Accessibility links

Breaking News

Jerusalem, Part 1: Why It Matters to Jews

Jerusalem is testing a light rail system extending from the Western part of the city into the Eastern parts
Jerusalem is testing a light rail system extending from the Western part of the city into the Eastern parts

State-of-the-art trains crisscross the ancient landscape, their sound and their presence serving as reminders of why Israelis and Palestinians struggle for control of Jerusalem. For Israelis, the train is a step toward realizing their vision of uniting the once-divided city.

It is Friday morning and Anat Hoffman, a controversial former Jerusalem councilwoman, is preparing the Sabbath meal.

She was born and reared in Jerusalem. And to her, the most meaningful spot in the city is - the Jerusalem zoo.

"There are men and women, ultra-Orthodox and Arab, sitting here on this grass, being together without attacking each other. Somehow, in the presence of the wild animals, we become human beings, and the zoo has become an island of sanity in this town. It's the only place where you see Arab feet and Jewish feet in the same puddle of water, enjoying the place," she said.

For three millennia, this has been Judaism's holiest spot - the site of the ancient Hebrew temple in what is now Jerusalem's old city,

Israeli troops captured it from Jordan, along with the rest of the old city, in 1967.

Since then, Jews have come to pray around the clock at one of the walls of the temple compound that the Romans destroyed in the first century.

Yona Metzger, the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, explains why these stones matter. "We fulfilled a dream. Israel belongs to the sons of Israel and this is the heart of Israel. All the holiness of the Holy Land comes from Jerusalem. The influence from the holiness comes from Jerusalem, and for Jews the heart of Jerusalem is the Holy Temple," she said.

Those who pray here believe Jerusalem is holy because God made it holy, and some believe prayers reach God more directly when made from here.

"It's holy to other religions, I know, but the first time it was made holy was when God gave it to the Jewish people. It started in the days of Abraham, even when Adam was created. It was the place where the temple was built, the first temple, and God willing, the third temple will be built here also. We will always pray here," said one woman.

But the way Anat Hoffman sees it, much remains to be done before this sacred spot can be, in her view, considered truly holy.

She recalls how Israel demolished Palestinian homes after the 1967 war to make way for this plaza.

She has also led a fight to remove the partition that segregates men and women in this outdoor synagogue. "I would start with paying back and compensating every person who lived here at the Mughrabi neighborhood for this plaza. Only then, I think, we'll be able to tread this wall and feel holiness. Then I'll blow the partition to all hell," she said.

Hoffman also opposes the light rail project. For her, it does little to bridge the gaps that remain.

Part three of this three part series will be available July 20. Part two can be seen here.