By Bobbi Zahra
Bobbi Zahra is Immediate Past-President of the Board of Trustees of Shaar Shalom, Halifax’s Egalitarian Conservative Community
Until July 2010, when I was in Israel and decided to go to the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh observances with NaShot HaKotel, the work of this group of egalitarian Jewish activists was pretty low on my radar. I knew about them, but their efforts were kind of abstract to me, and I’d never heard anybody speak about them on the east coast of Canada, where I live.
On Rosh Chodesh Av, though, it’s not any understatement to say that I experienced an epiphany. I had planned first just to go see what was happening there; I thought I might join in prayers to welcome the new month. I did not plan, nor did I expect, to become active in this movement at all – because remember, it didn’t affect me so much (or so I thought!).
The fact of the matter is that I think it is impossible to experience Rosh Chodesh with this remarkable group of remarkable women and not feel moved to somehow become a part of it. What follows is my experience – and what I’ve done with it.
Rosh Chodesh Av, another hot, sunny day in Jerusalem. Another new experience for me, a Canadian Jew from a very small Jewish community on the east coast of Canada. A steady stream of traffic leads to the Kotel, as hundreds of Jews head there to daven for the new month. Among those present today will be Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall, a group of women who actively and tirelessly promote the importance of egalitarianism at the Kotel.
I have no idea what to expect here – it’s a curiosity for me at this point, and I can’t say that I’m particularly wedded to a cause. Lesley Sachs, a Project Manager for the group, gives me some idea what to expect. “We try to push the envelope a little,” she explains. “Today, we’re going to take a few steps further up along the mechitzah, closer to the Kotel itself. We’re going to be more in the middle of the women’s section, and not hugging the mechitzah, as we often do.” More women approach – we seem to know one another, even those of us who’ve never met before. We are not, as I thought we might be, women who look furtive, as if we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing – halacha doesn’t actually prohibit our being there, nor our having a Torah scroll. We are encouraged to don tallesim and kippot, though we’re advised to wear the tallesim casually, more like scarves than the sacred vestments they are. So, tallesim sitting on our shoulders, the temperature climbing, prayers begin.
Notes of prayers that I hear chanted in my synagogue every Saturday morning ring true and clear, the voices of more than a hundred women rising sweetly in unison. Prayer proceeds as it usually does – there are a few curious Orthodox women watching us, some faces open and interested, and others impassive. Nobody seems particularly angry that we are there.
We reach the Shema, that quintessential Jewish prayer. There are well over a hundred of us now. “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad…” “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” This is the first statement of monotheism, adopted later by other major religious traditions. And it sounds achingly beautiful there at the Kotel – beautiful because it is, after all, quite beautiful. But it hurts a bit to chant the words there, knowing that there are people who don’t want us there.
On the other side of the mechitzah, the wall that divides men from women as we pray, angry voices are shouting the prayers. There’s nothing holy about this. Some men come right to the mechitzah, climb on chairs, and start yelling, at first in Hebrew, and then in English. “You’re ruining it for everyone! The Messiah will never come, and it’s all your fault!!” There’s a line in the Shema that catches me every single time I say the prayer. Translated to English, it talks about our becoming “a holy people before God.” How on earth could it be holy, I wonder, when these men are screaming the prayers and shouting at us? Why do they not simply concentrate on their own prayers?
The women in this group are really not remarkable at first glance. We’re young, middle age, and older. Some of us are wearing tallesim and kippot, but others are not. Some of us are Orthodox, but many are not. There are Conservative and Reform Jews there, and we are all davening together. I’ve been told that Orthodox Jews should not daven with Conservative Jews, and I wonder how this flies past halacha. Is it ok because we’re in a public place, and not in a synagogue, I wonder?
There is one woman who stands out, at the front of the group. Every movement of her prayer is joy-filled. She’s devout, earnest, and happy. So this, I think, is what it means to be “a holy person before God.” Those men screaming their prayers at us, and not in conversation with God, could learn a lot from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. She tells me later that she considers our being here a “vitally important facet of civil rights in a democracy,” which is a succinct way of saying what we all feel.
Israel is one of the most democratic countries in the world, and yet an increasingly rigid religious right is influencing and crafting legislation that will make it even more difficult to join together for events such as this. In Israel, women can be anything, do anything they wish – they are members of the IDF, doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers – but to pray the way that we pray there today is, for some, not ok at all.
We pray the Amidah, silently, sing more psalms, and prepare to move from the Kotel to Robinson’s Arch, where we will open the Sefer Torah, and one of the group will chant the parsha that is relevant to Rosh Chodesh. So far, I think, it’s gone fairly smoothly. Just a couple of bumps when our voices grew uncomfortably loud for the police officer who has the unenviable job of maintaining some sort of decorum between this group of egalitarian women who wish simply to pray in a way that is authentic to them, and those who believe we don’t belong there.
It’s very hot outside. The Sefer Torah is removed from its clandestine hiding place, and we begin the procession to Robinson’s Arch, far enough away from the Kotel that it shouldn’t bother those who take issue with our presence. Just as we get through the security gate to leave the Kotel, walking closely together and singing (not shouting), something suddenly happens. The police officers are angry now, and we don’t really know why. The officer I had come to consider as ‘ours,’ the one who provided the buffer between our group and those who hurl epithets is speaking forcefully in Hebrew to Anat Hoffman, the Chairwoman of Nashot HaKotel, who is carrying the Torah scroll. There are several officers there now, and one of them is trying to take the scroll from her. “Lo, lo!” she says firmly, holding it closely to her. “NO!”
We are incredulous. They want to take the Torah from us? It belongs to Nashot HaKotel, is being carried with respect, and we’re going with it to Robinson’s Arch, where it has been agreed that we are permitted to read from it. I am beside Anat, feeling that I must do something, but as a Canadian in Israel am a little nervous about the idea of being arrested – I wonder if they would make me leave the country immediately if that happened? Still, I cannot do nothing. I lean in a little and try to place myself between Anat and one of the police officers. He is very, very angry, shouting at me in Hebrew. He grabs my arm, hard, trying to move me aside. I resist at first, until he grabs my hand, which had been held fingers curled under to the palm, and begins to squeeze it. I’ve already broken a finger on that hand, and I’m nervous of it. I back off, feeling powerless and angry.
There are at least 5 officers trying to separate Anat from the Torah, trying to separate her from our group. They succeed, and speed-walk her away from us. We hurry up the stairs, where any police vehicles would be waiting, and sure enough, there is a van there. Anat has not relinquished her hold on the Torah, and she is suddenly in the police van. We are shocked, unhappy, and calling out to the officers who’ve arrested her: “Bushah!” many of us shout at them in Hebrew. “Shame!!” Because what they are doing is a shame indeed. Would a man be arrested for praying? For chanting from the Torah?
Anat is gone, taken for questioning. We no longer have the Sefer Torah, but the portion that we are to read for Rosh Chodesh is in the siddur, and so a young woman volunteers to chant the portion. It’s beautiful, but we’re sharply conscious that one of our number is missing. Between prayers, many of us talk quietly about what has just happened. It could have been worse, we agree – no chairs were thrown, at least. But there was violence done here today – not that the police were brutal, but to arrest a woman who was part of a group simply there to pray is violence to one’s soul.
And that, really, is what this is all about. Women who would pray at the Kotel while wearing tallesim and kippot, who don teffilin, are doing nothing illegal. Torah tells us that men are obliged to do this, not that women are forbidden from doing it. There is room for all of us at the Wall, room for every Jewish tradition, and for every Jewish voice, not just the voices of men, not just the voices of ultra-Orthodox Jews. I have always believed this, but I understand now, in a visceral way, that my expression of belief in such equality was little more than platitudes – until I was there, it hadn’t affected me. Now, what was I going to do with this knowledge?
I participated in Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel only a few days after arriving in Israel for my latest visit. I would be in the country for another month, and I didn’t want to wait to talk about it. The first thing I did was to write – my synagogue, Shaar Shalom in Halifax, Nova Scotia, produces a regular newsletter that’s shared with our entire congregation (and beyond!), so I got back to my apartment in Rehavia, and I wrote. I’d been taking pictures at the Kotel as well, and some of them were included with the article I sent to the newsletter’s editor. By the time I returned to Halifax, the newsletter would have been circulated and I had hope that people would be talking about the article.
When I arrived in Halifax in August, a few things had happened. Members of my congregation had contacted me, some by email and others by phone, to thank me not only for having davened Rosh Chodesh, but also for having written about it. Almost universally, the response was, “I didn’t know!” That’s how I came, on my first Shabbat back with my own congregation, to be giving a D’var Torah in which I spoke as passionately as I knew how to about Nashot HaKotel and my experience in Israel. Women approached me at Kiddush after the service, wanting to know whether there was anything we could do in Halifax to spread the story, and we talked about creating a group to help promote awareness and education about egalitarianism at the Kotel.
In short order, Nashot HaKotel announced another initiative – an awareness campaign in which they requested that women around the world take photographs of women in their congregations with the Torah. At Shaar Shalom, I invited women of the congregation to participate, to come and have their picture taken holding the Torah, reading from the Torah, learning from the Torah… and even though it was still summer, and people were away, we arranged at least 3 separate days for photos!
Women brought their children with them – infants, toddlers, and small children. Women who’d only recently become Bat Mitzvah participated. Women who had not grown up in an egalitarian environment participated. Women who’d had adult Bat Mitzvah long past an age where they expected to do this participated. Toddlers, teachers, university professors, doctors, mothers, daughters, husbands, sons, and even a retired Supreme Court Justice. The photos attached were sent, along with letters, to Israel’s Chief Rabbi, to the President, and to the leaders of all Israeli political parties. This small act of coming together for a photo shoot was in fact an act of solidarity with an international community.
What have we done since? At the moment, primarily, we talk about it. Every Rosh Chodesh, we say the prayer for the Women of the Wall. We do not say it in isolation, though. Every time, we remind the congregation about the group, that it is not some Israeli special interest group. We remind them – and ourselves – that the work of Nashot HaKotel is as essential to Jewish woman the world over as are our very synagogues. We pray from our hearts, with passion, in strong voice.
What lies in our future? We hope that Shaar Shalom Synagogue will soon be a listed public supporter of Nashot HaKotel, that we will be able to have educational events to talk about what egalitarianism really means, and that we might even be able to have special events of some sort to raise money for Nashot HaKotel. It’s not that we feel we’ll be able to raise an astonishing amount of money (though that would be brilliant!) as much as we want the women who are at the Kotel every single Rosh Chodesh, no matter how hot or how rainy it might be, to know that we are with them, too – even if we are physically still in Canada.