Seared into our hearts is the unforgettable picture of the young soldiers at the Kotel (Western Wall) after it was liberated in June 1967. After 19 years of not having access to the Old City, the reserve paratrooper brigade, led by General Mordechai “Motta” Gur, broke through the Lion’s Gate and reached the Temple Mount. His momentous proclamation, “Har Habayit b’yadeinu!”, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”, echoed throughout Israel, and indeed the whole Jewish world.
Those were days of exhilaration, but also days of intense relief and gratitude. It is that gratitude to God that lies at the heart of why we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). It seemed that Israel was probably going to be decimated. During the three weeks leading up to the war, from Yom Ha’atzma’ut on May 15 to the start of the Six Day War on June 5, Israel and the Jews in every part of the world held their collective breath as Israel’s neighbours prepared themselves for battle.
In six short days, reminiscent of the creation of the world, Israel was victorious. Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defence Minister in 1967 and a self-proclaimed atheist, famously said at the time, “Yesterday I was not a religious man, and tomorrow I will not be, but today I cannot but say that we have witnessed miracles”.
Ezer Weizman, who had built the Israeli Air Force and was Head of Operations during the war, said, “This is the finger of God”. Yitzhak Rabin, at the time the Chief of Staff of the IDF, quoted from Psalm 118: “This is the day that God made; we shall exult and rejoice in it.”
A few years ago I found myself in Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim for the first time in over 20 years. I remembered the dawn shacharit prayers at the Kotel, from the Shavuot experiences I had as a student. I woke up at 5.30 on the morning of Yom Yerushalayim and started walking to the Kotel. Jerusalem without cars, just birdsong: perfect.
I wound my way through the wide streets and the narrow alleyways, and then suddenly the Kotel plaza was in view. Exuberant davening reached my ears. Hallel was being sung with feeling. Israeli flags were waving in the morning breeze. I felt privileged to be at that special place on such a momentous anniversary.
Most of my husband’s immediate family, including his parents, made Jerusalem their home after they made aliyah. My own journey to Jerusalem was a little less straightforward. As a teenager, I attended Bnei Akiva summer camp near Cape Town. We all sang a song about a little bird whose “nest is Yerushalayim, where we yearn to be once more”. It planted a seed in my head, and from that, my great love for Israel, especially Jerusalem, sprouted. I went to live in Jerusalem in 1979, a few weeks after I finished high school.
We all sang a song about a little bird whose nest is Yerushalayim
At that time, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was still very much a building site. My friends and I would make our way past the rubble to go to inspiring shiurim given by a young rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis.
I did a degree and learnt the language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while putting down strong roots in the city. I even met my husband on a number 19 Egged bus, as we made our way to a mutual friend’s wedding. Our first two children were born in Jerusalem.
Much like the phrase “Mother’s Day is every day”, living in Jerusalem back then felt like it was Yom Yerushalayim every day. Tehillim (Psalms), especially Hallel, seem to have been composed with the future Yom Yerushalayim in mind. The words of Psalm 116 particularly resonate: “To You I shall bring a thanksgiving-offering.… I will fulfil my vow to the Lord in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the House of the Lord, in your midst, Yerushalayim. Halleluyah.”
My husband Rabbi Baruch Davis, and I have served as a rabbinic couple in Australia, and more recently in England, for nearly 30 years altogether, yet our connections with Jerusalem are as strong as ever. I am filled with love and nostalgia when I revisit. Today, though, there is an added dimension: we have married children who have made their homes in Jerusalem, just around the corner from where I first lived out my idealism for the city.
The Jewish world and its borders changed in those fateful few days in June 1967. By the end of the Six Day War, the tiny fledgling state of Israel was three times its pre-war size. Her borders stretched from Mount Hermon in the north to the Suez Canal in the south. Jerusalem, its reunified centre, was under Jewish control for the first time in 1,900 years. The miracles were on a national level, with the hand of God plain for all to see.
Jerusalem is a city that can exist in parallel in our hearts and minds, just like a song that grounds you to where you currently stand, but also has the ability to transport you to where your heart wants to be. My nest is, indeed, Yerushalayim.
Nechama Davis is rebbetzin of Chigwell and Hainault Synagogue. This is an edited extract from a new machzor, From Exile to Redemption, for Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atmaut and Yom Yerushalayim published by the United Synagogue and Koren, which is available from www.us.org.uk/galuttogeulah at £10