Shloshim; The Meaning of Thirty
Women of the Wall, March, 2019

This past week I was filled with memories of my first visit to Israel in 1982, just before entering rabbinical school. I spent the summer studying in an Orthodox women’s yeshiva, which reinforced my beliefs and practice as a non-Orthodox Jew. And, while I loved Israel, I also came to certainty that I could not make aliyah. I wanted to be a rabbi and a progressive/observant Jew, which didn’t seem possible in that time in Israel.

It was sad that women in Israel could not fully express their Judaism with equality; and even sadder that it didn’t appear to occur to most Israeli Jewish women to even try. It was a man’s world. That was alienating.

When I returned to Israel after a long hiatus, in 2001, I found a new reality: women rabbis, and an awakening of the need for modern, egalitarian Israeli Judaism. I’ve been back over 30 times since then, immersing ever deeper into life in Israel.

In many visits since, I found a liberating experience as a Jewish feminist: prayers at the Kotel (Western Wall) on Rosh Hodesh (the New Month, a traditional women’ holiday) with Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall has been fighting to liberate the Kotel from the ultra-orthodox control granted by the Israeli government. For thirty years these courageous women have endured violence, arrests, and outrageous restrictions, and they have resiliently endured. They have inspired me to stick with them and do everything I can to support them and be engaged in the struggle for equality for all Jews in Israel.

This fight is not just about the Kotel; far from it. It is about what it means to be a Jewish state and a state for all Jews. It is about government funding for all synagogues and rabbis, not just orthodox. It is about conversion, marriage, divorce and burial. It is about the control of the “official” rabbinate of kashrut supervision (and the cost of food.) It is about compromise and peace. It is about Israel’s very soul.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been fighting these battles in court and in the Knesset for years — with many important successes and accomplishments. But even those successes have not changed the status of the Kotel as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue ruled by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Rabinowitz, who often disregards even the courts and political victories of WoW. This must change.

For all those reasons I set aside my very busy schedule at Ohavi Zedek to be with Women of the Wall for Rosh Hodesh Adar II at the Kotel. It was to be a very special thirtieth anniversary celebration. I couldn’t imagine not standing with Women of the Wall at this critical moment.

I have been with WoW many times over the years. I was there on occasions when our prayers were truly joyous even as hateful ultra-Orthodox women and men blew whistles to drown out our voices and screamed curses at us. I was there when Anat Hoffman, IRAC Executive Director, was arrested for carrying a Torah in the Kotel plaza, as the police tried to grab the Torah from her arms and she would not let go. I was there when a riot broke out in 2013 as thousands of ultra-Orthodox teens — boys and girls — filled the plaza and surrounded us as a hostile mob. I was there when WoW was forced to gather in the back plaza, far from the Kotel in the women’s section, because thousands of ultra-Orthodox youth had filled the worship space near the Kotel. And I was there when eggs and water bottles were thrown at us, and was hit by an egg. I had heard that metal chairs were thrown at the women in the early days, and my heart goes out to the women who endured that and still didn’t quit.

None of that prepared me for the violence we experienced on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, March 8, 2019. Once again thousands of yeshiva students filled the men’s and women’s sections before we arrived for our 7 am prayers. I was among a few WoW supporters asked in advance to lead a prayer during the service. That meant arriving first and standing in the center, next to the prayer leaders. Small plastic stools were brought in for us to ascend when we were leading. Two small “snack table” size tables came out of a bag and were covered with a cloth, providing a center table for the leaders of the service. I stood alongside that table, next to a colleague and friend from our studies together at the Hartman Institute, and a woman I didn’t know was on my other side. During the hour we were there, we became bonded forever as we held each other, lest we would have crashed to the ground from the force of the pushing and shoving behind us.

First the girls behind me were loudly reciting Psalms to try to drown out our voices. It was nearly impossible to hear ourselves as a group. WoW had been denied in their request for a microphone. It got much worse when Rabbi Rabinowitz allowed the ultra-Orthodox men to use the Kotel’s sound system to loudly broadcast their prayers. We couldn’t hear ourselves at all after that.

Rosh Hodesh Adar II — which is supposed to be a time for gladness and joy, turned into a nightmare at the Kotel. Many thousands of yeshiva students — boys and girl, young men and women—were bused in and filled the Kotel plaza long before our 6 am arrival. They came at their rabbis’ instruction to disrupt what they were taught is unholy — our prayers. Nothing could have been more unholy than their angry, hostile, violent behavior toward us and towards the men who came to daven (pray) in solidarity with us (in the men’s section.)

The aggressive pushing, shoving, spitting and screaming, of the haredi girls was terrifying. The police were nowhere to be found. One of the girls was fiercely pushing me from behind with her leg on my bad left leg (after surgery following a break 3 years ago.) After about half an hour of enormous effort to hold still and not react while trying to pray with WoW, I couldn’t take it anymore and I pushed back with my good leg. That made her push me harder and spend the next half hour screaming in my ear and stepping on my right foot. The muscle aches in my back and my weak leg from the effort it took to not fall remain a reminder of standing for justice.

We had been able to pray together a bit when we started, even as they shouted and pushed. I led one Psalm at the beginning. But it quickly fell apart as they increased their pushing, shoving, kicking and even scratching and spitting, and the sound system began to drown us out. It became impossible to pray. It just fell apart. It took the police a hour to arrive in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section) to rescue us — literally — and even then there weren’t enough of them and at points we had to push our way out. As we walked through the angry mob, some women in our group were pushed to the ground. Many of our women sustained bruises and other injuries.

We finally found peace in “Ezrat Yisrael,” at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall. There we read Torah, sang, danced and rejoiced for Rosh Hodesh Adar. Shaken, we seized a moment for healing and for joy. We still had one more hurdle — walking through the angry mob awaiting us as we exited to our buses on the street. We felt the Shechinah accompany us as we made our way back toward peace.

It was unspeakably sad! The feeling of dread I felt from such sinat hinam (baseless hatred) remains with me. I heard echoes of this very place in the year 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed; the rabbis taught that it happened because of sinat hinam. Heaven help us.

Anat Hoffman remained steady and calm in her leadership. She believes this was a game-changer— that the pressure on the politicians will change everything. May it be so!

Rabbi Rabinowitz, the official government rabbi of the Kotel, is, in my opinion, a cruel, sinful man. His behavior, which created this atmosphere of hostility and violence, is a Hillul Hashem — a desecration of Gd’s name. Even as I understand that these Haredim are reacting out of fear for the crumbling of their power, their behavior is reprehensible.

And – still, being with the Women of the Wall on Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) was inspiring and uplifting. We learned, prayed, sang and reflected. It was a powerful three days together—masterfully shaped by the amazing WoW staff, under the leadership of Lesley Sachs, Executive Director of Women of the Wall. We are bonded on a sacred mission. And we will yet liberate the Kotel.

The three paratroopers from ‘67 — the iconic photo when they liberated the Kotel— have become major supporters of WoW. They were honored on Thursday night. One said (as I recall it), “We didn’t liberate the wall. We won a war with Jordan. But the wall is not yet liberated. Together, we will liberate it.” Not a dry eye in the house. They came to the Kotel on Friday am and were with other male supporters of WoW — on the men’s side— and were also attacked. Yizhar Hess, Director of the Masorati (Conservative) movement in Israel was attacked by boys who took his kippah and tallit and threw them down.

It is infuriating that the police blamed WoW for provoking the violence. Such a hateful lie! How could it be that the police not only neglected to protect us (though WoW leadership had begged in advance for their protection and to keep the peace), but then they also blamed the victims?

We can hope now that this moves the politicians to change the situation. I pray that all the good and caring and kind people of Israel will awaken to activism and thoughtful political choices when they vote next month. In any case, we are not giving up; not until the Kotel, and Judaism, is liberated from the hands of extremist Jews.

Lesley Sachs shared this poignant poem with us after our gathering:

Our heads were swimming with cacophony.
Yet, we heard you.
Our bodies were swept up in a violent wave of humanity.
Yet, we felt your gentle touch.
Our ribs were elbowed, our toes were stepped on.
Yet, your hands grasped ours with confidence

Thirty — Shloshim: that is how many years Women of the Wall have been praying and fighting for equality. Shloshim is also a significant Jewish number; it marks the conclusion of the first month of mourning after losing a close relative. It signifies a conclusion of one stage and an entry into the next. For Women of the Wall, for all Israelis, for all Jews, we enter a new stage. May this new stage be the conclusion, that there should not, must not be a fortieth anniversary of Women of the Wall, that we will have succeeded in the fight for Jewish equality.

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