Women’s Rights at the Western Wall

On February 27, I left my apartment before dawn to travel to the Old City of Jerusalem. In my backpack was my tallit, or prayer shawl, that I made myself five years ago. As the sun began to illuminate the golden rooftops of the city, I grew nervous. My friends and I were going to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the holiday that signifies the start of each new month, at the Western Wall. Thousands of Jews pray at the wall every day, so it should not have been a problem that we were going to join them. However, we were going to pray with Women of the Wall, an organization that advocates for gender equality at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall, or the Kotel in Hebrew, is part of the outer retaining wall of the ancient holy temple that was destroyed in 70 CE. The holy site is controlled by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government funded non-profit that is part of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel. The wall is divided by a mechitza, or a partition, separating men and women. Clothing is monitored by guards for modesty before one can approach the wall; and while singing, reading from the Torah, and wearing prayer garments such as tallitot are traditionally accepted on the men’s side, they are all taboo on the women’s side. In many Jewish communities worldwide, these standards are not accepted, and women have obtained equal rights to men in prayer.

In 1988, Women of the Wall entered the scene, attempting to create a space in which Jews of all stripes would feel welcome to pray at the holy space. For decades they have challenged the status quo, smuggling Torahs into the women’s section and singing joyfully while wearing tallitot. They typically hold prayer services every Rosh Chodesh, a holiday that traditionally celebrates women. In January 2016, the Israeli Cabinet approved a plan to designate a third, unbuilt plaza of the Kotel specifically for egalitarian prayer, where men and women can mix and sing and read aloud from Torah together. However, despite numerous other legal protections for the group and a tentative plan in place, there has been no movement on the deal more than a year later.

When we met up with professors and students at Hebrew Union College, Reform Judaism’s rabbinic seminary, to walk from their campus to the Western Wall at 6:30 a.m., our group of about 20 was dwarfed by the hoards of Orthodox high school girls that we passed. Someone mentioned that they heard that thousands of girls were being bussed in that morning, with the goal of packing the women’s section of the Wall so tightly that we wouldn’t even be able to get in.

The Western Wall sits at a lower point than the rest of the Old City, so visitors typically approach it from above, which results in a beautiful panoramic view once they get close. When we reached the stairs leading down to the entrance, we saw thousands of Orthodox students filling the prayer spaces. The most challenging part of the morning came when we attempted to enter a separately cordoned-off section within the women’s plaza, set up specifically by the guards for Women of the Wall. As we approached the entrance, we were accosted by a dozen high school girls who tried to physically block us by linking arms with one another and pushing us with their shoulders. After a minute of struggle, we broke through and made it to where the rest of the Women of the Wall were waiting to pray. I was shaken by the encounter, but it made me all the more determined to pray at my holy space in a way that was meaningful to me.

Ultimately, that Rosh Chodesh became the most powerful spiritual experience I had had at the Kotel up to that point. In a true display of feminist allyship, our male friends forsook their morning prayers so that they could wait and receive us outside the plaza, should we need to leave early. Over 150 women prayed together and celebrated the bat mitzvah of a 13-year-old girl, singing above the whistles and jeers shouted at us. I joined the other women in wearing my tallit and raising my voice in song to drown out the dissonant noise. As I prayed alongside my friends and the most inspiring group of Jewish women I have ever seen, I felt like I was truly a part of a movement.

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