me, this is the beauty of Judaism: each individual can undertake their own personal journey to connect with God. And while many great Jewish scholars believe Jerusalem should be each Jew’s “holy place,” each one of us should feel the ability to connect with God however it makes sense for us. Because after all, our connection with God is the essence and foundation of the Jewish faith.