The Sweet Smell of Community

It took a high school experience in Israel to treasure a Jewish community in Illinois.

Making a pilgrimage: Arin Kerstein, from Illinois, and Mara Friedman, from Ohio, at the Western Wall. 

It was my last night in Israel after two months at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI); two months this past winter that changed my life forever. I stood with my face pressed into the stones of the overbearing Kotel. Tears streamed through my closed eyes and into the misty air. It would be too long until I returned, so I strove to take in the moment. I gazed around at the people and the wall. I remember how the January air felt. Before I walked away, I took a deep breath and inhaled the aroma.

Yes, I actually smelled the Western Wall. I bet you never heard that one before. After the best two months of my life, I was not sure how to cope with separation from the land. My teacher, Reuven Spero, encouraged me to smell it to have a unique memory when I got back to America. He never steered me wrong before, so I figured, why not?

So I smelled the Kotel. At that moment, the fumes of the earthy stone combined with the scent of the misty air became ingrained in me. 

Though many Jews feel a connection to the Kotel, I never did. Contrary to the rest of the Jewish population, I never felt a connection to the Kotel. Don’t get me wrong, I really did make an effort, but nothing ever happened. As a Conservative Jew, I wished I could be part of the magic that seemed to occur on the men’s side of the mechitza. However, there is another place in Jerusalem where I felt a connection.

I always enjoyed praying at Robinson’s Arch, located a few corners away from the Kotel. I never understood why this site wasn’t as big of a deal for Jews. It was meaningful to me to be able to pray with men and women, together as a community. But still, the arch never brought me to tears like what I witnessed from others at the Kotel.

A few weeks into the trip, Spero brought us to what was left of the stairs leading up to the Temple Mount. He asked if any of us knew how to say stairs in Hebrew. Together we figured out that “maalot” is one way to say stairs and quickly connected this word to Shir HaMaalot, “The Song of Ascents.”

Spero explained that the Levites stood on these stairs and sang Shir HaMaalot to welcome people to the Temple Mount. With arms linked, my group walked up the stairs and sang the song in unison. I wondered why no one had ever mentioned these stairs to me before.

I have sung Shir Hamaalot for years at the beginning of the prayer after meals. But it had always been routine — I never knew the origin. At the stairs I realized that every connection I make is different from the connections that others make. My connection to the stairs could be just as powerful as the connection some feel to the Kotel.

“Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of joy,” we sing in Shir Hamaalot. The Jewish people have much to be grateful for and while sometimes we cannot explain why we are celebrating or why we are singing, learning and finding special connections will help us find meaning in unexpected places. 

The stairs were my wake-up call. I realized why I was at AMHSI and how much I could learn. Every tradition has a powerful meaning behind it; it’s up to us to find our way to connect to these traditions. So I proceeded through the trip, not trying to force connections in any way, but using every opportunity to learn and find meaning wherever possible.

A few weeks later while at the Kotel for Shabbat, I walked over to the women’s side with a few of my closest friends. It was raining, making the scene a little bit hectic. We picked up prayer books and started reciting Kabbalat Shabbat together. Some of us felt apprehensive about being loud in fear of being shushed by those who think our voices shouldn’t be heard.

During our prayers, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A young woman in her 20s asked if we could please sing louder so that she and her friends could follow along. I turned around and saw at least 50 women, from all over the world, eager to join us in prayer.

We prayed together while raindrops splashed on our faces and as we wrapped up the service, we danced together through the storm. Women of all ages and backgrounds joined in. We were not criticized by anyone and even fervently Orthodox women glanced over with smiles. The women’s side definitely has power — you may just need to find it on your own. 

So maybe it’s not really the place that matters. Maybe the sense of community and coming together is what makes Jews unique and spending time in Israel so life-changing. To me, that’s what the Kotel really is: a place for the community to unite. The Kotel connects our past with our future; it’s the center of the Jewish community.

So if you don’t feel something, it’s OK. Strive for a connection with the people and with the traditions — the location is just a means.

In the Windy City of Chicago, rain is a given. So anytime it rains, I think of the earthy stone and bring myself back to the defining moments in my Jewish life. Although I’d love to be back in Eretz Yisrael, I am sustained by my desire to keep learning, making new connections and feeling support from my Jewish community. Between my experiences in United Synagogue Youth, attending Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook and being with friends from JCC Camp Chi in Wisconsin, I always have the Jewish community to accompany me as I continue to explore my Judaism.
 

author's bio: 
Arin Kerstein is a junior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill.