JERUSALEM — Once a year, usually just before Hanukkah and Christmas, a handful of Jerusalem postal workers leave their dreary letter-sorting station for a few hours and head to the Western Wall.
Boxes in hand, they haul the thousands of letters addressed to "God, Jerusalem Israel," "the Almighty," or "the Wailing Wall," among others.
At the wall, the second-holiest in Judaism after the adjoining Temple Mount, the workers separate by gender, going either to the men's or women's prayer sections. An arm's length from the wall's ancient stones, where dozens of people are deep in prayer, they carefully open the envelopes, fold the letters until they are slivers and insert them into the crevices.
Jewish pilgrims and others have been performing this ritual for centuries, and the postal workers take the job of delivering heartfelt prayers very, very seriously. Many Jews, as well as some followers of other Abrahamic faiths, believe God answers prayers inserted in the 2,000-year-old wall.
"If you live in Israel you can come to the Kotel (Western Wall) and place a prayer in the stones, but the people who wrote these letters live abroad," says Chana Arvatz, a postal worker, while inserting a letter between the stones. "It is a sacred responsibility, something I find very moving."
The letters arrive from dozens of countries, some of which, like Malaysia and Kuwait, do not have diplomatic ties with Israel. Most of the letters in today's pile appear to be in Russian, but English, Spanish, Italian and French are also represented.
"The majority come from Christians, but a sizable number come from Jews and even a few from Muslims," says Avi Yaniv, who calls himself the manager of the "dead letters" department. "There are also quite a few letters to Santa Claus."
From what Yaniv has heard, Israeli postal workers have been delivering letters addressed to God to the wall for 60 years, since the founding of the state.
Yaniv says he and his fellow postal workers read some of the letters before placing them in the wall, but are careful not to look at the senders' names out of respect for their privacy.
"People tend to write to God when they're experiencing problems in their lives or want to change their situation. Some are very touching," he says somberly.
Regardless of the religion of the sender, all letters addressed to God are taken to the Western Wall, says Avi Hochman, general manager of the Israel Postal Service.
"Israel is a Jewish country and the Kotel is a sacred place. All people are welcome to pray here. We respect all minorities," Hochman says.
Like all of the messages placed in the wall's crevices, those addressed to God will eventually be collected by employees of the Western Wall Plaza and buried in the "geniza," a repository for texts considered holy, such as the Torah and prayer books.