A Commencement

by Liora Alban, Women of the Wall Intern

I fell asleep last night as nerves and excitement swelled within me. I knew I would be waking up to the sunrise this morning in order to pray with Women of the Wall at Rosh Hodesh Sivan. Although I have prayed in Rosh Hodesh minyans before, something about this minyan felt different and more pressing.

I was working in the library last week when my friend summoned me over with, “Look! Look!” I was looking at victory. According to the Women of the Wall website, the Jerusalem District Court held that the five women arrested on April 11 were not disturbing public order and should never have been arrested. Women’s prayer in the women’s section, regardless of how this prayer is expressed, does not violate local custom and should not cause arrests.

I have lived in Israel for eight months now as a student spending her Junior year abroad and have grown to feel that this land is more my home than is the city in which I grew up. Yet the Kotel has always stood apart from this bond to Israel which I feel. This year has forced me to face the harsh reality that while I grew up in a very liberal Jewish environment that allows me to pray however I please, this is not the case for others, especially in Israel. This difference in acceptance in practice is typified by the Kotel. I ironically feel like a visitor in this place which is supposed to be my Jewish home. Instead of aligning my personhood with my religion, it sparks in me feelings of alienation and a questioning of Judaism.

I was looking at victory. As I read about the Jerusalem District Court Decision, I felt an immense sense of validation. The decision states that my way of practicing Judaism is valid and welcomed by the Israeli government. I knew that at Rosh Hodesh Sivan I would have newfound opportunity to set my own prayer pace. I would be allowed to pray, to sing, and to dance among sisters without fear of arrest and instead only with the exuberance that comes from a sense of belonging. Further, I felt a connection between the fact that my year abroad in Israel is coming to an end and that the age of gender inequality at the Kotel is possibly coming to an end as well. In just four weeks I will return to the United States. At least though I am able to see the beginning of the fruit of Women of the Wall’s labor before I go.

With this, anticipation bubbled in me last night as I tried to sleep. I could not, of course. My friends and I left our Hebrew University dorms this morning at the crack of dawn with shared eagerness and wonder. We boarded the train towards downtown, trekked through the Old City, and stopped at the stairs above the Kotel plaza. What was that hum? As we peered over the stairs’ railings, I knew I was correct. This minyan was going to be different after all.

I was shocked. The hum was coming from a swarm of Haredim who were there en masse to protest the recent Jerusalem Court Decision. I have never seen the Kotel plaza so filled and knew my friends and I would have to swim through in order to reach our Women of the Wall sisters. Swim we did. I pushed. I squeezed. I finally reached the Women of the Wall and felt at home among women and men just like me—with the same recognizable expression of both fear and elation.

Prayer began. I did not have my own prayer book, but others rushed to share with me so that I could follow along. While chanting, I was hit in the head with a wad of wet tissue paper thrown by the Haredim. We were pointed and heckled at. Instead of being scared, I was emboldened. Chanting with Women of the Wall is always the thing that moves me the most during Rosh Hodesh minyans. The chanting usually begins slow and quiet but quickly gains momentum and is joined by clapping and dancing. Sometimes we even link arms and move as one. Through this, our voices and bodies become links on a single chain moving towards the goal of freedom of prayer. Despite differences between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, man, woman, Israeli, or not, what matters most in these moments of chanting is that we support each other and support Women of the Wall. I am reminded why my seemingly insignificant voice against a sea of Haredim and others who view my Jewish practice as illegitimate matters. I am a link.

My friends and I exited the Kotel Plaza following the Minyan. We prayed. We sang. We danced. We marched past Haredi men and women staring at us as they would aliens. We dodged dirt, coffee, and paper towels that were lunged towards us. My friends and I were rightfully shocked, exhausted, and silent. Eventually though, I unintentionally broke this silence as I shook my head and stated, really only to myself, “absurd.” Absurdity is only word I have to appropriately describe the Women of the Wall plight. My sisters and I come each Rosh Hodesh with the single goal of praying, of expressing our Judaism, peacefully. Peace is not returned to us. Why is it okay for the Haredim to protect Judaism through the protection of its holy site, by engaging in unarguably “un-Jewish” behavior? To me, this is absurd. In the midst of this morning, a male friend of mine entered conversation with a couple of Haredi boys. He asked why they were so enraged. Their answer? They view Women of the Wall as visitors encroaching on their home. This is also absurd. I am Jewish. Both of my parents are Jewish. How is the Kotel not just as much my home as it is his? Last Rosh Hodesh, sisters were arrested for wearing tallitot. This Rosh Hodesh, police officers held hands and stood in lines in order to form protective barriers between us and the Haredim. Some Haredim were even arrested for taunting us. While this is certainly something to be honored, it nevertheless represents a complete turn-around of treatment towards Haredim and towards Women of the Wall. It enhances my confusion with my place at the Kotel.

The absurdity of the situation at the Kotel has to balloon before changes can be made. The Israeli government will make and retract decisions. Haredim will be challenged by our growing presence each Rosh Hodesh. Only because of this absurdity might the world begin to question the legitimacy of Jewish gender traditions. Change might then be on the way in. While Rosh Hodesh Sivan marked the culmination of my year abroad in Israel, for Women of the Wall, it is only the commencement of greater change ahead.

2 thoughts on “A Commencement”

  1. Thank you for writing this sensitive and compelling piece. And thank you for praying at the Wall today, wish I could have been there.

  2. I am deeply concerned about the violent actions taken by a few people and I’m hopeful this will be addressed with determination to ensure safety for all. I am glad the police did what they could to protect everyone, and I hope much can be done in preparation for next time.

    All the while, I am very happy to see so many women praying at the Kotel. I am grateful to Ronit Peskin for expressing her perspective, inspiring others, and for reaching out to the Women of the Wall with an invitation to join her in compassionate dialogue. I am also grateful to Anat Hoffman, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, and others for their willingness to be in conversation with people who have perspectives different than their own.

    It is my prayer that together we can find a way forward that ensures respect, understanding, and safety. I imagine this will take some flexibility from everyone. With compassion and empathy, I have faith we can get there. If we can joyfully make time and space for our differences and similarities starting at the Temple Wall, I believe we can then foster greater peace in Israel and in the world.

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