The Wailing Wall 2.0 E-mailing the Almighty

True believers and tourists alike entrust their prayers to Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. Now they don't even have to go there -- they can visit on the Internet and send prayers by e-mail.

Rabbi Rabinowitz delivering the letters to the Wailing Wall.

Rabbi Rabinowitz delivering the letters to the Wailing Wall.

Many devout Jews from around the world would envy the view Rabbi Schmuel Rabinowitz has from his office -- directly before his eyes is Judaism's holy site the Wailing Wall. Even in the middle of the night many black-clad believers stand there in front of the impressive limestone, swaying rhythmically as they pray, repeatedly kissing the weathered stone. The supporting wall is all that remains of the Jewish temple that was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago.

No other place in Israel attracts as many tourists, around 1.2 million visited last year alone. Many of them follow the old tradition of placing a small note between the stones, some places are overflowing with pieces of paper. Rabbi Rabinowitz has no idea exactly how many notes there are, even though it is one of his tasks to clear the wall of these missives twice a year.

Before the feast of Passover, workers at the higher rabbinate fill up to 150 boxes during the big clearout. The men have to clean themselves first in the Jewish ritual bath -- the mikvah. This is because during the clearing of the letters, it is possible that they will have to dig deep into the crevices in the wall, and possibly touch the inside of the Temple Mount. No one who was impure was allowed to enter the holy place when it still existed.

The rescued pieces of paper are then buried on the Mount of Olives. According to Jewish tradition, no book or piece of writing which contains a mention of the name of God can be burned or thrown away.

On the Mount of Olives, just behind the old town, lie the wishes of some famous visitors to the Wailing Wall, including Gerard Depardieu and Pope John Paul II, who in his note asked for forgiveness for the sins of the Catholic Church towards the Jews. Laura Bush, the wife of American president, also placed a letter between the gaps in the ancient stones.

The fact that many of these supplicants are Christian doesn’t disturb Rabbi Rabinowitz one bit. "Already in Isaiah it states: My House shall be a house of prayer for all peoples," he says. The spiritual leader of the Wailing Wall wears the long black caftan and the tall hat that marks him out as a rabbi. On his bookshelves lie heavy holy tomes on Judaism, the Torah and the Talmud. Rabinowitz speaks Yiddish, the old language of Central and Eastern Europe's Jews. His ancestors, who were named Bergmann, emigrated from Germany to the Holy Land 180 years ago. At 40 he is a young rabbi and has arranged for global access to the Jewish sacred site -- it is now possible to visit via the Internet.

There are now webcams to capture live the goings on around the wall 24 hours a day, so that surfers can pray at the wall online. "Either the people come to the Wailing Wall, or we bring the Wailing Wall to them," says Rabinowitz laconically.

In order to protect the privacy of those praying at the wall close-up views are forbidden. And on the Sabbath the cameras are turned off, as for pious Jews filming and photography are not allowed on the day of rest.

God's got mail

And now you don’t even have to go to Jerusalem to place a prayer letter in the Wailing Wall. You can just send an e-mail. On the wall's Web site, there is a special form to fill out. Delivery of the message follows promptly. Every two or three days the Rabbi's Internet employees print out the e-mails and place them between the stones. And even the telephone company Bezek now also offers a special e-mail address and fax number to the Wailing Wall.

Those who want to send by old-fashioned letter have to wait a bit longer. The Israeli postal service delivers the mail addressed to "Dear God" twice a year. Each year around 3,000 letters are sent to "God, Jerusalem, Israel," "Señor Jesus" or "The King of the Universe."

In a ceremony, during which the postmen all wear their best skullcaps, the letters are handed over to Rabbi Rabinowitz, who places them in particularly large chinks in the wall. He murmurs "Almighty, hear their prayers" and kisses the stones.

Rabbi Rabinowitz has never put any note of his own in the wall, he say, since as a pious Jews it would be redundant anyway. According to Rabbinowitz, "through prayer we are constantly in conversation with God."

In his office with the view overlooking the wall, the cosmopolitan rabbi receives many not-so religious visitors. Why does the weathered structure exert such a fascination? As so often, the Rabinowitz answers with a quote: "It's like the great Rabbi Kook said: There are people made of stone. But in the Wailing Wall the stones have the heart of people."


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