On a January morning in 1994, Judy Palkovitz was getting ready to pray. It was just after 6 a.m., and along with 16 other women, she’d walked through Jerusalem towards the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism’s holiest city.
Within 10 minutes, “it had lost all of its meaning for me,” she said 16 years later.
The group of women carried with them a Torah, and the religious Jews of both sexes praying that morning let them know they didn’t approve.
“I don’t speak any Hebrew, but the insults coming from across the mechitza I could understand,” said Palkovitz. “We were stoned by other women at the wall, then escorted out by police. We were never able to actually uncover the Torah.”
Palkovitz, a national board member of Hadassah and member of The Chronicle’s Board of Trustees, said the Israeli media quickly inflated the incident.
“There were all kinds of things in the paper. A cartoon of us in the Jerusalem Post,” she said. “It was an insult to our dignity and sense of who we were, and it effectively killed me for any chance of going back to the wall to pray.”
Today, the push and pull between praying women and religious Jews in
Israel continues. Last month, ultra-Orthodox Jews called women “Nazis” as they tried to pray in a Rosh Chodesh service; in late 2009, police arrested Nofrat Frenkel, an Israeli, for wearing a tallit at the Wall.
Though a 2003 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court apportioned a special section at Robinson’s Arch for women to chant religious services, many women, spearheaded by the group Women of the Wall, still choose to daven the Shacharit service at the upper Kotel plaza, said Marne Rochester, a native Ohioan who now is the Coordinator for the Kehilat Mayanot, the first egalitarian Conservative congregation in Jerusalem..
This choice is a controversial one. Like so many intra-Jewish conflicts, the women praying at the wall feel they religiously have the right to do so, while more religious Jews disagree. The pressure has caught the attention of Jews on both sides in America, but is there anything stateside Jews can do?
The opinions of local Jews fall both ways.
Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation believes that American Jews do have some power to influence the direction of this fight. Henry organized Solidarity at Sunrise: Peaceful Prayer in Support of Women at the Wall for Tuesday, March 16, at 7 a.m.
“The point of the service is just solidarity, giving more exposure to the issue,” Henry said. “We don’t want to do anything political; we just want to be as joyful and positive as possible. This is one really positive way to respond and show support.
“When Israelis know they have support from American Jews,” she added, “that’s helpful and hopeful.”
American Israelis aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think pressure from Americans will have an impact,” said Rochester, who made aliya in 1990. “It may also strengthen the case that this is about American Reform Jews, not about Israelis. When I don’t agree with the American Jewish community [view on Israel], I say they shouldn’t have a say because they live there and not here. It would be hypocritical to say that they should now, just because we agree.”
Certainly not all American Jews are behind Women of the Wall. However, regardless of religious belief, most people don’t agree with the harassment they have seen.
“I do not think that anybody is acting properly if they are physically assaulting people, even if those people are doing the wrong thing,” said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah. “But I’m reticent as a Jew living here in America to say that people in Israel, who are on the front line of the issues, should do x, y or z.”
Jodi Hirsh, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, is more hopeful that action could spur reaction.
“We must always be proactively striving for social justice. It’s our patriotic duty and responsibility as Americans,” she said. “As American Jews — particularly women — it’s imperative that we educate ourselves on the status of women all over the world, not just in our home territory.”
Hirsh suggested that concerned Jews write letters to Israeli Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch about dropping charges against Frenkel, and “letting Prime Minister Netanyahu know that we feel strongly that the Kotel is a sacred space for all Jewish people and people of many backgrounds and faiths. ”
While local Jews may disagree with the effectiveness of an American response to this religious-political issue, one opinion unifies both sides: the cessation of violence and harassment towards women trying to pray.
“I’m not sure how much of a place there is for American Jews to get involved,” said Wasserman, “other than to say ‘People, come on. It’s a serious issue. You have every right to have a strong opinion and voice it strongly, but do it the right way.’”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)