My first trip to Israel in 1982 was the fulfillment of a dream. As a child I had fallen in love with the idea of Israel. Finally, I could breathe-in the link between all Jews — past, present and future.
I remember standing at the Kotel (Western Wall) and feeling the bond of history and peoplehood course through my veins. But that summer I also came to realize that something was wrong. I am a progressive Jew, accustomed to egalitarian prayer and ritual. My Judaism was not allowed at the Kotel, and not accommodated in Israeli law or culture. I felt like a Jewish outsider in the Jewish nation. The air of judgment became increasingly alienating.
I believe that my Reconstructionist Jewish views are an authentic expression of Jewish faith and practice. There is a danger in the legal and cultural codification of Orthodoxy as the only authentic Judaism in Israel. Pluralism, which honors the diversity of beliefs and expressions within Judaism, is extremely important in sustaining the health and well being of Jewish civilization.
The Kotel has come to represent a failure of Jewish pluralism and the Jewish-Democratic ideal of the modern State of Israel. This failure alienates many secular Israelis from Judaism, and many American Jews from Israel as our people’s spiritual home.
And so I was drawn to the Women of the Wall, joining them in monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer whenever possible. I have been there to witness the hostility of Haredi men and women, and even the police, whose intense presence has been unfriendly. Still, we sang our hearts out, above the enmity that surrounded us – even as members of the group have recently been arrested with increasing frequency. I witnessed Anat Hoffman’s arrest for carrying a Torah scroll in the Kotel plaza a few years ago, and the arrest of some women wearing a tallit. Each time I davenned with Women of the Wall (wearing tallit and kippah, as is my custom) I was moved by the beauty of the women’s prayer and the pain of the situation.
Rosh Hodesh Sivan, May 10, 2013, was a turning point. Arriving on a van arranged by Women of Wall, we found a new reality at the Kotel plaza. We did not wait in long security lines while guards looked for ritual garb in our bags, as had become standard. They ushered us through quickly. Police officers immediately escorted us through the plaza.
This time, the police were there to protect us, and their demeanor was entirely different. We faced the presence of many thousands of Haredi girls and young men who had come on the orders of their rabbis. Their early arrival succeeded in blocking us from the divided “synagogue” that is the Kotel prayer area. So the police ushered us to the front of the Kotel plaza. Ironically, this effectively created an egalitarian minyan – the men who came to support us, who would have typically been standing on the other side of the barrier, were now standing alongside us. A few ventured into the midst of our tightly assembled group.
While thousands of young men who came to protest shouted loudly and blew whistles, we sang in full voice. The sound of our own prayers filled our ears, and uplifted our souls. With police protection, we prayed freely with our preferred ritual garb — many kippot and tallitot, and some tefillin. We celebrated a young woman’s bat mitzvah and sang and danced with the bat mitzvah family. All of this was not possible just a month ago. The changing air of history was palpable.
Leaving the Kotel plaza, we faced the intense hostility of the surrounding Haredi crowd. As we were hurried onto a waiting bus, the dangers became more evident. When a large rock was thrown at the bus, along with other projectiles, and Haredi young men surrounded and banged on the bus, cursing us, middle fingers pointed our way, I was sickened by fear and grief. With police protection, we rode away to the comfort of Mamilla mall.
In the past two weeks, as the traumas from that morning have subsided, one feeling has emerged prominently. That is the joy from the chorus of our voices and the success of our activism. The prayers of Women of the Wall are an ascendant voice.
Thirty-one years and 26 trips after my first visit to Israel, my feelings of alienation are subsiding. The voices of Women of the Wall have elevated the struggle for Jewish religious freedom in Israel, and I am exhilarated to have the opportunity to be a part of it.