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My Morning at the Western Wall

A dispatch from the Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary prayer service

Andrea Cooper
November 04, 2013
Israeli women, some wearing prayer shawls, pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 4, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli women, some wearing prayer shawls, pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 4, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

“Did they pay you to come here?” one wide-eyed Orthodox girl asked us, curious about the women in tallitot all around her.

No one had to pay the hundreds of women—including me—who sang and celebrated this morning at the Kotel for Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary prayer service. Our group stretched through much of the women’s section and spilled onto the plaza on a clear morning that was filled with unexpected light, both from what happened and what didn’t.

I’ll confess I didn’t sleep a second last night, imagining the possibilities. A senior Haredi rabbi had asked ultra-Orthodox girls to come early and fill up the women’s section. Would they scream at us, curse, or spit, as has happened at previous Women of the Wall services? Would men lob eggs in our direction from the other side of the mechitza?Good for the hair or not, I wasn’t thrilled about the thought of viscous substances landing on me at a holy place.

None of that materialized. A small row of men shouted to make their displeasure known when we first arrived. (In a lovely bit of irony, we were singing “Hineh Ma Tov,” a song about unity.) It was also hard to miss the morning prayers blasted from the men’s side over a loudspeaker aimed in our direction. But the women, who had no microphones, just sang their own prayers louder. According to Haaretz, police forced the men to shut off the loudspeakers; by the time the Women of the Wall service officially began, it was quiet. I also heard that police set up a barricade next to the mechitza on the men’s side to put some distance between protestors and those being protested. If so, it must have worked. Even the occasional whistle meant to disrupt us seemed half-hearted.

That left room for the joys. Among them:

* Every woman around me had a story about what brought her to this service. One woman wore a tallit belonging to a friend who had hoped to be here but passed away just weeks ago. Another said kaddish during the service for her feminist mother, on the anniversary of her death. Another had names inscribed on her tailit of those who supported this journey and were here in spirit.

* A few very religious girls and women not part of our group prayed with us or asked questions. To be sure, most of the ultra-Orthodox worshipped next to the Kotel, and female soldiers stood between us and them to protect everyone. But a few newcomers joined us, including the teen who said she was sorry about what Women of the Wall had endured here in the past. As for the girl who asked my rabbi if we had received payment to hold a protest service, I’m idealistic enough to believe that questions and conversation can lead to change for the better.

* Four women raised Torah mantles because we couldn’t bring a Torah into the women’s section. One was Rabbi Laura Geller, ordained more than 30 years ago as the third female rabbi in the Reform movement and active with Women of the Wall since its inception. Once, she had her tallit confiscated at the Wall. This morning, she lifted a velvet Torah mantle like a banner of hope.

*Young girls in the group were blessed with a tallit held high above them. Someday, they might have their bat mitzvahs at the Wall.

After the service, many of the Americans gathered at Robinson’s Arch, the site proposed for a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall. We prayed for peace and acknowledged how far we had come for this spiritual moment. I thought back to a new prayer I’d just learned at the Kotel:

“May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel or in all the world.”

Andrea Cooper is a writer based in North Carolina. She has written for Time,, Utne Reader, Pacific Standard, National Geographic Traveler, and Vogue, and has contributed to NPR’s All Things Considered.