When I first came to Israel in 2011, I was studying abroad for the first time, and as lucky circumstances would have it, I had just completed the long process of conversion to Judaism two weeks prior to my arrival. It all seemed rather surreal, from the moment that I made up my mind that this was where I wanted to spend the next year of my life, to the moment the plane touched down in the stifling Tel Aviv summer heat. I had all kinds of ideas in my head about what I could expect to experience in the almost mythical country that I had been hearing about my whole life, whether from Biblical tales, or the lens of the American media broadcasting from the television in the evenings, or from the many personal (and varied, often contradicting) anecdotes from the members of the Jewish community I had joined, I had been hearing about Israel so much for so long, that I almost found myself surprised to get off the plane and find that Israel is more than an idea or a name on a map. A year and a half later, and on my second long term visit as a student, I now have my own Israel stories, and one of the most significant ones, is my visiting the Kotel.
It was overwhelming for me to be at the Kotel the first time, as well as the many times that followed. I felt an intense emotional connection to something far greater than myself in a way that I had never before experienced, and a sense of awe that somehow, my feet had led me here, as a brand-new-Jew, practically just out of the mikveh, and it was so astounding to me, it bordered on the absurd, and wham! It hit me; a wave of emotion, altogether alien. I cried, I prayed, I wrote notes to God in my awkward Hebrew and stuffed them reverently into the cracks of the Wall, just like so many before and after me, and I left carefully without turning my back, all while trying not to break the spell of the moment by tripping and falling over someone else (which can easily happen when you’re walking backwards in a crowd).
Excited about my experiences, I eagerly told others about what I had felt, and was surprised at the range of reactions I got. While some understood and felt the same way that I had felt, for many others I spoke with, the Kotel was anything but magical. Some felt it was an interesting place to visit, but not all that spiritually invigorating. Others felt uncomfortable there, seeing the behavior of some coming too close to idol worship—it is just a wall, after all, right? Others felt disgust with the politics and the Orthodox monopoly on religious expression there. Others felt that because of the politics, the tourists, the beggars, etc., the Kotel feels as non-holy and non-sacred as you could get. And still others felt that the place had become a circus for “publicity stunts,” such as with the conflict between the Women of the Wall and the Haredi opposition. So much for the holiest site in all of Judaism.
Given the former intensity I used to experience at the Kotel, I’m somewhat surprised by the fact that I have not been back to visit in the last four months of my second trip to Israel. In fact, I actively avoid it, given recent tensions. Having converted in an egalitarian shul where more women wear tallitot and kippot than not, I didn’t fully understand the issues around such practices until I came to Israel. Sure, I had read about it, and had been to Orthodox shuls, and I knew and befriended people in the Orthodox community, but they didn’t seem to care about the issue one way or the other, or at least, it rarely came up in conversation. I only knew what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear in various shuls, but since I have never felt compelled to wear a tallit, a kippah, or tefilin myself, it didn’t personally affect me, anyway. You daven your way, I’ll daven mine. Recently though, I’ve been invited to join WoW by the many friends I have who are involved with them, but each time, I keep thinking back to those moments when I’ve been there and felt something very personal and significant, untainted by the admittedly imperfect, non-ideal environment. I find myself torn between wanting to show my support for freedom of religious expression, and wanting to keep my experiences at the Kotel between myself and God. I used to go to the Kotel and be able to ignore that which I found unsavory to my own religious and political sensibilities, because it seemed irrelevant when compared to the awe of the moment. Now I don’t want to go there at all, even if it’s not a Rosh Chodesh, when we can expect tensions to boil over.
Perhaps it’s selfish of me. No matter which side you fall on when it comes to the WoW’s objectives or the traditional crowd that stubbornly wants to keep a hold on the Kotel, both sides have something that mean just as much to them as my personal, private spiritual moments at the Kotel mean to me. WoW can’t make a change without actively challenging the status quo, and the opposition can’t protest that challenge without action, either (though they certainly could do without the spitting, the throwing of things, and verbal harassment). I don’t want to see the Kotel as a staging ground for Jews to treat other Jews with such disrespect, nor do I want to see the place defiled in such a way. It’s an unfortunate reality of how religious tension tends to manifest itself, and I can’t stand back and to the side of it forever. But for now, I feel a disconnect from the Kotel that wasn’t there initially. But then again, as we see from this last Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel, there is a massive disconnect in the Jewish world that has certainly existed for a while, but seems to be intensifying, more than just gradually. Seems I’m a part of that too, whether I like it or not. In the end, it would be wonderful to find more people who can feel something besides the distractions to the spiritual, cultural or historical significance of the Kotel, but that doesn’t seem possible without fighting for your own space first, in order for that to happen. Some days, I just wish I could have my own personal Kotel; but then I guess, that’s what we all want.