Why can I be my unapologetic, Jewish-Feminist-self in the United States but not in Israel?

Blog Post by WOW Supporter, Liora Finkel

Throughout my life, I’ve been aware of the active shift within gender roles within American Jewish life. As the daughter of Jewish professionals, my parents taught and modeled for me the value of doing traditionally “male” Jewish rituals as a woman for a simple reason – girls can do whatever boys can do too. 

From a young age, I got used to being met with a mixture of encouragement, dismissal, or mild disapproval because I wanted to wear a kippah or wrap myself in tzitzit or a talit. Over time, I got used to having the freedom to choose how (if at all), as a woman, I wanted to participate ritually, knowing I might be met with resistance.

As my sense of feminism amplified through middle and high school, I found out about an organization called Women of the Wall (WOW), which fought for religious women’s rights in Israel, specifically for women’s ability to pray aloud, wear kippot, and tallit and tefillin, and read from the Torah at the Kotel. At the time, I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated the work that WOW was doing. However, they have remained on my “radar” ever since.

During my senior year of high school, my grade spent a semester in Israel. I insisted that at some point we attend WOW’s Rosh Hodesh prayers together at the Kotel. When we did finally join them, and I went to my first WOW Rosh Hodesh, I saw my participation in WOW’s prayer service as inherently a form of resistance against Israel’s traditional religious gender roles (traditional Orthodoxy being the default) and perception of what women “do” in a Jewish society. 

At the time, I really didn’t know WOW’s legal history. I didn’t know about the death threats and calls to violence against women for praying in a “different” way. I only vaguely knew that until 2013, women were being arrested and dragged to jail just for showing up to the Western Wall in a tallit. I did feel however, that I was now part of a historic movement. The protests that I saw made by opponents of WOW – ranging from mildly disturbing to violent – only reinforced my resolve to stand up for women’s rights to pray.

In a 2013 court ruling, WOW was granted legal protection to pray aloud and wear religious garments. In response, the Kotel Rabbi banned anyone from bringing outside Torah scrolls to the Kotel and created a space on the men’s side of the mechitza for Torah scrolls to be stored and used. To prevent women from reading Torah in the women’s section, there are no Torah scrolls there. Even though WOW has agreed to a compromise, violence and chaos regularly ensues when women try to pray together as a group within the women’s section.

This year, while studying at Pardes in Jerusalem, I’ve had the opportunity to daven with WOW several times and noticed the changes since 2018. While WOW’s prayers and customs have not changed, the counter-protestors’ tactics have changed. No longer are plastic chairs repeatedly being thrown at us, but now swarms of yeshiva-aged girls are sent to make a point to scream in our faces pointing out our “immoralities” and our deviation from tradition, blowing whistles in our ears to distract and disrupt us. 

This past Rosh Hodesh, another participant remarked, “by the end of this, I’ll have no hearing,” to which I responded, “we’ve traded arrests for whistles.” That isn’t to say I like how things are now, but what we endured in the past to get to this point – and possible future should tensions continue to heighten – is worse.

The current landscape in the Knesset is not helping the situation.The most recent elections in Israel this past November concluded with four parties in the majority, all of whom have strong right-wing views religiously, economically, or both. The rhetoric coming out of the religious parties in the majority, in particular, has empowered communities and individuals in Israel to protest any threat to extremely traditional social-religious norms. 

The new majority in the government now threatens to take away the rights that WOW has fought for. Two of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the majority coalition threatened to outlaw WOW altogether. A bill was recently proposed that would fine women up to 10,000 shekels and jail them for up to six months for wearing a tallit or wrapping tefillin at the Kotel. Although this was shelved, it has emboldened those who support stripping women of their rights in Israel. And a similar bill will almost certainly be reintroduced again. Even Netanyahu himself said it was only being shelved for now

My boyfriend, Spencer, a first-year Rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, has been praying with WOW’s male allies almost every month since he arrived in Israel this past June. After his first WOW service, he messaged me telling me that he was kicked and spat on by the protestors around him. Although I was worried that this experience would scare him off and that he’d never go back, he’s returned to WOW almost every month, even more dedicated to the cause. He, and all WOW participants, are often called “Reformim” as an insult. While this makes Spencer laugh because he is literally a Reform rabbinical student, it demonstrates some ultra-Orthodox Israelis’ aversion to Reform and Conservative Judaism as inauthentic and belonging only in the Diaspora.

Where the most common Jewish identities and affiliations are either “Religious” or “Secular,” any validation of authentic yet progressive Judaism threatens Israel’s religious establishment. The notion that anyone can be an active, knowledgeable, and practicing Jew in Israel without being ultra-Orthodox is foreign to too many Israelis.

As a Conservative/Masorti Jew, it is frustrating for me that I can be my unapologetic, Jewish-Feminist-self much more easily in the United States than in Israel. How is it possible that the “The Jewish State” is the one place where I can’t practice my Judaism authentically? 

I wish I could say that other issues in Israel were more critical and pressing than this. But in order for Israel to be the safe-haven for all Jews it was imagined to be, the Diaspora needs to demand change. The Kotel belongs to all Jews regardless of where we live, vote, and pay taxes. We need to demand pluralism at our holy sites – or else we will return to seeing women arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall. That would not be an Israel where all Jews in the Diaspora have their Jewish observance validated, included, and strengthened.

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