Media Coverage

40 days at the Wall - Chicago Jewish Star - Mar 14, 2008

By GIL ZOHAR
ISRAEL CORRESPONDENT

KaddishAccording to a kabbalistic tradition, God answers the prayers of those who visit the Western Wall for 40 consecutive days.

But not everyone lives in Jerusalem, and even denizens of the Holy City find it a challenge to visit the Old City shrine daily for nearly six weeks to avail themselves of divine intervention. Recognizing this need, in 2004 Jewish Quarter resident Batya Burd, 33, established Western Wall Prayers to say proxy prayers at the Kotel for those unable to be there personally.

The requested donation? $2 per day, or $80 for heavenly help, smiles the petite brunette, who was a corporate lawyer in Toronto before getting into the God game. “Once I was told I was selling snake oil. But that’s okay,” she demurs. “I’m not doing this for public approval. You have to believe in God to actually believe this works. Otherwise it’s just superstition.”

Burd herself, and her Chicago-born husband Gershon, are proof of the efficacy of the 40-day ritual, she continues, even as she emphasizes there is no guarantee.

The two met in December 2002 a week-and-a-half after Gershon had completed his own 40-day stint at the Kotel — where his prayers had focused on finding his besherte (God designated match).

After five dates in a whirlwind 15 days, the couple became engaged and were married two months later, she smiles.

A son and daughter quickly followed. While Gershon works as the executive director of the Yeshivas Bircas ha-Torah seminary, money is tight, Burd acknowledges.

“In our first year of marriage before this service was started, we had to rely on miracles almost weekly just to survive. I remember once we owed 200 shekels and had to pay it that day. We didn’t have it, and just turned to God.

“A couple of hours later a friend came to the door with exactly 200 shekels. She put it in my hand and asked if I could buy a book for her on my credit card because hers wasn’t working. She gave me the cash instead. That gave us 30 days to pay.

“And it seemed as if the whole year was like that. But we always made it, and learned that HaShem [God] always provides.”

Indeed Burd’s biography reads as an extended miracle of Jewish survival.

Her parents, Efim and Anna Fefer, are Russian scientists who in 1973 were able to escape Ukraine, then part of the U.S.S.R., on exit permits for Israel.

Like tens of thousands of Soviet émigrés, the Fefers were disappointed with the reality of life in the Jewish state. Indeed their arrival coincided with the disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In 1976, with their newborn daughter in tow, the Fefers decamped to Ostia Lido, Italy, outside Rome, where they waited three difficult years for a visa to Canada.

Raised in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, and trained at the prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School, Batya — then called Lisa Fefer — came to Israel on a lifechanging 10-day Birthright trip in January 2001.

The rest, she observes, is history.

The prayer business

Apart from Burd’s legal background specializing in entertainment contracts, she is also a certified therapist trained at the Jerusalem Therapy Psycho Spiritual Institute.

Besides composing the prayers to be said verbally at the Western Wall, the former lawyer does a lot of counseling.

“It’s easier for a third party to see straight. Often people can’t see beyond their suffering,” she explains. “I use a lot of lawyerly skills.”

And why does God give people issues? “To help them improve,” she responds.

In May 2004 Burd decided to set up her personal prayer business. Two years later she obtained not-for-profit amuta status. Today the charity employs herself and another half-time worker, and pays 35 prayer agents, “99 per cent of whom are either teaching or learning Torah.”

Each surrogate worshipper spends a minimum of 10 minutes of prayer per party.

Some remain for hours at the Kotel — which formed the western retaining wall of King Herod’s massive enlargement of the Temple complex on Mount Moriah, and from which (according to Jewish tradition) God’s presence is said to permanently dwell.

Burd declines to reveal payment. “It’s a sensitive subject,” she notes, adding the largesse is well-appreciated and well-spent by her Torah team, all of whom are spirituality-rich but cash-poor.

Bottom line: since 2004, Western Wall Prayers has served more than 700 people seeking divine intervention on matters such as fertility, health or marriage. Burd points to a raft of success stories of prayers answered, the most moving of which are posted at westernwallprayers.org.

Unusual requests have included divine help in being released from prison, losing weight, and obtaining American citizenship.

One Christian donor, who sought prayers for Jesus’s resurrection, was politely declined, she says.

Though the majority of donors live in New York and Toronto, others are from the Philippines, South Africa, Australia and Britain. Three-quarters are Jewish.

Promoted by word of mouth and advertisements on Google and the haredi newspaper Hamodia, numbers are increasing, Burd adds. “We pray for you out of gratitude for your donation,” she notes.

Burd claims donors feel very satisfied with her service, and have reported “nearly 140” stories of prayers answered, ranging from love discovered to health re gained. Many donors are repeats.

“Even people who didn’t see open miracles feel very grateful for how connected they feel during the process,” she concludes. “It’s not magic, but it is a Torah recipe for success.”

“There’s scientific evidence that prayer works,” she says.