My strength and the song of God will be my salvation עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישועה
Wrapping our arms around each other to form circles as we lifted our voices to sing this line of Hallel, I felt a joy from prayer, from Judaism, that I haven’t felt for a long time. The verse is from Shemot, from the song the Israelites sang after crossing the sea, escaping slavery and heading towards freedom. Looking around me at these women, passionate about prayer, joy on their faces, praying in this holy place, I too felt a sense of freedom. Freedom from being told which parts of the prayer we can do, from male domination, and in the transition from spectator to participant.
Yet the freedom for all Jews to be able to pray in accordance with their own practice at the Kotel, the Western Wall, is a freedom too far for the Israeli government. Just a few hours after the elation of the service came the sorrow at the news that the government had suspended longstanding plans to open an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.
I grew up in London’s modern orthodox United Synagogue. Prayer was a daily or at least weekly part of my life for many years, but I rarely found it meaningful. In synagogue, women sat upstairs watching men below go through the motions of chanting the prayers. The men didn’t seem to take much joy from it, and the women mostly chatted their way through. Prayer on my own was even less inspiring: I didn’t understand most of the words, and read in translation they seemed to have little relevance to me. Nevertheless, they etched themselves into my consciousness.
Over the years I occasionally tried alternative prayer services. London’s partnership minyanim and Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha do as much as they consider they can to include women whilst respecting halacha, but the adherence to halachic boundaries, with men on hand to do what women may not, left me frustrated. Reform services are so different to what I grew up with that I felt little sense of belonging there. Having never enjoyed prayer, I did not feel I was missing out, and drifted into becoming a three-times-a-year shul goer.
I’d heard in the past about Women of the Wall, a feminist group who hold monthly women’s prayer services at the Kotel. Since volunteering at Shatil, an Israeli organisation promoting social change, I’d learned a little more about them, their legal battle, and the protests they drew. I decided to go along to see what all the fuss was about.
Going through security to enter the Kotel plaza, the group of women in front of me, some wearing kippot, others holding tallitot or tefillin, had their belongings thoroughly searched. Dressed in a long skirt and t-shirt, without any overt religious symbols, I was waved straight through, my bag barely glanced at. Arriving at the Kotel we were directed to a cordoned off area at the back of the women’s section. The police watched over the constant efforts of rowdy protestors to disrupt the service. Plainly the authorities tolerated rather than welcomed our prayers.
Women of the Wall follow an orthodox prayer service; it was familiar to me and I used my old siddur (prayer book) given to me 24 years ago when I left primary school. There was no going through the motions here. Women prayed with passion and joy, tears fell from the eyes of one woman as she recited the blessings over the Torah. Female voices sang the ancient words with meaning and love. The atmosphere was inclusive, supportive, respectful, and joyful. I joined the singing, surprised at how many words I remembered, feeling calm and uplifted by the women and solidarity around me, connecting with my past through this movement towards the future.
The protesters sought to distract us; for over an hour and a half they whistled, wailed, shouted and jeered. Yet as we prayed and unified against the sound it largely became no more than background noise. The protests were at their worst as we left along our cordoned corridor towards the plaza exit, with rows of men and women and boys and girls shouting at us. As we walked we again sung עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישועה, my strength and the song of God will be my salvation.
This week’s government decision is a disgrace, but I know that these women, through their inspiring strength and song, will keep fighting for equality at the Kotel. I can’t wait to join them again next month.
The service was live-streamed on facebook: