I was on the road before 5am. About half way from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim I realized I forgot to bring earplugs. For a moment, I thought maybe I would go home. I knew from watching the livestream videos that the Rosh Chodesh service would likely be disturbed by painfully loud whistling and shouting from my Jewish brothers and sisters who don’t yet understand the Kedusha of women praying with no restrictions at the Kotel- perhaps because they’ve never allowed themselves to experience it. Regardless, I knew to bring earplugs and I was terrified at the idea of not having them.
I arrived at the Kotel with just enough time to locate the leaders of Nashot Hakotel and to find a space nearby to put on my tallit and tfillin. I had been waiting for this moment for years- to lay tfillin at the Kotel. I was so excited. And I was so scared. I took my tallit out of the safety of its bag and began to say the bracha. To my surprise, nothing happened. I said l’hitatef batzitzit [the accompanying blessing] like I would any other day and wrapped myself in the protection of G-d’s Light and Love. Then it was time to take out my tfillin. I took a deep breath and asked G-d to be with me- that I may wrap myself in the attributes of the Sephirot and embody them in holy service to the Divine. This is my kavannah, my intention, every morning- but today it took on new meaning. I saw some young Haredi girls looking at me. They seemed intrigued and I could see a yearning in their eyes. But they said and did nothing. I laid my tfillin in peace and quiet as the group began to convene. I felt whole and holy- as a Jew and as a Woman.
As the tefillah began, I was separated by a security officer from my friend who came with me to the service. There was a moment of fear- what did it mean to be on “the other side” of the security officers? Would I be seen as one of “them” or one of “us”? And what in the world does that even mean? I experienced love and sisterhood as several women adjusted their positioning slightly so that I could slide into the center of the group and rejoin my friend. I stayed there, in the center of this holy gathering, for the remainder of the service. I planned to pray from a Siddur App rather than from my beloved Koren Siddur for fear that my Siddur would somehow be taken from my hands and destroyed. My phone could be replaced, I thought, but risking the destruction of holy words seemed way more dangerous. It made my heart smile to see that the one picture of me from this morning taken by the Nashot Hakotel photographer is of me holding my phone- proudly wearing the sacred garments of our ancestors and holding on dearly to their words.
The other woman in the photo was to us a nameless and voiceless woman, whose presence was anything but. She stood right beside be, in the center of our group, and davenned the entire Shacharit service to herself at her own pace. There were tears and a sense of deep pain and longing in her prayer. I wanted to reach out and give her a hug, but I did not. I wanted to connect with her and yet I was also scared of her. Why was she there? What did she think of “us”? My ultimate conclusion is that she is one of “us”- because at the end of the day there is nothing but “us.” She came to pray, just like we did. And when she was done, she left, just as mysteriously as she came. I pray to one day be able to connect with her and know her name- to know the names and the stories of all of the mysterious onlookers. We are only separated by our fears and our lack of shared experience.
Not everyone was as calm and quiet as this woman. There were some who came to share their opinions and interpretations of Torah with us, but I didn’t hear them much. I was protected by the power of the Kahal [congregation]. I feared feeling suffocated and stuck, but instead I felt held and loved. We were here to pray, and we were in this together. The rest was just noise. At the end of the service we left the Kotel as a stronger and more united group than when we entered. I was invited onto the Nashot Hakotel bus by Cheryl, who I just so happened to be standing in front of and who just so happened to visit my community in South Florida two months prior. Nothing in G-d’s world happens by mistake.
As we made our way to the bus there were groups of mostly young men yelling and throwing water at us. It was quite hot at that point, so it actually felt somewhat refreshing. Nonetheless, the sense of familial conflict was certainly present and painful. But this did not stop us. Once again, we joined together in song and allowed G-d to sing us to safety. Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah: G-d is my Strength and my Song. G-d’s Salvationing Power continues to manifest within me.
In the end, I am grateful that I forgot to bring earplugs. I am grateful that I was able to hear the beautiful voices of the beautiful women who gathered together this morning to honor G-d, Torah, Rosh Chodesh, and each other. And I’m grateful- and honored- to have been one of them