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Everybody’s Wall

Esther Teichtal

For the multitudes who approach the Kosel each year, the experience is all about connection. People come. Pray. Leave. Perhaps they drop a coin into a beggar’s hand in passing. Most leave feeling uplifted, but not many realize that a vast cadre of people work, quite literally, around the clock to make the holiest site in the world accessible and inspiring to all

Wednesday, April 05, 2017


LABOR OF LOVE For Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz and his cleaners, attendants, and translators, maintaining the holiest site for all Jews is a constant labor of love. But it’s the quiet moments that they savor most (Photos: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

"The Kosel is a complex place,” points out Rabbi Shmuel Ben Zion Rabinowitz, who was appointed the official rav of the Kosel in 2000. “It’s the gateway of prayer for an entire nation. Many people consider this their primary home, with their private abode coming a close second. They have a certain perspective on how the Kosel should look, and how things should be run, without always seeing the wider picture — that the Kosel is a place of connection between Am Yisrael and Hashem, and even the nations of the world hold it in high esteem.” 

Whether halachic, hashkafic, political, or social in nature, serious dilemmas arise at the Western Wall on a near-daily basis. Rabbi Rabinowitz sorely misses the presence of Rav Elyashiv, ztz”l, who was his go-to gadol for every Kosel-related question. “Rav Elyashiv maintained that tefillah at the Kosel is more powerful than in any other place, and the Kosel was very close to his heart. When I first I visited Rav Steinman, shlita, after Rav Elyashiv’s passing, he told me: ‘You will feel his loss more than most people’— and I did.” These days, Rav Rabinowitz brings most queries to Rav Avigdor Halevi Nebenzahl, the rav of the Old City, with whom he enjoys a weekly chavrusa, and he continues to present complex issues to other gedolim as well. 

“Currently, we are grappling with the issue of whether it is halachically permissible to place security cameras up on the Wall. Or whether we can fly patrol drones over the area — potentially problematic because it may be considered a show of disrespect, compromising the tenet of mora Mikdash.” 

While modern efforts to liberalize the Kosel have captured many a headline, the Kosel has long been a political tinderbox, affording any minor controversy the potential to spark a regional conflagration. “We invest a great many resources toward maintaining the peace, at every level,” says the rabbi. And sensitivity truly is required at every level. \“There is one underground spot in the Kosel tunnels”— Rabbi Rabinowitz describes one small, but weighty predicament — “from which one can see the Holy of Holies, the foundation stone that rests beneath the golden dome. Space at this spot is extremely limited, and on the women’s side there is barely room for about six or seven chairs.” He sighs. “The women who pray there often come with pekalach… heavy loads of grief that they wish to unload before the Ribbono shel Olam. It took time. A lot of time. On too many occasions, this resulted in ugly quarrels erupting over who should be leaving, who got there first, who had the right to sit. It wasn’t fitting behaviour for such a holy place. So, after weighing our options, we decided to remove the chairs. Today, that narrow passage is standing-room only.” 

ACCORDING TO EDEN SHIMON, deputy manager of operations, on the technical side of things, too, minor glitches can easily spiral into major issues if not addressed immediately. “The drains, for instance,” says Eden. “They’re ancient. A small leak over in the Moslem quarter can cause problems for our water system. And during heavy rains — the tunnels can get flooded. Repairs have to be made quickly, and safety precautions have to be taken, so none of the people visiting the site are endangered while they are being carried out.” 

A team of sixty workers keeps the maintenance operation ticking smoothly behind the scenes, with reinforcements summoned when needed. They are constantly on watch for things that need improvement. “We hold regular staff meetings, particularly before Yamim Tovim and special occasions like Selichos, Bircas Kohanim, Yom Yerushalayim, or any other time where we anticipate larger-than-usual crowds. Then we reassess after the fact. Did all go as planned? Were there slip-ups? Should we have done anything differently? We’ll make a note for next time…” 

The Department of Operations, like all other departments involved in running the site, is overseen by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, under Rabbi Rabinowitz’s leadership. 

Like any hostess who aims to keep her guests happy, they take their job seriously. Consider the basics, for instance: Housekeeping. 

“We have staff going around all the time, cleaning, arranging the siddurim, tidying the chairs, checking that things are in order,” explains Eden. “All week long, the bimahs on the men’s side are concentrated in one area, but before every Shabbos we spread them out, together with the shtenders and chairs, to allow for separate minyanim to gather around each. 

“Also, the bimah covers and paroches of each aron kodesh are changed regularly to ensure they stay clean. Before Shabbos we change them all to a more festive design, and during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah they are dressed in traditional white. 

“On Motzaei Shabbos, a team of cleaning staff streams into the plaza to reorganize the place after the Shabbos festivities, and in preparation for the Motzaei Shabbos gatherings.” 

This past year alone, 11 million (!) people visited the Kosel. With such a volume of guests passing through daily, the Kosel plaza needs constant upkeep. “Every month, we bring in a powerful floor-washing vehicle to polish the flagstones. There are always people present, but we schedule the cleaning for the relatively quiet night hours, and clean one area at a time, so we don’t have to close down the plaza completely.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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