I vividly recall the day I came across the term ezrat nashim. “What’s that?” I asked my third-grade Hebrew teacher?
“The women’s section” she replied. “The women’s section of what?” I asked. “Of the mechitza,” she answered, unaware that she was about to rock the foundation of my world.
My teacher patiently explained that women and men sit separately in shul and that the women’s section is called ezrat nashim. I had a painful realization: The assumption I had that one day my Abba and I would pray together at the Kotel was not to be.
Fast-forward seven years to Shavuot. In Israel for the semester, I joined with the throngs of Jews headed at dawn to the Kotel. I was with group from the Masorti movement, 250-strong, both men and women. We were unsure if we’d be permitted to begin or finish our prayers at the Western Wall plaza.
I put on my tallit. As the service began, haredim threw dirty diapers, eggs and bottles at us. A man near me was hit in the head by a rock. I remember the anger on the faces of the Haredi men, the shouting and the name-calling — heretics and Nazis, Haman and Zeresh. One man looked me in the face and said I was Hitler’s concubine.
We had enough police protection to finish the service. This was considered a victory, but it certainly didn’t feel like one. For years I had been sold a Diaspora vision of Israel as a homeland for all Jews, a place where Jews could express their Judaism freely. But here we were a group of men and women praying together peacefully while other Jews taunted us and did their best to stop us.
That was in 1998, and in the past year, the battle again heated up once again, with a growing number of haredi Jews harassing women’s and mixed prayer groups trying to hold services anywhere near the Kotel.
In recent days, we’ve heard conflicting reports that the government will propose a compromise measure setting up a separate section for mixed and fully egalitarian prayer. The platform would accommodate 450 worshipers above the archeological dig at Robinson’s Arch and in view of the Kotel, though with no access to touch it. Masorti and egalitarian groups would no longer be harassed. Women would be free to wear tallitot, kippot and tefillin, and to carry and read from the Torah.
With such a compromise, Israel’s government comes a step closer to recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish communities, a recognition that I hope will lead to changes in other aspects of Jewish life in Israel, for instance recognizing weddings and conversions officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Compromise is always difficult. The plan we’ve heard rumors about in recent days is certainly not everything that I hoped for – and not enough, even for now. I hope that this is only a temporary improvement– to be followed by more expansive and equitable permanent improvements. But, for now, at least, it will expand the area where my Abba and I can daven side by side.
Meanwhile, and more importantly, I await full government recognition of the non-Orthodox streams and of my colleagues. I await equal funding for education and infrastructure. And I await government confirmation and implementation of existing court orders regarding Jewish pluralism.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to my 8-year-old self — a self that wasn’t yet aware that in some places women are denied participation and leadership. The Kotel essentially remains one of those places, though these improvements bring us one step forward. In the meantime, I still recite Israel’s national anthem with a renewed hope that one day soon Masorti Jews will be am hofshi bartzeinu, a free people in our land.