What do I tell them?

Rachel Petroff Kessler
October 30, 2013
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I tell my students: We pray facing Jerusalem, towards the Kotel, to remind us how important those places are to the Jewish people. I tell them: for many generations the Kotel has been a sacred space for our people, a remnant and reminder of the ancient Temples that stood in Jerusalem. I tell them: one day, hopefully not too long from now, you will visit Jerusalem, and the Western Wall, where you will pray and write a note to insert into the cracks between the stones; it will be wonderful.

I don’t tell them: I was 16 the first time I stepped into the Kotel Plaza. I was spending the semester in Jerusalem on NFTY’s Eisendrath International Exchange, an experience I had been eagerly anticipating since my Bat Mitzvah. As I prepared to lay my eyes and hands on the Western Wall, I think it is safe to say I had the expectations of over half a lifetime built up inside of me. Boy, what a letdown.

I don’t tell them: Even though the women’s section was crowded, I felt all alone (and not in a good way). I slowly made my way to the front and felt crowded in on all sides as everyone jostled for a chance to touch the ancient stones.

I tell them: The Kotel is so special because it has been so important to the Jewish people, for so long.

I don’t tell them: some of my best moments at the Kotel have happened at times when the whole place was rather empty. Nighttime trips, even on Shabbat and holidays, would result in us coming upon a Kotel plaza that was practically a ghost town. And in the quiet, I would finally find the space to pray.

I want my students to be able to develop their own relationship with the Kotel, with Jerusalem, with Israel. I wrestle with how much of my own journey to share, because I don’t want my experiences to overshadow their curiosities, for my struggles to dampen their interest. I try to choose my words carefully, making them appropriate for the ages and backgrounds of the learners I am with, and to make sure that while I may be speaking half-truths, I am never speaking lies. This dance never feels easy, and in this way it mirrors my relationship with the Kotel – more complex than it first appears, worthwhile despite the difficulties, and always near my heart.

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.

1 Comment

  1. Yet, I wonder, if you don’t tell them, will they ever feel it is safe or acceptable to feel that way or will they feel they need to fake engagement, joy, or spiritual connection they don’t feel?

    Posted by
    Iris K
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