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)

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.

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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