My whole life, I have heard stories from Jews who travelled to the Western Wall. Praying at the Wall is supposed to send you back in time, to generations of Jews who came and prayed at the very same place, put their hands on the same eroding stone, and completed the same ontological connection across the diaspora.
I first visited this wall with my family when I was ten, too young to appreciate the gravity of the experience. Less than a week ago, I returned, expecting to have the same transformative experience my Jewish friends and family had described to me. I thought I would be almost majestically drawn forward and know, as my ancestors knew, that I was home at this place. But the closer I came to the wall, the farther I felt from Judaism as I knew it. Home is supposed to be a place where you feel safe, loved, and supported, but despite visiting the wall with friends, I felt alone.
I could hear, across the divider, on the men’s side of the wall, the singing and communal prayer I remembered from my congregation at home. But on the women’s side, I was isolated and disconnected from any sense of community. Women often approach the wall in tears, and organized prayer on the women’s side is forbidden. I am a Reform Jew, and not a particularly good one. Denied religious leadership, I was lost for what to do. The things that I turn to Judaism for—family, community, direction—were missing at the one place every Jew expects to find them.
Yet in many other places in Israel, I have found these things without looking. I had an impromptu Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem with five other people from my Israel Experience program the day after we arrived. I never celebrate Shabbat with my parents at home, yet in Israel, saying ha-motzi—with people I barely knew—felt fitting. The people I shared this dinner with were strangers the day before, and after two blessings, we became close friends. My friends and I explored Tel Aviv with other American Jews on similar summer programs, and although I was in a city where I didn’t speak the language, with a few people I knew well and many people I had just met, I felt completely comfortable.
I expected to feel this sense of belonging and safety at the Western Wall because everyone told me I should. But I could not find it on the women’s side. If Israel is really a Jewish state for all Jewish people—from the ultra-Orthodox to the barely-Reform Jews like me—the Western Wall must include a permanent pluralistic section, so we can all practice freely. Shouldn’t all Jews feel like they belong in Israel—at Shabbat dinner with friends, walking along the beach in Tel Aviv, and especially at the Western Wall?