One of Four, but All for One

I had the distinct honor to be at the kotel for Rosh Chodesh Sivan. At least, that is what I believed as I left my house that morning and wrote this on Facebook:

I believe that prayer is a communal mitzvah. I believe that Rosh Chodesh is a special time for women. I believe that women’s Rosh Chodesh tefilla is particularly powerful.

Honored to be able to back up my beliefs and join Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Sivan….

Two days after Yom Yerushalyim and five days before Shavuot – ’tis the season to remember that this is everyone’s Jerusalem and everyone’s Torah.

But then I got there, and honor wasn’t one of the first words that came to mind.

I initially wrote a long and detailed post of the entirety of my experience that morning, but it is just that – one experience in thousands with all the emotions attached. I do not honestly believe that rehashing each of those moments adds something to the narrative of the day, nor will it help anyone move forward or reconcile the difficulties that it may have provoked. What I think I can add is a very unique viewpoint based on just a few moments and the take home message I’m trying to carry forward.

Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton – Post by Melissa

When I showed up at the kotel at 7:02am on Friday morning I could have been part of nearly any of the four groups that were there that day: those who praying at the kotel because that’s just their normative experience, those who were praying with Women of the Wall (WoW, a group of women who have held Rosh Chodesh services at the kotel for ~25 years with many of them wearing ritual garments), those who were praying with Women for the Wall (a new group started by women who do not feel the need for public prayers from women and/or the wearing of ritual garments at the kotel), and those who were actively protesting Women of the Wall.

As a visibly Dati Leumi (essentially Israeli/Zionist Modern Orthodox) woman, I moved relatively easily through the masses of religious men to get to the women’s side, and again through the masses of religious women to try and find where I was hoping to be. I said “slicha” (excuse me) and snaked my way through, but no one really paid any attention to me. I couldn’t find Women of the Wall amidst the thousands of people at the kotel, so I found one friend and we decided to pray Psukei d’Zimra together in the women’s section and hoped someone would text her with details on where we could find the group. That is when everything changed for me. You see, the friend I was with prays every morning wearing her tallit and tefillin – this is as much a part of her day and her religious experience as putting my head-covering on is for me. She donned her ritual garments and we prayed shoulder to shoulder, shuckling together through the psalms, and trying to focus on the words of our tefilla and not the stares and whispers around us. At one point, she identified the location of WoW so we decided to make our way over.

I took my friends hand to lead us out and keep us together. Immediately the girls who had moved out of my way before blocked my path.  Contrary to everything else I have seen reported about the women and girls, they were not all just davening peacefully. They may have been quieter and more subtle than the men, but they were hissing and spitting at us. They pointed, smirked, and took our photo. They yelled out that we were not Jewish and what we were doing was not Judaism, and many other things which I didn’t hear clearly and/or understand. We tried to stay focused and in the moment, quietly moving forward and towards our goal and out of their line of fire. [A few women did remark to my friend about her courage, bravery, and dedication (which she surely appreciated) and a few women approached us to ask where WoW was as they had also been unable to find the group.]

It was amazing to me that in a split second, the time it took to grasp my friend’s tefillin clad hand, I went from being perfectly acceptable, to a complete outsider. That in one moment, I went from being able to move about freely, to needing security personnel to protect me from those who wanted to hurt me. That in an instant I personally became the target of spit, water, eggs, curses, rocks, and even “the finger” as we drove away in the busses brought in to escort us out. Nothing about me changed from when I walked into the kotel plaza unnoticed to when I exited the Egged bus two hours later, and yet to a segment of the population my very being changed and made me an equal recipient of those actions. My heart still aches when I think about those sights and sounds, and I am still conflicted when I try to rectify the dichotomy in my head.

It is impossible to say how many people were at the kotel on Friday morning or how many were there for any of the four reasons I previously identified, but what I feel confident in saying is that on some level, the people who were there with any of these four groups want the same thing. We all want to be able to pray the same words of the same tradition in the same place. We are all looking to connect to God – we just have different ways of doing that. We have to find a way to use our common spiritual ground to create a common physical ground, even when we will never have a common practical religious ground. Deep down, we are all the same.

Rosh Chodesh Sivan falls just two days after Yom Yerushalyim, the day which commemorates and celebrates the Six Day War in 1967 in which Israel reclaimed Jerusalem (and so much more!) and provided access to the kotel and Old City after 19 years of it being locked up under Jordanian rule. I was there on Wednesday, singing and dancing to a band as thousands of people (mostly Dati Leumi) celebrated the ability to come to the kotel to pray. Rosh Chodesh Sivan is just five days before Shavuot, the day where we commemorate and celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – man, woman, and child. Thousands will again descend on the kotel that morning after staying up all night learning to celebrate the greatest gift of all – Torah.  Three times in one week, thousands of people will have gathered at this holy site to pray and celebrate – each in their own way. (Yes, there were also those who will have been there neither celebrating nor praying, but they are the minority in the grand scheme and we cannot let them overtake the deeper and more meaningful connections which are at our fingertips.)

In retrospect and having stepped back from the intense emotions of the day, I have to say that I am again honored to have been there. There were thousands of people from across the Jewish spectrum gathered together in this holy space: women and men, young and old, those who made a conscious decision and those who were bussed there by their seminaries, those who believe in women’s tefillah groups and those who oppose them, those who prayed and those who protested, those who want a change at the kotel and those who support the status quo. But at the end of the day, they were all there because their Judaism is so important to them that they want to be sure they have a way to honor it publicly at only of the holiest places we can access.

I hope and pray that we can unite around that and not continue to let the nuances around it divide us.

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Leaping forward or left in the dust…

The Sharansky Plan features a proposed permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. This is what it would look like. (photo credit: JTA) {Post by Melissa}

I have had many questions recently about my feelings about the proposed and so-called “Sharansky Plan” to fix the issues of davening spaces at the kotel and to make it more accessible to all Jews. I’ve been hesitant to share what I think because I am very torn, but I like to share my opinions when they are requested, so I’ll do my best to pull apart my conflicting viewpoints.

To start with, I have to commend Natan Sharansky for stepping up to the plate on this one. I know it can’t be easy to be in his position, but this is a big step forward and shifting the realities of the kotel as a space for all Jews. His plan to expand Robinson’s Arch to be a continuous part of the kotel plaza and with full access to the public is brilliant. This is more than a trichitza – it is a new space for egalitarian Jewry to daven in a way which is meaningful and consistent. I think it is amazing that the plan has been endorsed by American Jewry across the spectrum and accepted by Women of the Wall. There are many logistical issues to be sorted through, but if it comes together, it will be a huge step forward for egalitarian Jews.

That said, it is a step backward for me and other women who hope for the ability to sing and dance and pray aloud at the kotel who are not egalitarian.

While it is hard to say if the kotel police will arrest women for praying aloud at the kotel when not wearing tallitot and who are not affiliated with Women of the Wall, the precedent has been set and this plan does nothing to counter that. The mechitza section of the kotel will essentially remain a Charedi synogauge, and the newly expanded egalitarian section will be governed by the Jewish Agency.

Where does that leave Modern Orthodox Jewish women who are looking for women’s tefillah? Where does that leave all the Orthodox supporters of Women of the Wall? Where does that leave seminary girls who want to sing and dance and celebrate together in the holy space? Where does that leave a non-egalitarian woman who wears a talit or wants to say kaddish for a loved one?

From what I can see, it leaves us standing in silence in the minuscule women’s section – not exactly the big win for everyone that many would like to believe.

So while I want to celebrate the (potential) leap forward for my egalitarian friends and celebrate the liberation of part of the kotel from Charedization, I can’t help but be saddened that they have left their fellow supporters of women’s tefillah at the kotel in the dust.

The women's section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. (Photo by Melissa)

The women’s section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. — And anyone who wants to claim Kol Isha as the reason, look at this photo and tell me you *must* daven close enough to the women’s section to hear us. (Photo by Melissa)

Living History

I am still in shock over these experience, but knew that I needed to find a moment to actually write about it, so I am going to attempt to encapsulate two of the most amazing experiences of my life in words.

1) Maccabean Mikvah!

The 8th day of Chanukah, the women of Tochnit Alisa (the English language college and beyond program at Nishmat) had a lovely tiyul. One of our instructors live in Modi’in, just down the road from a relatively recently discovered archaeological site – a Hashmonean era site for Jewish ritual life. For those of you who might not be making the connection, the Maccabean revolt was in the Hashmonean era, so visiting the site on the last day of Chanukah was a pretty amazing way of connecting to history, both religiously and physically.

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

As we approached the site, it became clear that this was a unique find. The group gravitated towards the large space that was once the Beit Knesset (area where they prayed), however I was distracted by a series of steps leading into a hole in the ground. Could it be? Was I really seeing an ancient mikvah? Our guide began to speak about the space and referenced the mikvah and as quickly as I could, I scurried away from the group and back over towards the mikvah to investigate. I walked down the steps and just stood there – soaking up the moment. Here I was, standing the space where women (and men) had immersed thousands of years ago, in an era where ritual impurity had a meaning beyond what we can imagine.

I have a personal tradition to always think about my ancestors upholding the laws of taharat hamishpacha and immersing in the mikvah around the time of my own immersion. I always take some time in the waters to reflect upon their living nature and that of the history which they inherently tie me to. Now, that will take on a whole new meaning. I can connect to this phyiscal space as well and the emotions of really feeling that connection.

2) Holy of Holies!

Last week, Tochnit Alisa again had an outing. This time, we went to the Generations Center and on a Kotel Tunnel tour. (It was a nice touch that our guide for the latter was my Nach teacher!) One of the first things we saw on the tour was another ancient mikvah! Though this one was through a piece of glass on the floor because it was so very deep compared to where the “floor” of the tunnels is, it was still an amazing thing to see.

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

As we walked along and stopped to learn about the history I kept noticing religious women bustling past. At one point, we looked at the various archways and discovered that just ahead of us was an archway, directly underneath Wilson’s Arch – which is the closest place that men can pray to the Kodesh Kodeshim, the holy of holies from the time of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It turns out, there is a place directly under that in the tunnels where women can also pray. However, unlike the men’s area – there are always women there and anyone who knows how to get there can go at almost any time they want. We stopped in this place and our guide/my teacher allowed us some time to daven (pray) there. I stood in place and sung my favorite meditative line to myself and was almost in tears. I felt so connected to the history of the Jewish people and the plight of the temple eras and its destruction.

While I am the first to say that living in Israel is not an idyllic thing, these moments of being a part of the living history of the Jewish people is what makes the experience so important and profound. I am not going to start saying everyone needs to move here or make aliyah, but I do think it is important to take some time to get to experience the places which connect us all on a deeper level than we can cognitively undertand or expect.

First time…

This Shabbat, I went to the Kotel for the first time.

Post by Melissa

Yes, I have been here a month and yes, this was my first trip to the Kotel.

(Not just on this trip, but ever – since this is my first trip trip Israel and all.)

A good friend of mine just arrived before starting her own year program and suggested D and I join her in going to the Kotel as Shabbat ended. We were both excited to finally have a set plan, as we had often said on Shabbat that we “should have” gone, and yet somehow – we just hadn’t yet. It was definitely for a reason, because I loved being able to share that moment with someone who has shared so much of her journey to a religious life with me. 

As we approached that walls of the Old City, I stopped on my tracks. I was so caught up in the moment that I couldn’t possibly take another step. People were talking to me and bustling about and I could only stare at the walls. I was in awe. To think that these walls once enclosed the entire city of Jerusalem was just overwhelming. To look behind me and see the busting Jerusalem that we know now, and to look ahead and see such a small space enclosed in walls where our ancestors lived. The walls which kept out wild beasts and kept in disease. The walls which were broken down and rebuilt time after time and mark now a space with quarters reflecting the diversity of the city. The juxtaposition was beautiful.

We walked through the Old City – first the Christian Quarter, then a bit of the Armenian Quarter, and finally – into and through the Jewish Quarter. Everywhere I looked I felt like I was living a piece of history. As we neared the Kotel the sun was rapidly setting and there were groups of men praying mincha (the afternoon service) in the middle of the path as the last time to say it was upon us.

Then finally, finally, we could see it. I couldn’t believe it. There before me was the Western Wall. The place where so many Jews before and after have poured out their hearts and souls to Hashem, seeking guidance, strength, health, and tenacity in the times where they or their loved ones need it the most.

The entire walk up to the wall, I was shaking with excitement and yet also the calmest I have been in a very long time. The moon was shining bright and illuminating our journey. We went to wash and then off to the women’s side to pray Maariv (the evening servie).

I have a habit of going farthest from the mechitza (seperator) wherever I pray, so I gravitated that way at the Kotel as well. There was an area where no one was standing behind the women who were currently praying, so I went there and started to pray. As one of the women finished, I stepped up into the place she had vacated at the wall and immediately reached out my hand. I was shocked at how worn and smooth the rock was. Then, I had a memory of one of great teachers from my Hebrew School days saying “Reach up!” and I did. Up higher the rocks have been less touched and they retain more of their rocky feeling. It felt more like I was touching the history of the wall when I reached up, and also somehow closer to Hashem. 

I prayed with my hand up high on the wall, feeling the entire history and future of the Jewish people in a single touch. When I finished I touched my mitpacha (scarf) – covered forehead to the wall and allowed myself to just feel the emotion of the moment. I prayed for guidance, strength, health, and tenacity for myself and my loved ones. I became a part of the chain.

Hypocrisy at the Wall

Photo by: Barry Schlesinger - Source: Jpost.com

We read in the Talmud that when the month of Adar comes, joy increases.  Somehow, I don’t think the Ultra-Orthodox praying at the Kotel on Monday morning have learned that.

Every month the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall gathers together for the morning service at the Kotel to celebrate the mew month – which is traditionally a women’s holiday.  This month, they had more than 150 women on the women’s side praying Shacharit and Hallel, and 50 male supporters on the other side of the partition.  During the service, some Ultra-Orthodox men began to yell at the women, though they were quickly curtailed by police. (Quite a change from recent months in which leaders of the organization have been interrogated and arrested .)  Shortly after these men were stopped a group of Ultra-Orthodox women  shoved their way through the crowd heckling, pushing and spitting. The women screamed epithets and in one case, actually screamed the words of Hallel back at the Women of the Wall.  Ironic, no?  According to articles on Ynet and The Jerusalem Post they went so far as to call the women “Nazis” and tell them to “go marry preists.”  Once again, the police stepped in and were able to protect the Women of the Wall from physical violence, but it did not stop the verbal assault.  That only ended, when they left the Kotel to go to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah and Musaf service.

The same Ynet article notes that the increased presence of Israelis praying with Women of the Wall indicates that the people are unwilling to be pushed out by the Ultra-Orthodox minority.  Meanwhile, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites of Israel condemns Women of the Wall’s prayer group, yet in the same breath he says that all sides have to be understanding of the complexity of the issue.

It appears to me that Rabbi Rabinowitz is issuing quite a double standard.  How can he say that the Women of the Wall need to be respectful of the holiness of the wall, when they were the ones engaged in prayer? The women’s group was standing towards the back of the women’s section respectfully praying the morning service, according to all reports I have seen.  They were using the holy site in a holy manner.  It was the Ultra-Orthodox renegades who created the conflict by speaking out, yelling, spitting, etc.

Every month, I am outraged and amazed at the reaction to the Women of the Wall.  I cannot comprehend how a group of women praying, on the women’s side, is disrespectful to the holy site, but others interrupting their own prayer, as well as the prayers of this group, to yell at these women is not.  The hypocrisy from the Israeli Rabbinate astounds me.  I can only hope and pray that someday women will be able to pray for peace in peace at the holy sites as every religious person desires.

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