"Shoulds" by Jordy Cohen

There are often a lot of “shoulds” in religion: you should do this, you should not do that; you should feel this, you should not feel that. Visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem encompasses many of these “shoulds.” At the wall, you should be moved, you should have a spiritual experience, you should “feel like it all makes sense,” you should be overcome with emotion, you should cry, you should feel “changed.”

Traveling Israel for 3 weeks as the Program Director for a group of American teenagers engaging with service and social justice issues, I was afraid of these “shoulds” at the Wall, the Kotel. Thinking back to my experiences at a teenager at the Kotel, I felt the pull of “the should” and the guilt when I was honest with myself that I just didn’t feel it. Carrying this guilt into another generation’s experience was not an option, there has to be another way of doing it.

There is a Jewish tradition to give someone money, just a few cents or a dollar, to take with them on their journey to Israel with the intention to donate it during their time in the country. The idea is that this dollar will keep them safe because they have another purpose, a greater purpose; they’re carrying something for someone else. The first time I really felt something at the Kotel was in college. I was teaching a fourth grade religious school class and was going to Israel on an alternative spring break service trip. I gave my fourth graders the opportunity to write notes with the promise that I would deliver them to the Western Wall.  One of my students came to the front of the room with his written note and said “here I’m ready for you to check it.” I explained to him that there was no proofreading or spellchecking with these notes, his note was between him and God. I told the class that when they finished their note, folded it and placed it in the plastic bag, it wouldn’t come out again until I was at the Kotel and still, they would remain folded and unread. They were so excited and I promised pictures of all of their notes in the Wall together. A week later as I approached the Western Wall, I began to panic. Looking down at these notes written in big letters on haphazardly folded construction paper, how in the world would they all fit together in one of the small inlets in the stone? Had I made a promise I could not fulfill? As I reached the wall, I found an empty nook that somehow swallowed up these twenty-four clumsy notes. For the first time, I felt something at the Kotel.

This summer, my group of brilliant, inspired and empowered teens had the honor of carrying the prayers of others to the Kotel. They carried with them notes that had been written by strangers from around the world and placed in a replica Western Wall in the “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & The Jewish People.” In honor of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Wall and the note he placed within its stones, visitors to the exhibit had the opportunity to write their own notes with the promise that they would be delivered to Jerusalem. This group of teenagers had the opportunity to carry these hopes and prayers. Whether they had this personal, spiritual, life changing experience (or not) shifted out of focus as they had a greater purpose; they carried something, they carried prayers for someone else and that in itself is an experience to treasure.