It was a Monday morning and nothing in particular was on my schedule. My thoughts kept pulling me back to the Kotel, the Western Wall. It had been too long since I had been there. (I try to make it a point to visit monthly.)

As my friend, Brocha, and I walked downWe heard the clamor rise up to greet us the cascading stairs towards our destination, we heard the clamor rise up to greet us. We looked at each other and said, “It’s Monday. Bar mitzvah day at the Kotel.”

Bar mitzvahs are, of course, a beautiful event anywhere and at any time. We celebrate the fact that a Jewish boy has become of age where his mitzvot count as an adult. But bar mitzvahs at the Kotel can be noisy and disruptive, and not so conducive to praying with concentration.

Some celebrations enter the large Dung Gate with a procession of drums and accompanying percussion instruments while the celebrants shout and ululate. There may be other instruments to increase the cacophony. I have even seen bar mitzvah boys brought in on “flying carpets!” The family and friends carry the boy on a rug or blanket, carefully holding on so the boy doesn’t fall off. It is a delight to watch, but if my time is limited and my intention is to get in some serious praying, I need more quiet than that.

As we passed through the metal detector, Brocha gestured towards the shul inside the Kotel. Although it was a lovely cool sunny day—just perfect for sitting outdoors—I agreed that her suggestion made sense. Coming out of the security booth, we were greeted by tour groups representing the nations of the universe. Swerving around them, we marched over to the quiet sanctuary with determination, sat down on the green plush seats and opened our Psalms.

I had just about finished reciting my chapters when I heard the lively, loud tune of a saxophone ringing in the air. Brocha motioned for me to look down at the men praying below. I focused on where the music was coming from and spotted the sax player. I suddenly spied an entourage of about 10 elderly men, most of whom were wearing baseball caps. A young man gently took these older people by the hand and seated them in a semicircle. He was speaking to them in Russian. A cart of gold and brown velvet tefillin bags was brought over to the group.

Brocha and I took guesses who these men were. I thought that they had come from some sort of assisted-living accommodation or a club for the aged. A woman whose wrinkles told us she had passed her youth looked on with us. “Oh, look at these old men!” she exclaimed. “These tefillin bags belong to the Kotel synagogue. The tefillin will be used on these seniors.”

Our gaze stayed fixed on the group. The young man had opened up a tefillin bag and carefully began to unwind a pair of leather straps. He took one of the men’s arms and started to wrap the tefillin around it, softly explaining what was happening. It was clear to the young man that he wouldn’t be able to attend to all his charges alone. A helper arrived and called out, “Please come help these Holocaust survivors put on tefillin!”

From all corners of the shul, men came over to the group; a man with a knitted kippah, a Chassid in his distinct garb, a yeshivah student. Another older Chassid who had been studying a thick tome rose to join the group. Each helper looked on at their newfound friend as they finished winding and placing the black boxes and straps on their arms and heads. Gently, a tallit was placed over each man’s head, and they enunciated the ancient blessings word for word as the older men repeated.

I didn’t have to see the tears streamingI will never know who they were down Brocha’s eyes. I felt them mixed with the salty water dripping down my cheeks. I wanted to embrace the wetness sticking to my face, just as these aging Jewish men were embracing a symbol of the Yiddishkeit that had for so long not been a part of their lives.

I will never know who they were. Had they spent the war years in the cruel frozen desert of Siberia? Had they been ripped away from their parents and siblings at a tender age? Had they ever witnessed their own fathers clad in tefillin? What I do know is that despite the decades of distance from Torah living, their internal Jewish soul could never be completely devastated. At this late age, they are now returning home to their loving Father.

I thought it was just another bar mitzvah Monday at the Kotel. I was so wrong.