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Wearing My Father’s Tallit at the Western Wall for Me, and for My Daughter

An American explains why she’s flying halfway around the world to join Women of the Wall for their 25th anniversary Kotel prayer group

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Conservative Jewish women hold a morning prayer at the Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on June 4, 2000, while ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women voice their protests. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
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My brother smiles shyly in the photo. He glances downward, just to the right of a velvet-wrapped Torah on a table. It is a moment of benediction. The rabbi’s hand rests on my father’s forearm. My father touches my brother’s curly hair. Around this semi-circle of blessing, men gather and marvel that an American boy has read Hebrew aloud so well.

I took this photo of my brother’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in 1982. We held the service at the mechitza, the divider between men and women. It was low and easy to see over.  I felt part of the ceremony, even if I wasn’t really. The women’s section seemed light and spacious. I loved seeing Israeli women toss candies at my brother and trill ya-ya-yas in celebration.

Today, rather than an even 50-50 split, women now have access to only a fifth of the space the men enjoy. Men chant and sing freely on their side. Women, crammed into a corner, pray silently or mouth the words on theirs. I didn’t consider this inequity my problem until the morning last summer when I visited the Kotel for the first time in 31 years, before my son’s bar mitzvah. Like my brother, he was to become bar mitzvah in Israel, just not at the Kotel: We weren’t welcome because my rabbi, a woman, wasn’t allowed to read from the Torah at the Wall.

On Monday, I’ll be back at the Wall with 150 other American women and men joining the group Women of the Wall for their 25th anniversary prayer service. We are going because the future of the Wall represents the crux of Jewish identity. “Israel is the one place where Jewish values play out,” says Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairman, co-founder, and public face. “The question is what are Jewish values?  Are they tolerance, pluralism, and social justice?”

For some, like me, the journey is their first involvement with the group. For others, it’s their first foray into any kind of activism. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” says Sandee Holleb, a substitute teacher in Wheeling, Ill. Though Holleb once lived in Israel and has long supported her synagogue, she’s never put herself physically on the line this way. “As an American, I was brought up with the inalienable right to worship as I choose,” she says. “It’s a message that we as Americans take for granted.”

***

It wasn’t always like this at the Western Wall. One historic photo shows women and men praying there, without a barrier, in 1929. The first divider popped up in 1967, after the Wall returned to Jewish hands following the Six Day War. Reform Jews planned to hold a mass thanksgiving prayer there at the end of the International Reform Conference in Jerusalem. A group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis got wind of the plan for men and women to pray together, protested to the prime minister and—presto!—the barrier appeared.

The government then appointed Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz, a soldier and the scion of a Tunisian rabbinic family, to oversee the site. Though some considered Getz moderate compared to other Orthodox leaders, Getz’s decisions included forbidding an army ceremony at the Wall because men and women would be standing together.

The situation at the Wall wasn’t politically charged when I visited in 1982. By 1988, that had changed. The American Orthodox feminist activist Rivka Haut organized a gathering of women to pray at the Wall during “The Empowerment of Women,” the first international Jewish feminist conference, sponsored by the American Jewish Congress. Participants included Anat Hoffman and the late feminist politician Bella Abzug. Though Women of the Wall’s official history recounts that the group was received with screams, curses, and threats from some women and men at the Wall, the prayer was still a success to the women who were there, says Bonna Devora Haberman, a Jerusalem-based educator, theater artist, and author of Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink. “We did finish reading from the Torah,” Haberman said. “I wore my tallit.”  The group felt a spiritual high, being able to pray together and read from a Torah scroll at that holy place.

Haberman decided to create an ongoing women’s prayer service at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh—a time traditionally associated with women.  The goal, she says, was to inaugurate the Kotel “for women’s full public leadership and participation at the core of Jewish sacred space.” Haberman brought about 25 women. This time, things didn’t go as well. Haredi men and women burst through the mechitza and poured in through the back entrance to the women’s section. Haberman was nine months pregnant. She grabbed the Torah just before the protesters overturned the table where the Torah had been placed. Prayer books spilled on the ground. The women encircled each other and the Torah and eased out of plaza, surrounded by people cursing them.

Women of the Wall launched its first lawsuit against the government the following year, in 1989, after a group of women attempted to pray together at the Kotel but was prevented from doing so. “Our attorney told us up to that point there were no laws regulating conduct at the Kotel,” Haut says, but soon afterward the state enacted a resolution banning most of Women of the Wall’s practices. Various legal challenges and decrees followed about what could and couldn’t happen at the Wall, with North American supporters providing critical funding to continue the fight.

A key Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2003 held that Women of the Wall had a legal right to pray at the Western Wall—with boundaries. The court determined the group could pray at Robinson’s Arch—an archaeological site located adjacent to the main plaza—as long as the area was improved within one year to accommodate women’s worship. If the government didn’t make those improvements, it would have to come up with another solution to accommodate the group.

The state didn’t make those improvements. Women of the Wall kept praying each Rosh Chodesh, holding most of the service in the women’s section but reading from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch. They were occasionally asked to set up their service in other spots, including once near the toilets serving the Kotel.

In November 2009, following six years of relative quiet and 21 years of activism, a medical student was arrested for praying at the Kotel while wearing a tallit. The prayer service began uneventfully. “The davening was beautiful,” recalls Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, who was visiting from her home in New York City. “Nobody was paying any attention to us.” When the group of about 30 decided to read from a Torah they had brought in a duffel bag, the police arrested the student, who was taken away “with the Torah scroll all wrapped up in her arms,” Ellenson recalls. The women decamped to the police station inside the Jaffa Gate to wait for the student, who was detained for three hours.

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Wearing My Father’s Tallit at the Western Wall for Me, and for My Daughter

An American explains why she’s flying halfway around the world to join Women of the Wall for their 25th anniversary Kotel prayer group