The First Yom Yerushalayim

BY RABBI MORDECHAI WILLIG

Each year during the early hours of Shavuot morning, the streets of Yerushalayim are filled with tens of thousands of people, walking to the Kotel to daven following Tikkun Leil Shavuot. What many do not realize is that this modern custom preserves the memory of Shavuot in 1967, just one week after the Old City was liberated, when the Kotel was opened to the public for the first time. Today a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and posek in the United States, Rabbi Mordechai Willig was a yeshiva student in Yerushalayim on that remarkable Shavuot in 1967. This article was written based on a talk given in Yeshiva University on Yom Yerushalayim 2017 (5777) by Rabbi Willig when he shared his memories from that day, but has been adapted for this publication.

In the spring of 1967, we in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, together with all of Israel, were literally under the gun. Tens of thousands of enemy troops and tanks were massed at the border, broadcasting that they were going to destroy us, drive us into the sea, and kill us. 

The fear was very real. Tragically, in the one case in the history of the State of Israel when the Arabs were in fact victorious and captured a yishuv, they carried out their threat. It happened in Kfar Etzion on May 13, 1948, the day before Israel declared its independence. Their threats then were not just words; they massacred everybody. Two Jews escaped to tell the story. A white flag was raised and the Jews surrendered, but the Arabs did not follow international law. They gathered the Jews in a courtyard and murdered them, and those who attempted to escape were pursued and killed. This is the fear we faced in the holy land in 1967. 

Speaking of international law, Gamal Abdel Nasser – the leader of Egypt and head of the Arab world – closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, which by international law was a declaration of war on Israel. Nevertheless, Israel was fearful of launching a preemptive strike. Three weeks of incredible tension and mounting fear passed, both for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and those in Europe and America. We were all afraid of a second holocaust, a mere 22 years after the first. 

Though it’s hard to grasp this now, before the Six-Day War the mindset in Israel and around the world was that the Old City would remain in the hands of the Arabs until the coming of Mashiach. I remember Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh took us on a tour of Jerusalem the month before the war, in Nissan. We thought we would never see the Kotel, that our children and grandchildren would never see it until Mashiach came. That was our mindset one month before the War! But the Ribono Shel Olam did incredible things in the weeks that followed.

Ten years earlier, the United Nations stationed troops in the Sinai Desert to guarantee there would be peace between Israel and Egypt. Well, guess what? After Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, he ordered the UN to leave – and they just walked away! Their whole purpose was to prevent this war, yet they just walked away. 

The Israeli cabinet debated what to do. Rabin, the chief of staff, had a breakdown on the eve of the war. Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin were brought into the government as part of an emergency coalition. Finally, three weeks later, they made their decision. They understood that Israel would be strangled by its Arab enemies if it didn’t act, and so they launched a secret preemptive strike. Early in the morning, Israeli planes flew very low over the Sinai Desert to avoid the radar. How we caught the Egyptians off guard on that day is truly miraculous. The Ajloun radar facility in Jordan detected waves of aircraft heading towards Egypt and signaled the code word for “war” up the Egyptian command chain, but communication issues within the Egyptian command structure prevented the warning from reaching the intended airfields. Meanwhile, the general commanding the Egyptian forces told his subordinates the night before that he was going to sleep and that they shouldn’t wake him up. These kinds of miracles are what we call siyata dishmaya, help that literally comes from Hashem and shamayim, the heavens. The Egyptian Air Force was destroyed on the ground, enabling Israeli forces to go into Sinai and remove Nasser’s stranglehold. 

In the weeks leading up to the war, Israel implored the very conservative King Hussein of Jordan, “Please do not open a second front, we have enough problems with the Egyptians. If you don’t shoot at us, we won’t shoot at you.” Yet Hussein decided to put his forces under Egyptian command and they attacked Israel. They captured Armon Hanatziv, the UN headquarters, which was an attack on Western Jerusalem. They bombed Western Jerusalem, dropping shells into the population centers. A shell was even dropped on the Mir Yeshiva, which was a kilometer from the border.

The Israeli army fought with great heroism and, with Hashem’s help, they were able to vanquish the enemy forces. The IDF reached the Suez Canal and Jordan in about three days. And most amazing of all was the battle for Jerusalem and the Old City, culminating with Rav Goren famously blowing the shofar at the Kotel. Two amazing things happened – we were saved from a terrible danger which threatened our lives, and Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, everything west of the Jordan River, was in our hands in the span of three days. 

After doing nothing for three weeks, the United Nations woke up after three days of war to demand a ceasefire. If the Jews are winning, there must be a ceasefire!

In Kerem B’Yavneh, there was an air raid siren on the second day of the war. We ran to the bomb shelter, and let me tell you – that was quite a shacharit! Nasser said he was coming for Tel Aviv, and we kept looking up to see if he would follow up on his threats. We thought the air raid was part of an attack that would threaten all of Israel. It turns out that one Iraqi plane flew over Netanya, sending half the country into bomb shelters. One woman went on the terrace to see and was killed by the shrapnel, but that was the extent of it.

After a ceasefire was declared following six days of war, we all wanted to go to Yerushalayim. But nineteen years of barbed wire and mines meant we couldn’t get in so fast. An engineering corps first had to go in and clear it out. 

The government announced that on Shavuot morning, exactly one week after Jerusalem was taken, the public would be allowed in. Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh made a mishmar at Heichal Shlomo, we davened shacharit and read the Torah. It was 5:30am and we would be the first ones in – but not by a long shot! The city was overwhelmed with people and the police were doing crowd control. If anyone went a few hundred yards too far the police stopped them. Our rebbe, Rabbi Yeshayahu Chaim Hadari, led us in singing “Yerushalayim Habnuya” to a Sephardic tune as we walked through the streets. 

When I met him about 20 years ago, I sang that song for him. He was shocked; it was more than 30 years after that Shavuot morning! He asked me how I remembered the tune, and I said, “Some things you don’t forget. That day, I’ll never forget. It’s etched in my memory.”

We marched down Agron, to the end of Yaffo. Because I had been in Israel since the summer before, I remembered that buses would go down Yaffo and make a u-turn by Barclays Bank; you couldn’t go any further because there was a barbed wire checkpoint there that was the border. But on that day we walked right through. 

“Yerushalayim is built up as a city united together” (Tehillim 122:3). Never in my life have I seen the fulfillment of a verse as I did on that day. Shoulder to shoulder, Jews of every type marched through the Yaffo Gate into the Old City. Chassidim with their shtreimels and white socks, yeshiva boys with black hats, yeshiva boys with their knitted yarmulkes, and bare-headed Israelis with cameras on their shoulders, there to capture the moment on the Yom Tov. Everyone put aside their differences. 

And then there it was – something we thought we would never see. Not ourselves, nor our children or grandchildren. The government had cleared what is now the plaza, so the Kotel was empty, muddy and full of dirt. We approached the holy wall. We began to daven mussaf, and we came to the words “וַהֲבִיאֵנוּ לְצִיּון עִירְךָ בְּרִנָּה, Bring us to Zion (Yerushalayim) Your city with gladness.” Here we were, living these words! 

I will never forget that mussaf. We wanted to stay, but the police sent us out of the Old City. There were so many people we couldn’t go out the way we came in. 

We have a responsibility, a halachic obligation, to thank Hashem for the miracles he did for us 50 years ago. In that merit, may we merit the completion of the redemption and the building of the Beit HaMikdash, speedily in our days.

 

Rabbi Mordechai Willig is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, and the Av Beis Din of the Beis Din of America. Since 1974, Rabbi Willig has been the rabbi of the Young Israel of Riverdale in Riverdale, New York. He is the author of the four volume Am Mordechai series.

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