Praying: A Mitzvah, Not a Crime

By Jenn Maggin

Jenn is an intern with Women of the Wall and will be starting studies at HUC Jerusalem next Fall

Criminals. Troublemakers. Attention seekers. These are just a few of the names that Women of the Wall have been called.  I’ve met these women, I’ve prayed with these women, and you know what?  I call these women discrimination-fighting superheroes with the guts to stand up for the human right to pray. As an OTZMA participant and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I am blessed to have the opportunity to intern with this social advocacy group and experience the magic.

Women of the Wall seek the rights for women to conduct prayer services, read Torah while wearing tallitot or tefillin, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Their quest is to change the current status quo, which prevents women from praying freely at the Western Wall, to educate Jewish women and the public, and to empower Jewish women to take control of their religious and prayer lives.

Today is Rosh Hodesh Iyar, the first of the month, and I’m standing in the women’s section of the Kotel.  I’m surrounded by a couple hundred women pushing up against me with their prayer books, but I don’t feel claustrophobic at all—not one bit.  I enjoy feeling close to them. I enjoy feeling as if I’m part of a team—one united army of women from all different branches of Judaism with the common goal of freedom in prayer. The Kotel is swamped with photographers, news reporters, and police officers watching us as if we’re plotting evil.  Orthodox men stand on chairs in the men’s section. Screaming at us to pipe down and to stop the racket, they stare us down like we’re parasites.  Despite the snaps of the cameras, the yelling of the opposition, and the chanting of the men, I hear only one thing: I hear the beautiful melody of the Shema.  We looked up at the sky, closed our eyes, and chanted the Shema like it’s our anthem.  Without a worry of the nasty Facebook comments people will make, the articles that will be written about us in Haaretz, or the police reports that may potentially be filed, we prayed together in harmony.

Last year as I walked to the Kotel on Erev Yom Kippur, I jumped up and down with excitement at the thought of praying in one of the most holy places.  Unfortunately, my memories of praying at the Kotel on Yom Kippur center around my experience of having the security guards make me remove my kippa and lock my new tallit in my backpack as if it was a weapon. But men were walking in with all of these same items and not being harassed or bothered!  Because I’m a woman, I’m not allowed to express my Judaism the way I feel called to?  I felt disgusted, confused, and alone.  Now as I intern with Women of the Wall and join them in their journey for justice, I no longer feel alone in this battle.

Today, I watched police officers question innocent women as they prayed.  These were women with mile-long smiles on their faces just bubbling with contagious passion as they let out the words of their favorite prayers.  Is this a crime?  Are these women criminals?  No, they are certainly not. Five women were taken away from our Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel and detained.  Thank goodness, these five detained women were released without any charges. The judge declared that there was no cause for the womens’ arrest and that the provocation was on behalf of those who oppose womens pray. I’ve never experienced religious discrimination.  At my Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom, in New City, New York, I have the freedom to pray however I would like.  Not only does my experience with Women of the Wall make me appreciate the times I’m treated fairly and equally, but it also encourages me to keep striving for equality and justice in an unfair society. I am thrilled to begin interning with Women of the Wall and promote human rights.  We will change this.  We really will.

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