When we made plans to visit our daughter who is studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I quickly realized that we would be in Jerusalem for Rosh Chodesh Adar, the new month of Adar. The timing meant that we could stand with Women of the Wall.
Per their website: Women of the Wall’s “central mission is to attain social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah, collectively and aloud, at the Western Wall.” For me, standing with Women of the Wall is less about the Wall than the Women. And doesn’t it have to be? Don’t human beings — and specifically in this case fellow Jews — have to be prioritized over bricks and mortar — or in this case, stones, even these stones that have witnessed so much of our history and longing?
This is what I experienced on Monday, Feb. 27: walking through the Old City at 6:30 in the morning was serene and quiet. The cobblestone streets echoed our footsteps as we made our way through the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter. I debated about wearing my kippah as I didn’t know how much of a target that would make me. I put it on.
As we descended that final staircase, we saw the Kotel and plaza — filled with people. Quickly our attention turned to the security line: metal detector, X-ray machine, many members of the police force. My husband, Ron, was briefly detained when they thought he tried to walk away after being addressed.
Ron, our daughter, Aviva, and son Micah and I descended down to the plaza together, and then Aviva and I went to the right through the wall of “Black Hats” who could not traverse the blue police barriers.
Men were shouting. Women were shouting. Some of the more than 1,000 bused-in yeshiva girls were shouting and whistling. Women were blowing whistles. The loudspeakers from the men’s section hovering over the women’s section blasted a man’s voice praying, if that is what you call it. Its intention was only to disrupt our prayers. Some of the Hebrew University students felt scared, and I assured them that I would protect them. My assurance, the American mom from home, was some comfort, but more importantly, I stood behind them so that should something come flying our way — we were told people bring stones — I could be a shield. I said the prayer and wrapped myself in my white crocheted tallit.
The service started late. I later learned the reason: a bag carried by Anat Hoffman (chair of the board of Women of the Wall). In it were the special Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh prayer books, and apparently security felt that they needed to go through each and every book. The threat, clearly, was not a physical threat.
It was difficult to hear our prayer leaders — one of whom was a blonde woman, wearing kippah, tallit, tefillin and yes, crown as we welcomed the month of Adar, the month of Purim. But there were moments, beyond the whistles, loud speaker, men’s shouts, women’s swears that the soprano of women’s voices rose higher. Ashrei yoshvei veitecha — Happy are those who dwell in Your house. And of all the people at the Kotel at 7 a.m. that morning, I am quite sure that our group of over 100 women was the happiest. Of the many times I had been at the Kotel, this was the most spiritual.
A claf, part of a scroll, was brought in that morning, and the first one to read was a girl becoming bat mitzvah who we showered with candy.
I left a bit before others, so I quietly slipped out between the men, picking up my feet as I was told to do since they try to trip the women, and I rejoined the men of my family. As the bulk of women left, the swarm of men surrounded them, continuing their shouts and insults: “Nazi!” “Goy!”
The fear of the Orthodox seems to be that we liberal Jews are eroding Judaism. But we could say the same: for all the secular Jewish Israelis and the unaffiliated Jews around the world, the image of Jews shouting at Jews, calling them Nazis for which we take such umbrage when others use that curse, turns them away. We need to turn toward one another — and yes, use the Israeli Supreme Court as has been necessary, to help us see how inclusion strengthens the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Upon leaving the Kotel, the tradition is to back away so as to show respect. In so doing, one faces the stones and has one’s back to people. It is time to turn around.
Rabbi Barbara Symons is rabbi of Temple David in Monroeville.