by Allison Cohen
Alli is a rabbinical student attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This year Alli served as Women of the Wall Intern and Liason to HUC
I write you once more just like I did when I first arrived in Israel in June of 2012. So much has happened since then, both to me and to Israel. I arrived with mixed emotions for my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. I expected to feel like an insider in what was so commonly called my “homeland”.
I recalled my rabbi’s words, “ כל התחלות קשות (Kol hatchalot kashot); All beginnings are difficult” (Rabbi Don Rossoff). I expected a challenging journey but had no idea what experiences would lie ahead, testing my beliefs as a Reform Jew.
I had heard about the organization Women of the Wall whose “central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of [their] right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall” in Jerusalem (Mission Statement 1). In June, how unthinkable it was for me that women,Jews, could not pray freely in the Jewish state herself. I attended my first Rosh Hodesh service in order to better understand the situation, yet no explanation could reason with detainments for women wearing prayer shawls. The group of approximately thirty women so peacefully prayed as police watched their every move like a group of criminals. I remember the warmth that emulated from the beautiful sound of voices in prayer, but I couldn’t help feeling distracted by the police eyewitnesses. After concluding shacharit at the Kotel, we then continued to the entrance of the Kishle Police Station for the Torah service, waiting for the detained women to be released. I’m sorry to admit to you G-d, but that was my first day seeing Israel in a different light, and I was angry with the country I thought was supposed to be accepting of all Jews. It was then I knew I needed to support Women of the Wall, and I became an intern for this cause.During the year, I was in a constant love-hate relationship with Israel. With each detainment by the Jerusalem Police, my anger towards Israel grew. Simultaneously, living on the Jewish calendar allowed me to feel what it means to be a part of a collective, the Jewish people. How could I feel such a sense of belonging and then on Rosh Hodesh, such a sense of revulsion? Nevertheless, wanting Israel to so desperately be a better place, I continued to strive for change.
Women of the Wall grew from 30 to 300 attending supporters. However, more than the strength in numbers was the strength of resilience I observed in this organization. From detainment to detainment, we continued to pray each month in tallitot and with full voice. I was present at the Knesset meeting when Women of the Wall was granted freedom of religious expression for Rosh Hodesh Sivan. So, on May 10th, 2013, WOW prayed with tallitot without any detainments.
On that day, I had the privilege of leading everyone in shacharit. I was ready to be arrested wholeheartedly for what I believe in: for religious equality, for freedom of religious expression and for religious pluralism. However, when I arrived, I could not believe the scene before me. The police had formed a human barricade, each officer linking arms. They were not arresting WOW; they were guarding us, allowing us to pray in peace. There was yelling, whistling, pushing and shoving from thousands of Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), and at any moment, it looked as though they were going to attack those praying with WOW. I watched for a moment as the human barricade protected a center of WOW supporters with all of their might. Following Lesley Sachs (Director) and Anat Hoffman (Chairwoman), one soldier let us into the center area. Cantor Tamar Havilio, my teacher, grabbed my hand and pulled me through the human barrier. Everything happened so quickly, but although the raging protesters and the moment of fear that overcame me, I knew I had a purpose. My panic faded as I stopped listening to the piercing noise surrounding me in order to put on my tallit. We then began to sing “Ozi v’zimrat Yah”, and I focused on song and prayer to keep composed. I then began leading the shacharit service. Cantor Tamar stood by my side lending me encouragement and helping me to lead some parts. She had prepared me the week before, teaching me all of the nusach to be able to lead Rosh Hodesh Sivan. Even with all of the distractions, I focused on the prayers to lead me through. It was an amazing experience. After beginning each prayer, I would hear everyone join in as a ripple effect. Although I knew of the pandemonium occurring simultaneously, from where I stood, there were moments of peace and even silent prayer. I felt protected by the family of women around me, and I knew that what I stood for was correct. I was no longer afraid. It was then that I realized the true strength and bravery we had together, standing for a greater purpose.
As I conclude my letter, I finish my year just as I arrived in your land, with mixed emotions. As excited as I am to be with my family again, I can also say that I am not ready to leave Israel. I am proud to call Israel home as well. There is no other feeling like praying with a group of Jews and feeling that you are not alone. As a Jew, you are part of something much larger than yourself: a history and a people that have weathered through the unimaginable. So why should we give up now? We were slaves in Egypt and now celebrate our redemption; one day we will be celebrating our pluralism. While we may never agree with each other, I know we can gain respect for one another. I continue to pray for this. Our work is not done!
When the service was complete, worry took over once again as we had to make our way out of the Kotel plaza. The guards braced themselves in their human barricade, as WOW also linked arms to make our way out. Lesley Sachs had buses waiting for us at the entrance to Dung Gate. It was there that WOW was exposed to the Haredim who threw water bottles at us. One of my friends was even hit with a rock, which he kept as a reminder of the day’s events—so symbolic of what we were fighting for at a wall of rocks—rocks that were dividing us instead of bringing us together in prayer. We piled on to the bus, and I made my way into the center, moving away from the windows. The Haredi men were smacking the sides of the bus. I held my breath until we started to move, afraid that a window might shatter. The bus took us to Mamila Mall where we exited.The demonstrations were over, and I needed to comprehend all that had taken place before me. Women of the Wall had successfully prayed with tallitot with the police protecting us. Thank you G-d! Even more, I was given the honor of leading them in prayer for this historic day in the making. Still, now, the division of the Jewish people hurts me. I continue to question if these people are even my people? I am ashamed. It is a hard notion to grasp: only in Israel would one find police protecting Jews from Jews. These were supposed to be my people, yet, I couldn’t feel more distant from them and their actions. We were only praying to you, G-d!It was then I realized that I do not have a love-hate relationship with Israel. Instead, my passion for my homeland was immense. If I did not care so deeply for Israel, and I did not think it had the potential to be a better place, a more pluralistic place, I wouldn’t have kept up my support for this cause. I may sound naïve to some, but I truly believe we will reach a time when we can all pray together. We do not have to agree with each other, but we do need to be respectful of our ways of religious expression.
G-d, as I transition back to America, I know that Israel is experiencing its own transition. Change is happening before our eyes. For me, I know that this is not “good bye”, but only “see you soon” (in Hebrew, l’hitraot). “מקום שלבי אוהב רגלי מוליכות אותי: The place that my heart holds dear, my feet will bring me near (poetic translation).” The truth is that it is not possible for Israel to be one’s homeland until he or she has wrestled with the land, until one can embrace all of Israel, its strengths and its flaws because after all, nothing is perfect. Let this letter be one more note to fill a crevice, my prayer to you—as if we could mend the wall with our prayers.
B’shalom v’b’ahava (in peace and in love),