Upon arriving in Jerusalem at the beginning of September, I looked forward to attending Rosh Hodesh services with Women of the Wall. However, like most recent college graduate, I found myself speeding through daily life, suddenly realizing that it was late April and I had lost track of time. I got caught up with work, training for various road races, going out with friends, grocery shopping in the shuk and cooking new recipes, squeezing in yoga classes here and there, etc. Most importantly, I had yet to wear my tallis at the Kotel and pray with Women of the Wall.
Lucky for me, I have a friend on another MASA program who recently moved to Jerusalem and started interning for Women of the Wall. Since she now lives across the hall from me, I had no excuse not to join the group last week on Rosh Hodesh Iyar for what would be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.
We arrived at the kotel a bit early and found a few of the organization’s board and staff members at the back of the women’s prayer section; they welcomed us with open arms and were ecstatic to meet the organization’s new intern. As 7:00 am rolled around, more and more women showed up, and we were all handed the new (and almost finished) Women of the Wall siddur for Rosh Hodesh. Apparently, the women who brought these for the group had problems getting the books into the Kotel complex, as security guards argued that 7 siddurim was a large number and broke some rule instituted by the rabbi in charge of the Kotel. Still, they were somehow able to bring the books in and distribute them.
Next, the policmen hired by the organization for our protection showed up. This was our cue: those of us who had them took out our tallits and kippot (for some reason, upon being Bat Mitzvahed, I decided that I would only wear a talis). The first Orthodox woman to come up to us simply asked what blessing we say when we put on the talis; the second woman asked if our talises keep us warm; and, so, the heckling and harassment continued. Mind you, the policemen were there for our protection, but also to make sure that we did not break any laws; they filmed everything from the minute they arrived at the Kotel to the minute we left for Robinson’s Arch, in the adjacent archaeological park where we would read Torah. Still, before we even started praying, the orthodox onlookers were not our only problem.
The police told a young woman next to me that she was wearing her tallis incorrectly, according to the rabbinical courts, because rather than wearing it like a scarf, as women are apparently supposed to do, she wore it as a prayer shaul. Some women thought they did this because she has led services before and would be doing so again that morning. Others thought it was because Orthodox women were saying things to us and the policemen felt the need to do something. Still others said that this particular young women often gets a lot of grief because of her alternative haircut and piercings. I think that it may have been a combination of all these things. However, I also think that it was because the rest of us who were wearing talises were wearing very feminine ones, regardless of which style (simple shaul or the one you fold over the shoulders), but she was wearing a traditional white and navy talis which you fold over the shoulders.
Regardless of the reason for their singling her out, she told the policemen to stop looking at her. The rest of us gathered to surround her so she could lead the service. Meanwhile, the police talked to their superiors on their radios and cell phones. There seemed to be a very good chance that our chazanit would be arrested at any moment.
At this point, I felt my muscles tense and my jaw lock; my eyes, opened wide, darted from one policeman to another. I found myself hiding in the middle of the crowd of women, right next to our chazanit. I shrank into myself and my generally decent posture ceased to exist. My shoulders were closer to my ears than I thought was humanly possible and I slouched so much that my back hurt.
The concern over our chazanit only intensified when she alone, and all of us together, sang and prayed out loud. However, my own fears and discomfort quickly dissipated. The louder we sang, the taller I stood; the further into shacharit we prayed, the bigger my smile (and everyone else’s) grew. The policemen tried telling us that we were forbidden to sing, but they soon seemed to gather that there was no stopping us.
Throughout the service, more and more women and girls joined us; some came ready with their tallises, others had no idea what was going on, but felt inclined to become part of the group. Tourists, seminary girls, and pious Kotel regulars stared at us as they entered the female section and approached the holiest Jewish site of the modern world. A few young men stood on chairs to see us from their seemingly endless side of the mechitzah. We could hear husbands, brothers and friends behind us, standing in the main part of the plaza, rather than the mens section, in order to show their support and pray with us.
Upon finishing Hallel, the organizers told us we would grab our stuff quickly and then walk to Robinson’s Arch together for the Torah reading. But, before we moved, we said the Prayer for the Women of the Wall. As I read the English translation, all I could think was “this prayer belongs in every siddur, everywhere; in every Jewish day school and Hebrew school classroom.” Of course, when the latter came to mind, I was thinking about the community day school in my hometown of Stamford, CT which I attended for grades K-8. There is no question that the Jewish education I received from this school is one of the cornerstones of my Jewish identity and Zionism, which is exactly what my parents had hoped for. However, this is the same education that, in spite of itself, pushed me away from classical Jewish studies and thought, and laid the foundation for my commitment to religious pluralism, feminism, and liberalism.
Finally, we quickly grabbed our things and sang and clapped our way to Robinson’s Arch. Tourists waiting in security lines, who probably had no idea what we were doing or that we were breaking any laws, clapped along with us as we passed.
Since we could not bring a Torah into the Kotel complex, it was waiting for us in the archaeological park. We set down a table cloth and talis over stack of ancient Jerusalem stone bricks and laid the torah down. It was as if this pile of bricks was left just for us as a lectern for the Torah. The organizers asked that the men and boys who joined us step to one side, so that the women could have the ‘front row seats.’ The entire Torah service was conducted by women. It was followed by a quick musaf and then an oneg and dvar torah.As I was already late for work, I grabbed a few almonds and was on my way.
As I made my way out of the old city, to a bus stop, and to the Melchior Social Initiatives offices on the other side of Jerusalem in Talpiyot, I could not stop thinking about what I just did. I felt so empowered and rebellious, part of something so important and special, I wanted the whole world to know. Instead, I just smiled to myself, knowing that my morning made a difference in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, a cause that I continue to work so hard for everyday as the Public and International Communications Fellow at Melchior Social Initiatives.
When I settled in at work, I opened the internet to find the headline “The Real War Against Women” near the top of my homepage, The Huffington Post. I immediately clicked and was redirected to “Why Do They Hate Us? The real war on women in the Middle East“. As I read, I felt my feminist high of the morning come tumbling down. While the article concentrates on Israel’s neighbors, which is for another conversation entirely, there was one quote, attributed to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that struck me: ‘”Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me’…’But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.”‘ This resonated so deeply with me because she’s right: whether we’re talking about the Taliban, the Christian right in the U.S., or the Haredim and Chief Rabbinate of Israel, they are all patriarchal socio-political movements that seek to unjustifiably and irrationally control women with burkas, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, and a monopoly over religious expression in the Jewish State, which is supposed to be the only democracy in the Middle East.
Now, do not get me wrong, I am by no means saying that all three of the above-mentioned groups are exactly the same, nor am I saying that their tools of male domination are identical. However, I am saying that they all fall into the broader category of extremists who try to control women. The fact is that female subordination continues to be a virtually universal epidemic, even to this very day. And, this problem will continue to exist until everyone – across the world, across cultures, and across political spectrums – comes to terms with this fact. Only then can we begin to think about how to change the reality in which we live and to ultimately reshape the future for our daughters and granddaughters.