I have been enjoying my time living and studying in Israel for the year. Being here for an entire year has given me the opportunity to be involved in many active organizations on a regular basis. Women of the Wall (WOTW) is one organization that I have found particularly meaningful.
Women of the Wall’s mission is to gain legal recognition of the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall. As many of you already know, people are expected to dress and act modestly at The Wall. According to Orthodox tradition, acting modestly, for women, means praying quietly, not out loud. As American Reform Jews it’s difficult for us even to imagine that an organization like this needs to exist.
WOTW meet once a month at The Wall to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the new month. To respect the rules, women wear their tallit as a scarf so that the tzitzit do not hang down in front. Still many women are too nervous to wear them at all and others choose to avoid harassment by asking male friends to bring their tallit through the security area for them.
Although it’s a small group, there are always men who come to support WOTW. These loyal men stand on the men’s side of the mechitzah and pray along with our service to show their support. Some months more than others, they serve as a buffer between Ultra Orthodox and the women who are trying to pray.
WOTW has endured a long history of violence, harassment, verbal and physical abuse for their commitment to pray at The Wall. This summer when I first arrived to Israel, Anat Hoffman, the group’s fearless leader, was arrested for attempting to bring a Torah into the Women’s area at The Wall.
My first experience with WOTW this summer was very emotional. As our service drew close to the Sh’ma, a man stood on a chair looking over the mechitzah and began yelling at us in Hebrew. Although I couldn’t understand at the moment exactly what he was saying, I learned later that he was shouting things like, “You are the reason that the Holocaust happened.” In any case, I could tell he was very angry. Even a few women were spitting in our direction. I fought off the tears that were welling up inside. I’m not sure if it was because I felt personally attacked or because I was offended for all women who wanted to have a meaningful communal experience at The Wall. Just as we began saying the words of Sh’ma, our voices rose with the importance and the guard interrupted our sincere prayer to “Shh” us while the man on the chair continued his screaming unbothered.
Some people are so disgusted by the situation at The Wall that they refuse to go at all. They refuse to find anything meaningful from this sacred space, which is very unfortunate. There is so much beauty and potential at The Wall that people can find if they are open to it. One day when I was having a personal moment at The Wall, I heard a mother and a daughter approach the wall together. The mother said in quiet Hebrew, “Now, just ask G-d something from your heart.” And as the mother and daughter stood together touching The Wall the mother sang a little comforting melody that sent chills through my body. What a precious moment.
So, what can we do with these parts of Israel that frustrate us so much? We can either let them make us so infuriated that we lose out on something that could be very spiritually rewarding, or we can help Israel grow by supporting causes that we know are important. Of course there are parts of Israel that need tikun, fixing, just like every country. We can’t expect Israel to be perfect, but we can expect ourselves to always strive for something better. We have high expectations for Israel, because we know Israel’s potential, and because this Holy Land means so much to us. What do we need to do so that we can continue to call Israel Holy? If we only ignore or criticize these areas that bother us, can we still call it our Holy Land?
The Wall should be a place where ALL Jews can feel comfortable praying. Women of the Wall is just one organization that you can get involved in to support Progressive Judaism in Israel.