Daily Dispatch: March 18, 2010

By Omar Kasrawi

The dome of the rock on the temple mount, Jerusalem (Omar Kasrawi/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM — Seven ancient stone gates are used to enter the Old City of Jerusalem. On Thursday, our first full day in the holy city, we used the Dung Gate, not because of its name (it was where the trash was once hauled out) but because it is the closest one to reach the sacred sites we were there to see.

Once inside the gate, we saw two lines of people waiting to get into the Haram el-Sharif (Temple Mount); one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims.

As the only Muslims in the group, Sanaz, Sommer, and I broke away from the class to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, two of the holiest sites in Islam. Sanaz was forced to surrender her laptop and audio recorder to the police. Visitors are frequently asked to recite the Fatiha, the first sura (verse) of the Koran to prove that they are indeed Muslims as no other faiths have been let in the Mosque since the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 2000.

While Sommer was comfortable reciting it, Sanaz and I needed a quick refresher and went over it during the climb up to the Haram el-Sharif. Our preparation paid off; we were all allowed inside the holy sites.

Both Sommer and Sanaz prayed on the red and white squared carpeting on the main level of the Dome of the Rock as well as in the little cave beneath the rock itself, which is directly under the bright golden dome of the mosque. “It was amazing,” said Sanaz. “You feel like the place matters. It’s not your local mosque,” she added.

For Sommer the experience was just as rewarding. “This whole trip has been about observing other people’s religions. Today I got to live mine,” she said. “I felt something the whole time I was there.”

Sommer expressed frustration that our classmates could not get to the Temple Mount. It closes everyday at 10 a.m. and by the time they made it to the front of the line to enter the plaza it was too late.

From there the class moved on to the Western Wall (known in Hebrew as the Kotel), the last remains of the Second Temple. Hundred of Jews were there, many of them rocking back and forth during prayer. We also encountered three bar mitzvahs taking place just a dozen feet back from the wall. Tammy, a Christian, partook in the ritual of praying at the Kotel and placing her prayer, written on small piece of paper, in a crack of the Wall.

“I asked for God to protect and take care of my family forever,” said Tammy. She added that she asked for courage and wisdom and to find a rare and deep love like no other.

For another of our group, the visit to the Wall represented a culmination of better fortunes in her life. “The last time I was here, two and a half years ago, I was in a bad place,” said Maia. “Now everything is upside down for me. I came and said what my mom taught me: ‘Bless the children of Israel and my family,’” she added before running back to the Wall to add a prayer for her grandparents.

From there we rounded out our triumvirate of holy sites with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The church is built on the site, Golgotha, where it is believed Jesus was crucified and the cave where he was laid to rest and resurrected. At the entrance to the church some visitors returned the four foot tall wooden crosses they rented to carry with them as they walked the Via Dolorosa (“The Way of the Cross”), the now cobblestone path that Jesus was forced to walk on the way to his crucifixion.

Inside the church hundreds of people lined up to enter Jesus’ tomb and touch the rock where the cross he was nailed is believed to have stood. Believers also knelt and kissed the stone where his body was prepared before his burial in the cave.

“This was the best part of my day,” said Carolyn. “My grandparents always wanted to come and couldn’t. So I was here for them today. They were in my thoughts the whole time.”

However Carolyn expressed frustration at the tug of war between the numerous Christian denominations that share custody of the church. The need for control can manifest itself even over which group gets to clean certain stones in the church. “It’s a shame that it is fragmented,” said Carolyn. “Especially when you think about how important it is to so many Christians,” she added.

However, for Mariana, a Protestant, the Church is not where Jesus was crucified. “We believe that happened at the Garden Tomb and I’m going to go there before we leave,” she said determinedly.

From here the group broke off for an afternoon of reporting. During that time, students researched stories ranging from the expansion of settlements to the Mamilla cemetery controversy to interviewing such figures as the Rev. Dr. William Shomali, The Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Toward the evening we reconvened at T’Mol Shilshom Bookshop Café in downtown Jerusalem where we spent time at a reception for J School alumni who live and work in Israel. The graduates ranged from one whom last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of his graduation to a couple that graduated as recently as two years back. Of the ten who attended, most were working journalists, although one worked for the Israeli foreign minister and another was a student in a yeshiva.

The café, with its wrought iron fixtures and leather bound books that share shelf space with bottles of wine, would fit right in Manhattan’s East Village. Once the reception was over, the class ate dinner in the company of eight young adults who participated in two interreligious dialogue programs between Palestinian and Jewish students. Yonatan Gorenberg and Samah Qunbar, an Israeli and Palestinian participant respectively, spent the evening discussing the frustrations of both sides and what needs to be done to try and change things.

Yonatan spoke of how he brought tenth grade Israeli students to the West Bank village of Abu Dees to show them how the dividing wall built by the Israelis splits the town in two. Samah expressed her frustration about living in society where she doesn’t get treated equally because she doesn’t carry an Israeli passport.

“The dinner was the most informative session we had so far,” said Carolyn. “I found the students’ candor about the tenseness of the situation between Palestinians and Israelis refreshing,” she added.

From there it was off for our daily ritual of ending the night in search of an Internet café with some wi-fi.

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