All around me, hundreds of women are singing a Hebrew prayer for peace, in clear voices that rise as one. That these are women’s voices is all the more powerful because we are gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s most sacred site—and a place where some would have us arrested rather than see us pray out loud as a group, or to read from the Torah, or wear the yarmulkes and prayer shawls that are outward signs of our faith.
Yet here we are. And here I am, wearing my great-grandfather’s tallit, or prayer shawl, upon my shoulders and singing along on an early November morning. So far, it has been peaceful, with no signs of the violent clashes that have erupted in the past when women who desired to pray aloud at the wall defied Western Wall authorities to do so.
With me are other women who have also traveled thousands of miles for this 25th anniversary worship service as part of the U.S. delegation of Women of the Wall (WOW), a mostly volunteer organization that advocates for women to have equal standing with men at the Wall. Since 1988 WOW volunteers from all the major Jewish denominations, including Orthodox, have prayed together here at the wall at the start of each new Hebrew month. They wear prayer shawls. Some also wear on their foreheads small black boxes called tefillin that contain Biblical verses. They draw upon a rich history, inspired by a similar service following a Jewish feminist conference that attracted the likes of Betty Goldstein Friedan ’42.
Today, the gathering fills much of the separate women’s section of the wall and spills onto the adjoining plaza. Ultra-Orthodox women—upholders of long-standing strictures on women at the wall—stand at the edges of the crowd and in front of us. I hope they have come just to pray. During previous WOW services, ultra-Orthodox Jews have cursed, spat at and threatened women over communal prayer in a place we all call holy. A line of female police officers separates us from them.
This scene is very different from what I encountered the first time I visited the wall in 1982. I was a rising senior at Smith, and my family had traveled to Israel for my brother’s bar mitzvah, which took place right at the wall. During the ceremony, my grandmother and I stood on one side of the mechitza, the barrier that separates men and women; my father and brother stood on the other with the rabbi. The mechitza was low enough then for my tiny grandmother to see over it easily, hear everything and be part of the service. (We would have heard about it for the rest of our lives if she couldn’t.)
When I returned last summer, I was appalled at how high the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections had risen and that the women’s section was reduced to a fifth of the men’s space. The changes represented the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox upon daily life in Israel. At the founding of the Jewish state, Orthodox clergy received special privileges because the government wanted to rebuild and strengthen its learned Jewish scholars and religious leaders, groups that had been decimated by the Holocaust. But today, in my view, the pendulum has swung too far. Considering the largely secular nature of contemporary Israel, the government has been slow in bringing an end to the Orthodox custom of gender segregation in public places.
As a Reform Jew (Reform Judaism is among the most liberal of Judaism’s branches) and a feminist who believes in the power of women uniting for a common goal, this felt like my battle to fight. When I learned about the trip from my rabbi, I had to come in support of a more pluralistic society in Israel, which in its declaration of independence vows complete equality regardless of religion, race or sex.
All that idealism, though, doesn’t fully soothe my nerves the night before the prayer service. We speculate at dinner whether we’ll have problems getting into the women’s section. We’ve heard that one rabbi has promised to bring 10,000 ultra-Orthodox girls and women to the wall to keep us out. The next morning, I’m up before dawn to dress in a sparkling gold sweater for celebration and a long skirt, in keeping with the wall’s modesty requirements. Once we’re on board our chartered bus, Alexandra, our Israeli guide, gives us a pep talk: Don’t reply if onlookers heckle you. Demonstrate nonviolence and acceptance. Be the light of the wall.
I’m excited to be here. And I hope I don’t get arrested.
Alexandra leads us through the security entrance and turns with a brilliant smile because of what she doesn’t see. There is no blockade of the women’s section. We spread out, with just a small line of men shouting at us from the other side of the wall. WOW did not receive permission to use a microphone, so our rabbis and cantors put on headsets and step onto chairs throughout the group to lead us. Before the official service begins, a man—who turns out to be the deputy mayor of Jerusalem—chants prayers over a loudspeaker aimed in our direction to drown us out. We’re nearly shouting our songs now, but our voices gain strength, and the man with the loudspeaker stops.
In this context, the prayers feel fresh and new—more meaningful. “Bring us safely from the four corners of the earth, and lead us in dignity to our holy land,” I read aloud, smiling at the cluster of male supporters over the barrier. They are husbands, friends and students from Hebrew Union College wearing “I Stand With Women of the Wall” T-shirts. Our leaders and teens raise empty velvet Torah covers to convey that women are still not allowed to bring actual Torahs into the women’s section.
The reason for the Torah ban is a ridiculous bit of gamesmanship from the Western Wall rabbi. Though a 2013 Israeli court decision affirmed that women have full rights to pray together at the Western Wall with prayer shawls and tefillin, it didn’t eliminate the 2010 regulation written by the Western Wall rabbi that no one may enter the wall area with a Torah. As a result, there are 100 Torah scrolls on the men’s side for “public use,” but none on the women’s side. WOW’s requests to use one of the Torahs, or to donate a Torah, were denied. No Torahs also means no bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls at the wall.
As the service proceeds, we lift our shawls high above our heads to create a canopy of love and protection. I’m rejoicing but mentally counting down the prayers, hoping this will be the first WOW service in months to end peacefully. It’s ironic that I’ve come at a time when WOW itself is divided. The group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, recently announced that WOW will negotiate with the Israeli government to create a new egalitarian section of the wall at a spot known as Robinson’s Arch. If the government agrees—as it seems likely to do—WOW will give up its quest to pray collectively in the women’s section. Some WOW supporters accuse the board of abandoning the cause. I’ll be satisfied with either location as long as women can read from the Torah and pray together as men do.
The Wall, after all, is more than an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Jews of all denominations and seekers of all stripes write prayers on scraps of paper and tuck them into the Wall’s crevices. Muslims revere the site as holy. Israeli soldiers, both women and men, are sworn in at the Wall. There is a tradition that when they leave, believers walk backward, faces toward the Wall, as a sign of respect. Calling for pluralism is my way of not turning my back on the wall and on Israel, a country I love. My daughter couldn’t have her bat mitzvah at the wall, but maybe someday I’ll have a granddaughter who will experience her coming-of-age here.
The service concludes without incident. Our prayer today feels historic, perhaps even revolutionary. In coming days, I’ll have time to think through how our actions left a mark on the wall, Jerusalem and me. But for now, at the evening gala, it’s time to let go. Jewish singer-guitarist Julie Silver and the cantors burst into the first notes of “Miriam’s Song,” and someone grabs my hand. We are spinning around the room, dancing a hora and singing:
Miriam the Prophet took her timbrel in her hand
And all the women followed her just as she had planned.
And Miriam raised her voice with song.
She sang with praise and might,
We’ve just lived through a miracle,
we’re going to dance tonight.
This story appears in the Spring ’14 SAQ