I’ll never forget the very first time I stood before the Western Wall in the ancient city of Jerusalem. I was seventeen years old and had just finished my first year in college. It was the summer of 1967. I had come to Israel as a volunteer along with thousands of others from around the world who wanted to help Israel in her hour of need.
When I first got to Israel, I was assigned noncombat duty—work on a kibbutz in the Negev. My work detail was picking peaches along with other volunteers from England. I felt that we were serving the country in the way we could help the most. By being on the kibbutz, others, better trained, could be freed for military duty.
Although I had been raised in New York City to be observant and had been bar mitzvah, a few years into my adolescence my religious Jewish roots were left by the wayside. However, this didn’t lessen my commitment to my people.
Love for Israel was instilled in me very early in life. Both my mother and father were refugees from Nazi Germany. Both had spent 4.5 years in a concentration camp because they were Jews. Being survivors of the Holocaust, they impressed upon me the need to be proud of my heritage and my people. Along with this pride was a strong identification with the new land that was born the same year as I was—Eretz Yisrael.
Although I had stopped believing in the God of the Covenant, at age 15 I found my sense of Jewishness reinforced. I joined a Zionist organization. My Jewish identity was no longer religious, but nationalistic. And so it was with atheistic eyes that I first beheld the ancient Wailing Wall.
I remember making my way through the narrow winding streets of Jerusalem, wandering through the Arab shops in the marketplace, stepping on soil that had not been in our people’s possession for almost 2000 years. Ours had been one of the first groups of noncombat personnel to come into the Old City, only weeks after its capture. A special tour had been set up for the volunteers. As I came out of the maze of streets, I looked up and there, perhaps 200 feet away stood the Wall. There were old men bowing and praying, davening, swaying back and forth. They had already set up a partition between the women and the men. A little box for yarmulkes and prayer shawls was provided for public use.
In spite of these twentieth century articles, the Wall retained its rich ancient character. It was then that I had my first truly religious experience. I can’t explain it as I’d like, but I felt an overwhelming desire to cry. I approached the Wall. I touched it. I wept at the thought of the thousands upon thousands of Jewish people who had come to this place. I thought of my mother and father, and the suffering they had go through because they were Jews. And then I thought of God, the God of my childhood, the God who made covenant with a man named Abraham and promised us that this would be our land. That day, I left the Wall knowing that I could never be an atheist again.
At the end of that summer, I returned to the United States. I came back a seeker; a seeker after the God of Israel. Thousands of miles of ocean and a continent away, I came to meet that God and His Messiah Jesus. As I rose from my knees after asking Jesus be my Messiah and Lord, I remembered the Western Wall and how I had cried five years earlier. I realized that the God who had touched my heart then had touched my heart once again. Only this time, I Iet Him come in and take my heart, with a commitment to follow Him forever.
As I look back upon my life and how God has shaped it, I realize that trip to Israel and my experience at the Western Wall played a part in my becoming a believer in Jesus. Seeing and experiencing something concrete that represented God’s promise reinforced my belief in a God whom I was sure existed. After searching, I not only came to know that He was there, but that He cared. I had finally been able to put my religious and nationalistic feelings together. Israel is not only a place but a people God has set apart for His own purposes:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.”