Thirty years strong...no end in sight.
A week ago today in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall celebrated 30 years of fighting for their right as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah, collectively and aloud, at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. Alongside these women stood leaders and members of both the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel. The public invitations to this celebration read “Let me hear your voice. Join Women of the Wall to commemorate 30 years of activism for women's equality in religious life and the public sphere.” What was planned as a celebration of years of hard work for women's rights, quickly turned into violent scene at the Kotel.
Tel Aviv based Newspaper Haaretz reported:
“Young teenage girls from religious high schools around the country were brought in by bus, in an orchestrated attempt to fill the women’s section of the Western Wall to capacity before the feminist prayer delegation arrived. Hundreds of young ultra-Orthodox men were held behind police barricades to prevent them from attacking members of Women of the Wall at Friday’s prayer service. They proceeded to target male supporters of the group who had come to show their solidarity.Women of the Wall and their supporters were shoved, scratched, spit on and verbally abused by the ultra-Orthodox youths during the prayer service. The clashes ultimately became so violent that Women of the Wall worshippers had to stop their prayer service midway through and be moved, with police escorts, to the egalitarian prayer space south of the women’s prayer section.”
Women of the Wall Board chair Anat Hoffman said to reporters,
“This was the first time we ever had to stop our prayers in the middle, and let me tell you, we’ve prayed in unbelievable conditions in the past. We’ve prayed when one of us was hospitalized. We’ve prayed when some of us were arrested. But never before did we have to stop.”
When I heard about the incident I was sad, angry, disappointed…but I was unfortunately not surprised. Last year when I was living in Jerusalem I was an active participant in Women of the Wall prayer services. I vividly remember waking up very early in the morning, before the sun was up, to walk to school to meet my classmates and Cantor Tamar Havilio. Together we would walk to the Kotel, many of us carrying tallitot and wearing kippot. We stood tall and proud as we walked through security…even though we felt violated and nervous. The guards would remove my tallis from its bag and spread it open to make sure that I was not bringing in anything prohibited, specifically looking for Torah texts which women are forbidden enter with.
Once, the guards required several of my classmates to be searched further in a private room, asking them to lift their shirts and skirts to check for contraband. After getting through security we would enter the women's section of the Kotel, and our male classmates would stand at the edge of the entrance in solidarity. During these services we would experience protesting, screaming, loud whistles, and shoving by ultra-orthodox men and women attempting to drown out our voices and scare us from returning. Security guards would be present, but they rarely acknowledged those who attacked us.
Following the prayer service, we would dance together towards the plaza, singing Ozi v'zimrat yah v’yahi li l’yshua, meaning “Adonai is my strength and might; God has come to be my salvation” (Ex. 15:2). We would to join together with our supporters who could not enter the women's section, singing and dancing, celebrating the new month. On Rosh Chodesh Kislev, during this mixed celebration, a classmate and I had an old cup of coffee thrown at us by young girl, she was maybe 9 years old.
Later that day when I had reflected on the experience, this is what I had to say:
That’s how I would describe this feeling. This morning I felt strong. Adrenaline rushed through me.
The longer the coffee grounds set into my clothes and dried on my skin, the more frustrated I felt.
She was just a child, so young and already filled with hatred.
She might have hoped it would drive me away. It did the opposite.
Her cup filled with cold wet coffee grounds splashed down the side of me from my cheek to my hand.
What did it accomplish? Did she feel good about herself? Was she praised by her parents, her community?
I am angry and I am sad because this fight is about so much more than a wall of rocks. It is about equality, women’s rights, religious freedom, and that is just the beginning of the list…
Yes I referred to the Kotel as a wall of rocks that day. It is a holy space for many, but for me it had been tainted by hatred. What was meant to be a time and space for prayer, became much more of a protest for equality. There are many places in Israeli society where men and women, and Jews of different denominations are not treated equally.
So when asked why they are so focused on the Kotel issue, Women of the Wall says:
“The Kotel is the only remaining wall left of the Second Temple- the place where our ancestors went to seek God. We aspire to do the same: with prayer, reverence, and joy. Freedom to worship at the KoteI is one of the most important outcomes of the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem in 1967, but this great achievement is tainted by the fact that women are prohibited from praying freely at the holy site. The Kotel is a central symbol of Jewish unity to Jews around the world.
If, as tradition tells us, the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam – baseless hatred – we dare to assert that allowing our voices to be heard would be no less than a tikkun, a mending, of the history of intolerance.”
While I do not personally feel a spiritual connection with Kotel, I do believe that everyone who does should have the right to pray there; freely, outloud, wearing whatever they want. I see the Women of the Wall as modern warriors of Jewish women's rights. They continue stand up to the Israeli government and to the Rabbinate to let them know that we women are not interested in complying with their outdated, sexist rules. With Purim approaching, the Women of the Wall remind me of heroines like Queen Vashti who refused to comply with her husband the king when he ordered her to entertain his friends with her “beauty.”
Women of the Wall photographer Hila Shiloni Rosner had this to say after last week's Kotel incident:
“On Purim eve I will gather around me ten beloved women, and recite Birkat HaGomel, the redeemer blessing [recited when one has overcome a life-threatening situation].
In this blessing I will hold the intention with me as well for the hundreds of other women who were with me this past Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel. Women from all across the religious spectrum - Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox all flooded the Kotel, each driven by her own motivations.
The plaza overflowed; security forces did not limit entrance to capacity, and more women continued to stream in. Hundreds were pushed into each other, shoved amidst waves of pressure, suffocation and sweat.
I will recite Birkat HaGomel, because I left with “only” a broken camera lens and a smattering of blue bruises on my knees (given to me by a fifteen year-old who, for fifteen minutes, continuously kicked at my legs saying “I’m a minor, what are you going to do to me, you Reformer?!” And no police responded.
I will recite Birkat HaGomel because no woman was trampled to death in the midst of waves of pushing and taunting - and this is nothing short of a miracle.
I will recite Birkat HaGomel because for fifty minutes I wanted to exit and had no way out.
I will recite Birkat HaGomel because in the field of thousands of girls’ hate, it is lucky that no small “spark” caused a bigger “explosion.”
I will recite Birkat HaGomel for the Torah scroll that was hidden and was not damaged.
I will recite Birkat HaGomel because two girls hit and pulled the hair of a seventy-five year-old woman who could have been their grandmother. But our house is still not completely destroyed. There is time to heal.”
This Shabbat, and this Purim, I encourage each of us to focus on the heroine women of both our tradition, and of modern Jewish society. Without the strong women of progressive Jewish movements, I would not be standing here today leading this Shabbat Service. Without these fearless women, our Judaism would look very different.