Journey to the Old City: The Aliyah of Rabbi and Mrs. Motti Berger

old city

A magnet for spiritual seekers and tourists from all walks of life, Yerushalayim’s Old City is filled with visitors exploring ancient ruins, shopping for souvenirs, and meandering along its alleyways. I, too, stride the age-polished cobblestone paths on this quiet winter morning, in awe of this Golden City of Old, the heartbeat of our Nation, the Holy City that manifests majesty and glory.  I contemplate, as well, the contrast between this morning’s peaceful quiet and the ancient history of contention and bloodshed that these very streets have witnessed. Focusing on my destination, I wonder about the Jewish Quarter’s few thousand Jewish inhabitants. What’s it like to spend one’s days so close to the makom hamikdash?  To have the ability to walk down to the Kotel in a matter of minutes? To encounter strangers from all over the world mere steps from one’s doorway? 

Crossing the main square of the Jewish Quarter, I turn into one of the alleys, right before the main street filled with a bank, shops, and eateries. Following Rebbetzin Berger’s detailed directions, I soon pass through a courtyard and find myself before the entrance to their modest home, where nourishment for body and soul has been lavished on countless Aish HaTorah students. I would experience their warmth for myself.

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Rabbi Motty and Rebbetzin Bayla Berger chose to set up their home in the Old City in 1985. I am curious to find out about their move from Baltimore, where Rabbi Berger was well known for his anti-missionary work. Rebbetzin Berger welcomes me with her characteristic kind smile and offers me tea before we sit down to speak about their aliyah journey.

It all began in 1984. Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, invited Rabbi Berger to teach at Aish HaTorah for the summer. When he then offered Rabbi Berger a full-time job at Aish, the Bergers realized this was the best thing that could have happened to them. They sold their house on Biltmore Avenue and moved to Eretz Yisrael. Since Rabbi Berger was spending most of his waking hours at Aish HaTorah in the Old City, the Bergers decided it made sense to live there too.

Rebbetzin Berger describes her immediate love for her new home. “The Old City is a fascinating place to live,” she says, “because every Jew who comes here feels his or her Jewish identity, the pintele Yid awakened, and it’s very exciting to interact with people in that way.” There is no doubt that life in the Old City grants a heightened Jewish awareness for both residents and visitors. Although the Bergers’ “vehicle” to inspire other Jews has been Aish HaTorah, Rebbetzin Berger says that everyone living in the Old City is asked to host guests, so all the residents participate in some way in supporting the awakening of Jewish people of all ages who come there. Aside from the tremendous opportunity to make a contribution to Klal Yisrael, the accessibility to the Kotel really changed her life, says Rebbetzin Berger. The privilege of davening there frequently has built her “as a person and as a Jew.”

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Rebbetzin Berger’s initial adjustment to life in Israel was eased by being absorbed within the Aish HaTorah “family” and its close-knit group of English-speaking peers. In other ways, her adjustment was more gradual. Some of the challenges were learning how to shop for unfamiliar products, which hechsherim are acceptable, and the necessity of checking food for bugs. Learning the medical system, doing the banking, reading bills, and dealing with bureaucracy were additional challenges. Functioning in shopping and money matters necessitated attaining a working knowledge of Hebrew, and Rebbetzin Berger took a few months of ulpan (Hebrew language courses) before life became too demanding. Through speaking and reading Hebrew – and making good use of her dictionary – Rebbetzin Berger has been able to bring her language skills up several notches, and self-expression is more comfortable now.

Living in the rarefied atmosphere of the Old City means that Rebbetzin Berger does much of her shopping in Geulah and the center of Jerusalem. Although there are shops near her house, including grocery stores, cafes, restaurants, a bakery, and a bank, the prices reflect their tourist location. As many Israelis both young and old do, Rebbetzin Berger travels by bus and takes along her shopping bag on wheels to transport the heavy groceries home. She also tries to take advantage of the cheaper pricing in Beitar when she visits her married daughter. The Bergers don’t own a car, which would actually be more of a bother than an advantage, Rebbetzin Berger explains, since parking in the Jewish Quarter is a challenge for the residents. When the neighborhood was planned, they did not project the need for parking that has developed. Rather than seeing her lifestyle as a burden, Rebbetzin Berger is accustomed to it.

Reflecting on life in the Old City, Rebbetzin Berger tells me more about the population in the Jewish Quarter. Many of the residents are affiliated with the local yeshivas, such as Yeshivat HaKotel, Netiv Aryeh, Porat Yosef, the Zilberman cheder and yeshiva, Aish HaTorah, Bircas HaTorah, and others. Many other residents are balabatim with various professions. In terms of mixing with their Israeli neighbors, the English speakers, who number approximately 30 percent of the residents, find it easier to keep within their own social circles. However, Rebbetzin Berger has formed close connections with some Israeli neighbors, as well, although it did take more effort. A good venue for social mixing among English-speakers and Israelis is the Old City’s community center, which offers a wide array of lectures, athletic activities, exercise classes, and courses such as art and music.

My impression is that apartments in the Old City are very expensive. I ask Rebbetzin Berger if this is the case. “The housing crisis for all of the State of Israel includes the Old City,” she explains. “Building starts are insufficient for the need, and housing has become extremely expensive for the average young couple.” In the Rova (Jewish Quarter), there are many young couples; but most of them are renting. The apartments tend to be small relative to those in newer neighborhoods, because the neighborhood is limited by the walls of the Old City and the existence of the Moslem, Christian, and Armenian quarters. It’s hard to give a number for apartments, because the price of any individual apartment would depend on many factors. Rebbetzin Berger posits that, aside from these other factors, the enthusiasm of people to buy in the Old City depends on the security situation at a given time, which also affects the prices.

In response to my question about how the residents deal with so many tourists passing through, Rebbetzin Berger is emphatic: “The constant traffic of tourists does not diminish the sense of community among the residents. I love the tourists. It’s fitting that every Jew and non-Jew who comes to Israel comes through our neighborhood or at least goes to the Kotel,” she explains. “The Temple Mount is the center of the universe. What place on earth has greater significance? I try to be a kiddush Hashem by smiling at people and saying shalom. I often see people who look lost and offer them directions or walk them to where they want to go.” Rebbetzin Berger also considers herself fortunate in that her family has privacy; even though their home is centrally located, it is also a bit off the beaten track.

This brings me to wonder about how the current security situation has affected the enclave’s residents. Since my own aliyah a few months ago, I have noticed, sadly, that the number of visitors and tourists in the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel plaza has diminished, sometimes leaving these mekomos hakedoshim rather empty. Rebbetzin Berger explains that after the first attacks, in which Jews were injured and killed in the Moslem Quarter, psychologists were brought in to offer support to the residents and advise them how to relate to their children’s fears. Some self-defense courses were also offered. “Baruch Hashem, the Jewish Quarter has been quiet,” says Rebbetzin Berger. “The Jewish residents just try to stay more alert about what’s going on around us and a bit more cautious about when and where we walk. Otherwise, everyday life is basically normal.”

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The availability of appropriate schools is always an important consideration for parents. When it was time to send their daughter to school, the Bergers faced the common issue of figuring out where they belonged in the Israeli religious framework; that would determine which school would be appropriate for her. At that point, they chose to identify with the chareidi yeshivish Lithuanian stream. The only option was to send their daughter to a Bais Yaakov school outside the Old City, which had a good transportation system for the girls leaving the Old City.

The Old City has a few schools. For young girls and boys, the school options are limited to the dati leumi (national religious) stream, with both private and state schools. For boys, there is also the chareidi Zilberman option. (This school, which starts with lower grades and goes through yeshiva age, embraces a specialized ancient/new way of learning.)

Adjusting to her daughter’s school presented a challenge and a “cultural jump,” says Rebbetzin Berger, with the students being “more sheltered than what we were used to in America.” A more personal challenge she faced upon sending her daughter to a chareidi Bais Yaakov was changing her attire to meet the tznuis standards of the system. Coming with her American background, this did bother her initially, but she does not regret it. As Rebbetzin Berger explains, “I felt that it was important for me to reflect what the teachers were telling her.” She recalls buying an expensive pair of earrings that she really liked, upon which her daughter told her that they were too large to meet the standards of tznius. Rebbetzin Berger’s reaction wasn’t resentment but a more wistful, “I really did like those earrings!”

How did their daughter fare in the chareidi system, coming from an American home? “She did not have trouble with it,” Rebbetzin Berger responds. “She really swam in it very well, although she was sometimes embarrassed by her American mother with her faltering Hebrew and weird ideas!”

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As the time goes by chatting with Rebbetzin Berger, I notice waves of beautiful music – not untypical in the Old City – streaming through the slightly opened window. Not blasting music but happy sounds that make me smile and enjoy even more the aura in this truly special place. Rebbetzin Berger shares some stories before I take my leave.

Rebbetzin Berger then shares a beautiful hashgacha account. When the Bergers were living in their first apartment in Eretz Yisrael, Rebbetzin Berger was in need of a cleaner but unsure how to find one! So, as all good women do, she simply asked Hashem to help her find the right one! Shortly after, while taking a bus, she found herself sitting next to a slight Israeli woman, who turned to her “out of the blue” and asked her if she needed a cleaner?! “It was amazing!” Rebbetzin Berger exclaims. “I felt so connected. Hashem was really there with me! Incidentally, she turned out to be a terrific cleaner and a very nice person.”

Rebbetzin Berger’s final message is one of hope and strength. The Bergers were married for 12 years before their tefilos were answered and they finally gave birth to their long-awaited precious daughter. Rebbetzin Berger had been going to the Kotel frequently to daven, and became familiar with the women who regularly showed up early to daven. One special older woman caught Rebbetzin Berger’s attention. Every day, she would stride up to the Kotel and cry heartrending screams to Hashem to bring the geulah (redemption). When she was finished, she would turn around and tell Rebbetzin Berger, “Ivdu es Hashem besimcha (serve Hashem with joy).” Finally, one day Rebbetzin Berger asked this woman to teach her how to daven! The response of this chashuve woman, Rebbitzen Faige Tefilinsky, was that Hashem is close to all who call out to Him, as it says in Tehilim, “Karov Hashem lechol korav.” When Rebbetzin Berger shared with the woman her longings to have a child, the woman instructed her with a key message that should be at the forefront of tefila: She told her to ask Hashem to grant her a child from His otzer matnas chinam, as a free gift from Hashem. The request should be that, with this gift of a child, Rebbetzin Berger would be megaleh kvod Shamayim. She should not ask Hashem for a child for personal benefit and pleasure but to further reveal Hashem’s glory.

No, the ending of this story is not that Rebbetzin Berger immediately had a child. In fact, it took another few years for their daughter to be born. Instead, the message was one of faith and persistence and unequivocal devotion to serve Hashem and form an intimate connection with Him through tefila.

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I stand up to leave and thank Rebbetzin Berger for sharing her journey to Eretz Yisrael. As I head down to the Kotel to take a few minutes to daven, I feel privileged and grateful for the opportunity to speak to her and learn about her life in this most unique and meaningful neighborhood. 

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