Today was the first day of a new month on the Jewish calendar. I attended an early morning service run by Women of the Wall at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. I went to actively push for gender equality and freedom of religious expression that I believe is just. But also today the Kotel was inundated with protesters against Women of the Wall. The experience has left me feeling deeply connected to and somewhat ashamed of Judaism.
I’ve only been to the Kotel once before and I chose to pray at the egalitarian section. All of the services I attend at home are mixed, and I believe that gender shouldn’t obstruct or affect religious expression. I was taken aback by the size of the women’s section of the Kotel; it’s less than a quarter the space of the men’s section and is obstructed by a large footbridge overhead. The newly established egalitarian section of the Kotel is 3 or 4 minutes walk beyond the women’s section, through another security check and a set of uneven stairs. This section is 10 metres below the rest of the plaza, cold and empty. No prayer books and no chairs are provided, quite unlike the set up in the men’s section.
So this morning I returned to pray at the Western Wall with around 20 other students (from Netzer Australia and England, Habonim Dror South Africa and Noam Masorti England) to observe the new moon, a time traditionally associated with women. We woke up much earlier than we usually do for a day of classes and made our way to the old city. We were, surprisingly, the first people to gather. We were stopped by a security guard from entering the main women’s section and redirected. We thought this was his own form of protest, but it turned out to be a prior arrangement with the organisers of the Women of the Wall. The designated space for our service was barred by two layers of a metal barrier: to both separate and protect us from the orthodox women in the women’s section.
To get into this section where we were allowed to pray, we had to push through walls of Orthodox girls who were shoving and yelling at us. We waited for the leaders of Women of the Wall to arrive and were told by an American man that there was nothing the Security could do to prevent us from praying in the way that we felt was right and authentic. In contrast, an Orthodox woman directed us to the egalitarian section and screamed at us in Hebrew that we are a shame to Judaism and to women.
According to traditional Jewish law (Halacha) women are not permitted to read from the Torah (bible), wear Tallitot (prayer shawl), or Kippot (skull cap), religious expressions permitted to men. Reform Jews believe in egalitarian practice and therefore women may choose to participate in all ways. The Western Wall is regarded as perhaps the most holy Jewish site on Earth. Jews come from all around the Diaspora to pray and leave notes for God within the cracks of this enormous outer wall of Herod’s temple, which has endured the hardships of the Jewish people since 19 BCE. Women of the Wall is an organisation, headed by Anat Hoffman, which aims to bring equality of access to the Wall. They run services at the commencement of each month at the Wall and also offer a Bat Mitzvah. These women bring Tallitot, Torah and Tefillin to the Wall in order to show that women can also practice their Judaism as they choose. I went to the service to actively participate in something important to me and my movement.
Today I was exhilarated, excited, and slightly terrified. I was tired from the early wake up, nervous that we wouldn’t be able to sneak our tallitot through the security, hungry because we didn’t eat before leaving the flat and quite concerned that we’d be detained or arrested. Our program directors’ only instructions for going to the service were: “Enter through Zion Gate, and don’t get arrested or detained!”.
Once our service started the women’s section began to fill up, not only with people coming to pray, but also women coming to protest against us. Women from age 10 to 70 were screaming at us while we were peacefully trying to pray. One woman (around 60) was wearing a piece of fabric fashioned like a cape, with the words “We are the women of the wall. You are not real women” and was blowing a whistle as loud as she could for the entirety of our service. Women stopped their praying to take photos of us, stare, scream and cry. One woman screamed at the top of her lungs what seemed to some of us to be a bird call but was probably just an attempt to make as much noise as possible to drown us out. At one point, the men brought out giant speakers and the leader of the men’s service used a microphone so that I couldn’t hear our cantor who was standing less than a metre away from me. I was astounded that these people, men and women, so dedicated to religion, preferred to stare, scream and interrupt a peaceful, unobtrusive service because it was lead by a woman wearing a tallit.
Not all of my group were female. Some of the boys came with us to support us while we prayed. They were met with incredibly harsh criticism from Orthodox men. One of my friends was asked if he was transgender, one had a cigarette stubbed out on him. They were pushed, shoved and yelled at while standing outside our designated prayer sections. I felt immense pride when we walked out and the cheers of our boys were louder than the screams of the orthodox men. They worked with security guards and IDF soldiers to protect us from these aggressive men and women.
The Kotel should be a place of peace. A place for Jews to pray, regardless of what stream they align with and regardless of gender. This should not be a place of hatred, prejudice and fear. It’s not about the wall itself, but about practising my religion in a way that is meaningful for me and combatting the inequality that exists in Judaism. I felt that I was really helping to make change. I know for sure that I never felt so connected to Judaism and to being a woman as I did this Rosh Hodesh morning.