“My grandfather raised me to believe that everyone is equal.” “This is not right.”
These were the thoughts of a Massachusetts teenager as he arrived at the Kotel (Western Wall) last summer for the first time. He then followed a common tradition and placed a note between the cracks of the wall, containing what I can only assume was a prayer for unity.
As a counselor on a Jewish youth trip to Israel, it hurt me that something about this wonderful place, my favorite place in Israel, was so upsetting for the teens. For many of them it was their first experience with the modesty customs of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. I was asked why the girls must cover their elbows and knees and why women and men must pray on separate sides of a mechitza (partition). I wondered similar things my first time there. Why is the women’s section smaller than the men’s? Why are women harassed for wearing tallit or laying tefillin? How can a publicly funded place allow for such discrimination? These questions burned for answers, and I found hope when I first heard of Women of the Wall (WOTW), a group that has spent the past 27 years using direct action and political advocacy to help legalize pluralistic worship at the Kotel.
Struggling to find the right words, I told the young man “this place is sacred for all Jews and we should all feel welcome here.” “Progress never happens quickly enough, but I promise you, there are dedicated groups of people working on this.” Still frustrated, he turned and walked back toward the Wall. “I’m going back to get my note.” “This place doesn’t deserve it.” This hurt to hear, but I understood. “You should leave it,” I said. “You never know when you’ll be back here again.”
The following week I returned to the Kotel on my own to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Av and to daven (pray) in solidarity with WOTW. I was separated from them by the mechitza, of course, plus a locked metal barricade and a row of security guards. The extra security was prompted by a male supporter who was brave enough to pass a torah to the women on the previous Rosh Chodesh. He was arrested. On this day, a member of WOTW was arrested for sneaking in a torah, which was then detained as evidence. One of the security guards between the men’s and women’s sections was nice enough to help me adjust my tefillin, and a few moments later was mocking the women singing in unison on the other side. The women’s voices soared despite large groups of Ultra-Orthodox nearby who shouted and blew whistles to try to drown out their prayers. I cried thinking how terrible it was for someone to think they have the right to stop another’s prayers from reaching God. Afterward, I thanked WOTW’s director and founder Anat Hoffman for all her work. She assured me that big progress was in the works for religious civil rights in Israel.
I was thrilled to read the historic news recently that after years of advocacy and failed proposals, the Israeli government finally approved a plan to fund a separate prayer space at the Kotel for pluralistic worship. This means that visitors from all over the world will be able to choose to worship in a space that is open and accepting of all Jewish traditions. Families will be able to pray together. Young women will be able to read torah and celebrate a bat mitzvah openly and free from intimidation. Diaspora Jews who have dreamed of visiting the Kotel will no longer have to feel out of place at the holiest place we have left.
WOTW will likely continue their work beyond the construction of the new plaza to ensure that their mission of inclusivity is fully realized. Their mission has been greatly influenced by the diverse movements of Judaism that have thrived in the US. Movements of Jews who feel strongly connected with Israel and who have been brave enough to infuse egalitarianism into ancient rituals. These rituals began on the same land where the Kotel still stands and they have spread to all corners of the world, continually shaped by diverse people and experiences. For American Jews, this week’s news shows us that our customs matter in Israel. The ways we embrace Judaism in own homes and spaces, in our own communities and congregations has carried all the way back across the world to impact the place from where we’ve come. And this is certainly not an end, but another beginning.
As the group of teens began to depart after leaving their prayers in the Wall, the young man turned back around to join them. “I will leave it,” he said to me. “It will be a prayer for the future.”
Daniel Goldberg is a social worker and musician living in Salem who enjoys exploring the Jewish community in Boston and the North Shore.