They did it again, the Women of the Wall. They staged a large prayer service yesterday on Rosh Hodesh Nisan, complete with women holding a Torah scroll and wearing tallitot and tefillin.

And with that included the monthly protest by ultra-Orthodox men and women, outraged at WOW’s public display of traditionally male ritual garments and their own sefer Torah. Their attempts to drown out the service were prevented, though, by the presence of police and of three women members of Knesset, who — with their parliamentary immunity — could freely wear their own tallitot without fear of arrest.

It’s so sad that it has come down to this: Jew against Jew, the issue of whom the Kotel belongs to and what forms of worship are allowed there. Is it strictly a giant Orthodox synagogue, and if so, who decides how “Orthodox” the decorum and dress have to be?

In its purest form, the Kotel, the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, does indeed belong to all Jews regardless of their affiliation or background. Witness any weekday gathering, the bar mitzvas of children from both Sephardi and Ashkenazi families and the elaborate processions that often accompany the former. The presence on Tisha  B’Av of mourners sitting on the ground lamenting the destruction of the two Temples. The scene on Friday evenings as the sun sets and Jews come to mingle and recite kabalat Shabbat. The ceremonies for soldiers being inducted into the IDF.

It was at the Kotel that my family chose to celebrate my son’s bar mitzva only three weeks ago.  We knew we wanted to have his bar mitzva in Israel, and where else to hold a service but at Judaism’s holy site? My only real concern was whether the women in our family would be able to see the bar mitzva taking place in real time from our side of the mechitza. I briefly considered holding a more intimate service at Robinson’s Arch — which is actually on the southern end of the Wall — where men and women can stand together with or without a mechitza, or even at Masada (but who wants to trudge up there with a Torah, even via cable car?).

My decision was influenced by the fact that one of my closest friends decided to have her son’s bar mitzva at the Kotel, and she reassured me that the women could see the “action.” When I saw the beautiful bar mitzva certificate her son received from the rabbi of the Wall, I knew this was the place for us.

And while it turns out anyone can just show up on a Monday, Thursday, or Shabbat at the Kotel, when the Torah is read, and have a bar mitzva, it helps to have some advance coordination. I learned about the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which “governs” the site and maintains its own web page just for bar and bat mitzvas. At no cost, families can not only reserve a time for their child’s bar mitzva, they can borrow tefillin and tallitot (and watch a video with step-by-step instructions on how to don the former), learn about the structure of the service, and even receive restaurant recommendations for post-service celebrations. To top it off, the site posts a cute mug shot of your child with his bar mitzva certificate.

Still, in the days leading up to the service, I was nervous about how this would all play out. Would I really able to see or hear a thing? Would someone help us find and take out a Torah? Would the weather cooperate in February or would it rain and the whole service have to be moved indoors?

Baruch Hashem, everything worked out (almost as) smoothly as possible. There were hundreds of people at the Kotel that Monday morning, but the men managed to claim a spot near the mechitza and close to the Wall itself, while the women, with my mother-in-law leading the way, grabbed some chairs to stand on and watched from a closer range than at a typical Orthodox synagogue. Friends and family from different stages of our lives showed up, and even one of our rabbis from New Jersey — who had just arrived in Israel the night before — came with his wife.


Close enough to see the bar mitzva boy smiling!
Photo by Carrie Silberman

I watched in awe as the service proceeded and was pleasantly surprised when another family, perhaps short of a minyan, joined ours and brought their own Sephardi-style ruach to the service. My son read his portion beautifully, the Israeli boy from that family had his own aliya, and everyone sang “Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov” afterward — with what felt like a hush setting over the plaza as we broke into song. And of course the Israeli women threw candy!

If this experience did not signify being part of am Yisrael — the Jewish people — then I truly cannot fathom what does. We munched on rugelach from the Marzipan bakery afterward and shared our treats with an old woman asking for tzedaka, another moving experience for us.

So when I read about the brouhaha that takes place without fail each month, I get upset that it has come down to this. I understand that some women feel more spiritual when praying with a tallit, which some halachic authorities allow women to wear, and I’m horrified that they may be arrested by Israeli police for doing so. At the same time, why does the incident have to occur each month in such a public way, as if only to prove a point?

I believe there should be some sort of compromise at the Kotel, perhaps, as some have suggested, a “time-sharing” arrangement where women could stage their own service on Rosh Hodesh (long considered a special holiday for women) — but perhaps not during Shaharit. And non-Orthodox groups should continue to hold mixed-group services at Robinson’s Arch, but with more Israeli government efforts to make the site attractive and emphasize its own historical and religious significance.

The Kotel must not become a wedge between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, between Israelis and those in the Diaspora. For the sake of Jewish unity alone, it is critical for all sides to come to an agreement that both maintains Halacha and respects women’s spirituality in the process. Nothing less is acceptable if we want to maintain a united people.