By Thanassis Cambanis
JERUSALEM – Batya Burd is a devout Jew, dedicated to following to the letter every instruction contained in the Torah – from how to dress and what to eat to whether to neuter a pet cat. The 31-year-old former corporate lawyer is also tech-savvy; Burd is the founder of www.WesternWallPrayers.org, a website that enables [people] the world over to order a 40-day cycle of prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – according to many Jews the holiest religious site in the world. Burd lives just up the hill from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, in a cramped walkup with her husband, 2- year-old son Joshua Jacob, and a second baby due in May. From a tiny office on the apartment’s glassed-in balcony, she screens dozens of requests a month on her laptop from people seeking prayers to support them as they look for marriage partners or business help or a respite from cancer – and in one case, even American citizenship. ”I wanted to make a living doing something that advanced my spiritual life,” Burd said. She only denies a few requests, among them e-mails asking agents to pray for a lottery win. Burd corresponds with those whose reasons for prayers pass muster, and then dispatches a prayer agent for 40 days in a row to the Wailing Wall. She left behind a life of career-climbing when she came to Israel five years ago … Two years later she met Gershon Burd, a student at yeshiva who had left his family’s insurance business in Chicago after becoming observant. They decided to marry within two weeks. With their marriage came the idea of www.WesternWallPrayers.org. Gershon Burd had prayed for 40 days at the Western Wall, a holy spot for all Jews.
Why, Gershon wondered, should the benefits of praying at the foundation of the Temple Mount be available only to those able to travel to Jerusalem? Batya Burd opened her website a year and a half ago, when the young couple had a newborn son and was running desperately low on money. ”We were literally waiting for miracles,” Burd said … Revenue from the web-based prayer site, Batya reasoned, could support her and Gershon, a full-time student at the Bircas HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City. Many members of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel dedicate their lives to studying Torah, living on little or no income. If the site succeeded, it would also create income for other yeshiva students. Now, Burd said, she accepts several dozen requests a month for a prayer cycle … [Donors] can choose among several packages. An ”individual-cycle prayer” costs [$90 donation], and involves a Torah-observant Jew praying for a group of customers at the same time. At the top of the line, the ”personalized exclusive prayer,” for [$720 donation], involves a prayer agent dedicated to a single request, a group prayer by an entire yeshiva, and special study of religious law on the customer’s behalf.
Burd is quick to note that she won’t reject a person in need of a prayer cycle who can’t afford it. ”We’ll ask them to give whatever they can.” But she says success stories abound among those who [donated for] prayers, including [donors] who found marriage partners or were exonerated in criminal trials or overcame serious health problems. Burd said a recent [donor] sent $2,000 in gratitude after his prayer was answered. Burd said she distributed the money to needy families for Passover. She expanded her offerings recently, sending prayer agents to the town of Safed, at the tomb of a major Kabbalist rabbi. The [donation requested] $540 for 40 days. Daryl Michel, 35, one of the prayer agents, said he sees no difference between praying for [someone donating money] and praying on behalf of a loved one or relative. He’s a fervent believer in the 40-day prayer cycle, a tradition among [religious Jews] that involves saying a prayer every day for 40 days at the Western Wall. It was after visiting the Western Wall for 40 days in a row that Michel’s wife conceived their daughter. ”It’s wonderful to pray at this holy site for those not so fortunate to be here,” Michel said.