Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the culmination of 40 days of spiritual introspective reflection. We just got back from the Kotel (the Western Wall), where they've been saying slichot every night (except Fridays) for almost seven weeks; slichot being the (mostly medieval) prayers recited at this time of year. There were easily 50,000 people there, perhaps double, and with masses of people coming and going all night long the total will probably be 200-250,000. Who are they? Jews. Mostly Israelis, though you heard some English from the Teaneck crowd of young Modern-Orthodox students here for a year or two. I'd say that well more than half were non-religious, or at least non-religious in their daily lives. At about 11pm the sephardi Chief Rabbi arrived (or was it his far greater predecessor, the Rav Ovadia?) and one of his fellows was leading the services through the PA system, and it was clear that many of the obviously secular folks knew the services by heart. Ten of thousands of people singing together is quite impressive.
Meanwhile, large numbers of tourists were wandering round the old city (and not only the old city), hearing tales of Jerusalem. They'll get to the Wall later tonight. By tourists, I mean of course Israelis; the groups are mostly secular.
While tonight is probably more crowded than most, the phenomenon has been going on since Tisha Be'Av, exactly two months ago; it's a custom that has been growing year by year in popularity: some night in August or September the Israelis go up to Jerusalem, tour the city, and eventually, late at night, they converge for slichot at the Kotel. There's no way their number is smaller than 5-600,000 people, and it well may be more; this, from a Jewish population of about 6,000,000. That young Arab who ploughed his car into a group of soldiers late one night a few weeks ago: they weren't on duty, they were touring, and were on their way to the Kotel for slichot. Not that any of the foreign media mentioned this, because even had they known it's most likely a phenomenon they can't even begin to fathom.
But I expect the forbears of these tourists, the past 80-100 generations, they'd appreciate it.