Last Monday was my second Rosh Hodesh service with Women Of the Wall (I went three months ago during Rosh Hodesh Shevat), but this time was a completely different experience. It could have been for the obvious reason, the potential arrest. It could have been because I was just more aware of what was happening around me. Or it could have been because this time I was working.
My name is Gabriella Mervis, and I am the new intern with Women Of the Wall. I first decided to connect with the organization after a horrific Yom Kippur incident during which I innocently wore my Tallis at the Kotel (admittedly, as an American, I didn’t even know it was illegal) and I got harassed by a woman claiming to work there. I felt humiliated, upset, and saddened by the lack of religious freedom in Israel. Searching for an outlet to express my anguish and disappointment, I immediately knew I wanted to be involved with the work of Women Of the Wall.
But, enough about me and back to Monday’s Rosh Hodesh Iyar service. Perhaps because I was standing slightly separate from the group (doing the picture-taking duties that interns tend to do) with a different perspective, I noticed so much of what was happening around me.
One of my first observations was the two Torah arks that were displayed on the men’s side of the Wall (and obviously none on the women’s). Most people in Israel are aware of the inequality in the respective size of the men’s and women’s side, as well as the disparities in religious practice allowances, such as wearing a tallis. However, this sight, almost mocking me, really stuck in my mind.
I was then surprised when I saw a part of the mechitza swing open out of the corner of my eye. Almost expecting it to be some riot (don’t our minds always go straight to the worst thought?), I instead witnessed a security guard roll a stack of chairs into the women’s side, plop them down, and walk away. It was clear that after a service on the men’s side ended, this security guard had gathered the extraneous chairs and moved them to be stored on the women’s side. While a stack of chairs does not take up so much space, it frustrates me that a part of the women’s side, an area already substantially smaller section than the men’s, is used as storage. This seemed to represent a further disparagement of a woman’s right to pray at the Wall.
Now, I guess we can talk about the juicy part of the story. As most of us know, it is illegal for a woman to wear a tallis at the Kotel. Despite this, usually during our Rosh Hodesh services the police have allowed us to wear our prayer shawls as long as they are worn as a scarf and not in the traditional manner. Most of the women’s tallits are “feminine” with lots of colors and floral decorations, like our official Women Of the Wall tallis (that can be ordered at here). When one supporter, Deb, put on her tallis, the police were not happy; her tallis was very traditional. Obviously, the police cannot yell at her for the style or fashion of her tallis, so they found a reason to harass her. As she threw the sides of her tallis onto her shoulders, the traditional way, she was yelled at for wearing her tallis “like a man.” Even though other women were wearing theirs the same way, she was singled out. As she demanded to the policeman that he “stop looking at her,” he became angrier. While women stood in front to protect her, the service continued, despite threats to arrest her.
In the end, while we left the Kotel all linking arms so as to prevent the police from getting to Deb, they did not attempt an arrest. While ultimately there was no arrest, there was still much tension and anxiety as we prepared for the arrest.
The reaction of people around me while we prayed was particularly fascinated me. I believe in the cause of Women Of the Wall tremendously, but I still tend to be sensitive to the fellow women praying around me, acknowledging different backgrounds and beliefs. My “favorite” type of observer is one who is surprised and curious and simply does not understand what we are doing. I think it is important to bring awareness to the Jewish people of different types of religious practice. As one woman entered the Kotel area, she said to her friend, “I must record this!” She whipped out her iPhone and stood there for about five whole minutes. Now, I don’t know whether she recorded this to show her friends and laugh at us later that evening, but the important thing is that she has probably never seen a group of women at the Kotel praying aloud wearing tallits, and we were able to bring that awareness to her. This astonished reaction was very common, especially by young (seminary, I assume) girls. My favorite incident was two girls who stood right in front of the group for about seven minutes while they snacked on their bamba, as if they were watching television.
Of course, we did have some not-so-nice reactions. Many who walked by shook their heads or made “tsk” noises. One woman (ironically there to sell her flowers), demanded we be quiet. I was the target of one verbal attack as another woman told me in Hebrew that I was crazy and pretended to hit me. I fully understand that what we were doing violates the paradigms of their understandings of Judaism, so I do not judge their reactions, but it just makes me sad that a woman would behave so negatively toward another woman for any reason.
I want to also acknowledge Women Of the Wall’s wonderful group of male supporters. During our service, I glanced up and realized that about seven men stood above the women praying with us for the entire service. It is nice to know that Women Of the Wall’s cause is embraced not only by “crazy feminists,” but also by men who believe in gender equality and religious freedom.
While I think Women Of the Wall is incredibly lucky to also have the support of women who have been involved since its inception in 1988, I wish there were more youth support. While there were two young girls, and a few in their 20s in our group last week, Women Of the Wall’s mission should be appealing to women (and men) of all generations, which need to be better represented in our activities. For what it’s worth, this is my official call to Jewish youth to learn more about this issue and to get actively involved. We are the future of Israel and the Jewish people, and we need to start now to fight for religious freedom in Israel in the future, both for ourselves and our fellow Jews.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed some of my observations. Please join us next month for Rosh Hodesh Sivan on May 22nd at 7am at the Women’s side of the Kotel. Thanks so much for all of your continuous support!