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.


A different kind of holy water

Photo from tumblr – Post by Melissa

Being in Israel, the prayers for rain feel so much more powerful and connected than they are in the US.

They are timed here differently to perfectly coincide with the holidays (and people’s travels home from Jerusalem after Sukkot during the Temple Era when people made the great pilgrimage on foot) and the agricultural seasons in Israel.

They have a deeper meaning as everyone is aware of the water crisis here in the desert. While people may be annoyed with days of rain, they are always also very excited and recognize its critical importance. People actually discuss the water levels of the Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee, our largest source of water) on the street and around Shabbat tables, and it even has its own twitter account.

We noticed the first major rains came right around the start of the davening (praying) changes in the fall, and now with spring upon us, people have been debating when the rains would end. Many people said that because it had been so long since our last rain storm we were done. Others put their faith in the fact that we have another week or so to ask for rain, so we were due for one last storm.

Apparently, Hashem is paying attention to our “local calls,” because we had a nice bit of rain right before Pesach (and another surprise shower this morning) – gives a whole new meaning to holy water!


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.

Birthday Blessings

Post by Melissa

Today is my 30th birthday, and a great blessing in life.

A few days ago, I posted on twitter about my upcoming birthday, and a dear friend replied with “celebrate turning 30! So many are not so lucky <3” – and she is right. Every year, my favorite birthday email is the one I get from Gift of Life reminding me to update my contact information so that they can find me should I ever be a match to give someone else a chance at having another birthday.

This year, I want to dedicate my birthday to all those who have not been blessed with thirty years of life. I have had friends and family who did not reach this milestone, and others who are battling daily to ensure they will. This year, I want to be sure to stop and be grateful for the blessing of my life.

They say its not the years in your life but the life in your years that really matters, and I’m not so sure thats true.

I have been blessed with thirty years of life. That is a mere 25% of the goal of 120 put forth to us by Moshe’s longevity. Rationally, I realize that I will probably not live to 120, but I’d be pretty darn happy with 90 and I’m only a third of the way there! I feel like it is “old” but in reality, I have so much more living to do. I have so many blog posts to write, so many things to learn and teach, and so many friends to still meet! I want to have both years in my life and life in my years, because really, what is one without the other?

There is a prayer which we say every morning when we awake thanking Hashem for returning our soul to us. We recognize the beauty and the blessing in every day of life.  But how many of us really think about the words we sleepily say? Every day, every month, every year of life is such a blessing and we have to take time to appreciate all the blessings, small and large, that make it a full cycle.

I am blessed to be married to my best friend (who proposed four years ago today), to have an amazing family, to have phenomenal friends all over the world, and to be healthy. My birthday wish is I can have these blessings for many years to come, and that I can take more time to recognize the blessing that is inherent in every day of life.

Think, Pray, Eat

Every year I make a “resolution” at the Jewish New Year.  Not a fluffy one like people often make on January 1 that is forgotten just a few weeks in – but something that will hopefully make me a better Jew.

Last year, I wrote about my resolution to be better about speaking my tefillah. When I made the choice last year to focus on speaking the words of my prayers, I recognized that there was another side to improving tefillah that I was not focusing on at the time – frequency. I feel that I made the right choice in increasing the intentionality and kavanah of my tefillah first, but am now ready to really make the next step.

Post by Melissa

I want to be one of those people who stops to properly express gratitude for every morsel of food I eat, for every miraculous and beautiful thing I see in nature, and for my bodies ability to heal itself when I treat it kindly. I want to do many things to improve my frequency of prayer, and I know that this is one that will go in increasing stages throughout the year. Being in a place where we gather and say mincha independently together every weekday and I am surrounded by women who are more consistent about saying brachot than I am is going to really help me in this.

I’m going to start by focusing on food, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I am grateful that I know what I should be saying most of the time, I just need to stop myself, think about what I am about to eat and where it comes from, say the blessing, and then eat my snack. (I am much better about doing it at meal times, than while snacking.) I think my new motto will be: Think, Pray, Eat – kind of like my own version of Eat, Pray, Love I suppose. I am pretty good about thinking before I speak and in many ways before I act, so I hope this is something which I can gain a mastery of fairly quickly and then move on to other places where I can increase my daily brachot so I can keep inching closer to the 100 blessings a day goal.

(I am also resolving to get back in the habit of blogging once a week! It has been hard with all the life changes, but those are especially what this blog was designed to share, so I need to carve out the time for myself and for all of you to do that. I figure if I say it publicly then you can all help hold me to it.)

What do you want to work on to make yourself better this year?

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.

A Wall for All?

Upon moving to Israel a big question in my head was if/how I would interact with Women of the Wall. I have written about the group before, and after the experience of a close friend of mine this month, I had to speak out again.

Ten days ago was Rosh Chodesh Elul. A particularly auspicious time in the Jewish year where we are to focus on reflection, teshuva, and preparing for the holy of holies. Yet, when a friend of mine donned her talit to pray with Women of the Wall (as she does in her shul every single morning, whether in the US or Israel) – she was arrested by the Israeli police.

In the past, women have been detained for carrying the Torah and a myriad of other things, but this time was different. Lorraine was actually arrested — for having worn a talit “like a man.” Apparently wearing a striped-talit folded up onto the shoulders, instead of a small colorful one that is more draped around the shoulders, is “behavior that could lead to endangering the public peace.” This is now a criminal offense in this democratic state. My friend was one of four women arrested that day for this offense. This is unlike any experience in months past.

I have a very hard time wrapping my head around this entire situation and was very grateful when WOW posted a piece from Lorraine in her own words. Knowing her well, I can hear her speaking to the police and see her sitting in the police station, but even if you can’t, I am sure you can imagine some other loving and gentle yet passionate woman in your life in her shoes.

Take a moment to read the post and really think about it. I’ll wait.

Regardless of how one feels about the halacha here, I think it is hard to argue that it should be a criminal offense to wear a large striped talit, which the government has declared to be for men and not women. The kotel is not a (insert-denomination-here) Orthodox synagogue. It is a communal holy site for all Jews, and the fact that one can be arrested for praying in a way which is widely recognized and authenticated is abhorrent. Israel is a democracy, and it takes great pride in being unlike the regimes which surround it, but I have to say that when I read about Lorraine’s experience  (as well as those who get hit, kicked, spat on, and more in other parts of the country for various “reasons”) I’m not so sure we’re really keeping up the standards of inclusivity and democracy we claim to have.