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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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“I was devastated and furious, just stunned,” Ellenson says. “I came home and I didn’t know what to do.” She quickly figured out a plan. She reached out to several modern Orthodox women, including Haut, and drafted a letter asking people around the United States to hold special prayer services, teach, or acknowledge on Shabbat their support for Women of the Wall. Suddenly there was a broader American support network mobilizing on behalf of Women of the Wall. (American Reform and Conservative Jews would have more to get furious about six months later, when a bill was introduced placing state authority to determine the legitimacy of conversions, and therefore to determine who qualified as Jewish, in the hands of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who reject Reform and Conservative standards as too lax.)

Anat Hoffman’s arrest in October 2012 was a landmark that provoked outrage among the group’s North American allies. The prayer group was large that day—including 250 women from the American Jewish group Hadassah who were there celebrating the organization’s centennial—when Hoffman was arrested for “disturbing the peace and endangering the public good,” she wrote supporters shortly afterward. She described being pulled along the ground by her wrists, strip-searched, shackled by the hands and feet, and left to sleep on the floor of a jail cell with nothing to keep her warm but her tallit.

By December, when the New York Times published an article on Women of the Wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realized he had a full-blown public relations problem with American Jews. Three days after the first story, the Times reported that Netanyahu had asked Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to devise alternatives to make the Wall more open to all. American Jews’ concerns apparently caught the attention of the Israeli government in a way that 20 years of protests by Israeli women had failed to do.

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Like movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the American delegation to Jerusalem this week is happening in part because of social media. In May, my rabbi, Judy Schindler—the daughter of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, one of the great leaders of American Reform Judaism—began thinking about a trip in support of Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary. It turned out rabbis in suburban Chicago and Dallas had similar plans, and they decided to band together on Facebook. “This mission awakened people’s passion,” Schindler says. “Those coming knew immediately that this was the trip for them. We just had to put it out there and people instantly said they were coming.”

The anniversary comes at a critical time for the group. Women of the Wall achieved a historic victory in April when Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that the women’s prayer was not “contrary to local custom” and that women do not disturb the public order when they pray out loud wearing tallitot at the Wall. The police agreed to follow the ruling, and arrests at the Wall stopped. Yet today, post-Sobel, it remains difficult for women to read from the Torah at the Wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, has issued instructions forbidding visitors from bringing a Torah there. The men’s section has plenty of Torahs already provided; the women’s has none. Rabinowitz has denied Women of the Wall’s requests to donate a Torah to the women’s section or use one from the men’s side, according to several Women of the Wall officials.

Now Hoffman has agreed for the first time to negotiate with the Israeli government to create a third, equal section of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch, along the southern end of the main Western Wall. If their demands are met, the group would relinquish the right to pray in the women’s section. Among their specific demands, issued earlier this week: The space will be accessible from the main plaza, open 24 hours a day, and run by an administrative body that supports pluralistic prayer. There will be enough room for 500 people and access so visitors can touch the Kotel. Women of the Wall officials envision families praying together in the new space, women praying in groups aloud in tallit and tefillin if they choose, and girls celebrating their bat mitzvahs. The space would incorporate a removable mechitza, allowing Orthodox women and women’s prayer groups such as Women of the Wall to pray separately from men. While purportedly this can already happen in the women’s section, there’s a significant difference, Women of the Wall argues: Violence and protests against women’s prayers will not be tolerated in the new section.

The negotiations have sparked discord among longtime members of the group. Twenty women, including Rivka Haut, Bonna Devora Haberman, and Phyllis Chesler, who co-founded the International Committee for Women of the Wall, have publicly called for the board to withdraw its agreement to negotiate for a third section, arguing that such negotiations would be tantamount to abandoning the goal of full prayer rights for women at the Wall. “Women of the Wall stands for a desire to pray at the Kotel and only at the Kotel,” says Chesler,  “and not at some place that you trickily say, ‘Well, it’s the Wall. It’s like the Wall. It’s close enough to the Wall. It might as well be the Wall.’ ” She sees the new spot as simply a place for those in charge of the Kotel to stick Jews whose prayer practices they don’t tolerate.

A third egalitarian section may not meet the needs of modern Orthodox women, even with a mechitza that could be added as needed. As Haut puts it, “It is not the site of our ancestors’ dreams and hopes, not the site sanctified by Jewish hearts and prayers for many centuries.”

But Hoffman argues that, after a quarter century, conditions are as favorable as they are likely to be within the Israeli government for change, and it’s time to reach a resolution. “When we started, we were just married,” Hoffman says. “Now we’re grandmothers. We thought at the time our babies would have their bat mitzvahs at the Wall.”

I understand both sides of the debate. I want women to be able to pray together and read Torah in the women’s section. But I can imagine the new section as beautiful and holy, too, a place where I would linger and feel at home. Perhaps I’ll feel differently once I’m there. But as for now, I’m planning to fly halfway around the world to support all of Women of the Wall, irrespective of the final outcome.

On Monday at 8 a.m., we will let our voices ring in prayer with hundreds of Israeli women and likely individuals from other countries as well. I’ll be there, with the simple blue-and-white prayer shawl my great-grandfather gave my father for his bar mitzvah in 1945. My brother wore it at the Wall in 1982, my son wore it in Jerusalem last summer, and now, the shoulders it rests upon will be mine. My goal is to remind the Israeli government that the Kotel belongs to every Jew—as a symbol of faith and peoplehood, a place of meaning and pilgrimage, and a setting where each Jew should have the opportunity to feel connected, not alienated. I long for a Kotel where Israel’s female soldiers are free to sing Hatikvah during their swearing-in ceremonies, and where my daughter might pray in the same way as my son.

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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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