A First Time Testimony

by Rachel Cohen Yeshurun

I’ve been living in Israel, in the Jerusalem area for over 20 years. I think I may have heard of the Women of the Wall before, but I honestly can’t remember. If I did, I must have dismissed them as some sort of weirdos who wear Tallitot and make a fuss about it at the Kotel.

I grew up Orthodox and being so busy in these years with studies, work and children I never thought much about religion and my part in it. But in recent years and especially since my son’s bar-mitzva, when I realized that (with enough preparation) I could read Torah as well as anyone, I started to wonder what I was doing sitting there behind a curtain.

And then this summer, during a long vacation in Berlin (where I had the incredible honour to read Parashat Shoftim for the congregation of the Oranienburger Strasse Neue Synagogue) I chanced upon a Facebook post by a friend about Anat Hoffman’s arrest for carrying a Torah at the Kotel. When I read that I felt terribly ashamed, ashamed of my country but mostly ashamed of myself for not knowing about this group before, for not being with these people all these years, for ignoring a cause so blindingly right and just. There and then, and in between visits to museums and concentration camps I swore to myself that I would join these women for the very next Rosh Hodesh service.

And so I did. I even brought a friend. We arrived a few minutes after 7am and stood a bit to the side until we were ushered by Anat Hoffman to the front center of the group. “You stand here… good”, she says. “Bad, bad”,  I think to myself “I’m standing at the front!! Can’t I crawl in somewhere a bit safer? There’s a policeman with a videocam so close to me that I move back to avoid him brushing up against me. There’s another one who keeps telling us to “lower the volume”. Do I have to listen to him? I stop singing everytime he says that. I don’t want to get arrested for singing too loudly.

There’s a woman photographer taking pictures of us from every conceivable angle. There’s some shouting coming from the left side. I’m so scared I don’t even dare look around. I start to cry, but sniffing into my tissue I realize that at least I have a beautiful view of the Kotel. And next to me there’s a woman who must be a regular; Her tallit is wrapped comfortably around her and from time to time she tells the policeman in charge something which makes Mr. Videocam back off for a few minutes. So I start to concentrate on the tefilah. And it’s beautiful. G-d gave me a pleasant voice and my upbringing means I’m familiar with all the tunes and prayers, so I sing away.

The policeman tells us once again for the 10th time to lower the volume. I lose my concentration and this time I feel more angry than scared. Why are the police facing us and not towards potential attackers? Why are they videotaping the tefilah? Are they preparing to press charges against someone for praising G-d out loud at the Kotel?

Then Shaharit is over and we dance and sing our way to Robinson’s arch for the Torah service and Mussaf. By this time I have a bit of a stomach ache so I find a rock to sit on and try to calm down. You obviously need to be made of strong stuff to be a ‘Woman of the Wall’, I don’t see any of them sniffling or clutching their stomachs like me.  But then I see someone (now I know it’s Nofrat Frenkel) asking if anyone wants to read from the Torah. Hey I can do that!! So I volunteer to read the 2nd aliyah. My stomach ache miraculously gone, I give my phone with its super duper 5 mpx camera to my astonished friend and tell her to take a picture of me reading. It will be the only picture I have of myself reading from a Torah Scroll as all the other times I have read were on Shabbat or Chag.

And so I read the three psukim for the lady who got the 2nd aliyah and listened to the other women reading, and davened Mussaf and noticed that there were men around too and some young girls and a woman with a baby snuggled in a carrier. Drumming coming from the Mosque (some sort of Muslim version of Carlebach Happy Minyan?!), a blue sky, warm sun, it’s barely after 9am. I can do this again. I’ll be back next Rosh Hodesh, G-d willing.

10 thoughts on “A First Time Testimony”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It means so much to me. I applaud your phenomenal courage. When you stand at the wall, you stand there for all of us around the world who cannot be physically present to stand with you. You are supporting us and I hope in turn you feel our support and gratitude for you.

  2. I was there too…it was my first time…I was visiting Israel and saw something on facebook about rosh hodesh last friday. I stayed to the side…certainly felt many of the emotions you did…when it was over, I was glad I was there, angry that anyone could be even the slightest upset that we were praying and singing praise to G-d! I dont live in Israel, so who knows when I will next have the chance to pray with Women of the Wall again, I can only hope that the next time I am at the kotel, it wont be necessary, because like the men, we would be able to chat torah at the wall itself and not Robinsons Arch. Praying that time with all of you was something I will never forget, and one of the most meaningful experiences I had while in Israel this time. I got home to the states on Sunday, and now just want to educate people back here how we need to muster support for all of the Women of the Wall!

  3. kol hakavod. i first got involved with WOW as a volunteer stateside and was an active davener with the group during a year spent living in J’lem. your words resonate so deeply with me, and i’m so grateful to have read them. i will be in israel davening with WOW over the summer and hope to meet you!

  4. Thanks for your comments.
    @Shanna Haun, yeah I definitely felt the support of people from outside Israel – I think that was part of what made me cry – thinking how lucky I was to be there and that I was doing it for others who could not.
    @Ricky A – Wasn’t it amazing? Even with all the negative parts it still was a great Rosh Hodesh tefila. Good luck in your ‘education’ efforts. I think it’s fairly easy to explain the cause to people in Western countries. The difficult bit is getting the Israeli public to understand what WOW is trying to do. Most people I talk to here, just think that WOW is a ‘provocation’. Very depressing…

  5. rachelli remember we discussed this afterwards/ i honestly feel time will get the shocked ones and dissenters to realize that an all woman minyan isnt verbotten to us. it must come as a frightening disturbing shock to unworldly jews to see women wearing tallisim and tephilin when they have never seen anything like this before. the inexcusable thing is the way the law handled their reaction. time will bring acceptance in this as in every other move forward for women as we move out from behind men. history recalls mrs pankhurst who led the fight for womens suffrage telling her adherents as they were being led away to the miserable english jails PRAY TO GOD AND SHE WILL HELP YOU. THEY DID AND WE WON THE VOTE UNIVERSALLY HANG IN GOD WILL INDEED HELP IN THIS WORTHWHILE FIGHT YOUR PROUD FRIEND AND MOTHER

  6. Hallaluyah…Go to Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem on EMemk Rafaim and daven and read Torah in a synagogue with a mehetza (sp?)…an attempt to make an Orthodox Synagogue more egalitarian! AND GREAT DAVENING WITH RUACH!!

  7. Rachelli, This is a first message on our new computer. We join your parents in praising your devotion and ability to be the Baalat K’riah. It is our wish and prayer that you and all the other Women of the Wall will soon have the freedom to pray all of the services at all times at the Kotel.

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