Living here in Israel it's hard to find a religious community that accurately represents my view. There are only a handful of conservative shuls in Tel Aviv and the more progressive ones are just a bit too "shanti" for my taste. But nevertheless I've found places to celebrate the holidays with friends and neighbors and I feel very much at home here.
Having grown up in a conservative shul in the states I had never witnessed a ceremony called the "Birkat Ha'Kohanim," which is practiced during major Jewish holidays. The first time I saw it was when I went with my father to a Chabad service for Rosh Ha'Shana. It is a fascinating service in which all the Cohens in the congregation gather together to perform the "Priestly Blessing." This blessing is commonly known amongst many communities in its English translation:
May the Lord bless you and keep you:
May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:In the service all the men lift up their Talitot and cover themselves in them. Fathers will cover their children and it is customary not to look at the Kohanim as they perform the blessing. What is not seen is that under their Talitot the Kohanim are extending their hands in a very specific way. It is this same hand signal that was later immortalized by Leonard Nimoy in his Vulcan hand salute.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
A few years ago I stumbled upon a video of this ceremony being performed by tens of thousands of people at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. I had never seen anything like it in my lifetime of Judaism, and I found it be hauntingly powerful. Here is a video from this year's ceremony:
The ceremony is performed twice a year at the Kotel during the festivals of Sukkot and Passover. These are two of the traditional pilgrimage festivals in which all of the nation of Israel would gather in Jerusalem to pray at the temple.
Last week I realized that the "Birkat Ha'Kohanim" was approaching, and I decided I wanted to attend. So on Sunday I woke up at 5:45 in the morning, which is for me a miracle in itself, and took the bus to Jerusalem. The city was bustling with people making their way to the Kotel for the ceremony. The bus was overflowing with people, and the bus company had clearly made special arrangements for the large crowd that was coming. The closest feeling to the atmosphere is the push before a major concert or sporting event. Moving tens of thousands of people around, all headed to one central location, is complicated and stressful. Nevertheless, most people were calm and friendly, including the nice Haredi man on the bus sitting next to me who asked me where I was from and pinched my cheek after he found out that I had made aliyah.
The "Birkat Ha'Kohanim" is now one of the closest things we have to how Jews practiced their religion during the time of the temple. It is a profound statement about the effect that Israel has on the Jewish people and how they practice their religion. When I saw this ceremony I couldn't help but feel that this is what a people looks like when it is returned to its land.