With all this recent talk of Women of the Wall, I have been reflecting on the experiences of women at the Western Wall in general. Whenever I find myself in the Old City, I make a trip to the Kotel. Mincha, a few chapter of Tehillim and some quiet reflection before backing up all the way to the entrance leave me feeling that I have done my duty at the site closest to the Temple Mount.
But what happens if I am in the Old City for shabbat? After a few attempts, I have learned that it is impossible to pray with a congregation at the Kotel if you are a woman. You can’t hear Torah reading nor can you tell if the men near you are in the middle of Shemonah Esrei or saying Aleinu. The one time I found a minyan taking place loudly right at the edge of the mechitzah, I eventually realized I was davening with a USY Conservative group.
As a result, I limited my shabbat visits to the Kotel to Friday nights. I was willing to forego the communal prayer and daven Kabbalat Shabbat on my own, in order to take advantage of a rare opportunity to soak up the shabbat atmosphere at the Kotel. Last year, I found myself joining a group of Ethiopian high school students who were joyfully singing the words of Kabbalat Shabbat while they swayed and danced. It was an uplifting experience, until a woman came up to the girls and admonished them angrily to stop acting in such an immodest manner!
I cringed. The girls immediately stopped their loud prayers and began to read silently from their siddurim. What will they remember from this experience? That the Kotel doesn’t belong to them, that Judaism is about silencing women? That exuberance can’t be a part of the Jewish experience?
What is especially disturbing about this experience is that the girls were in no way behaving immodestly. They could not be heard or seen (except from very far away) by the much louder men. They were not attempting to attract attention or stage any type of protest. They were simply davening to Hashem in the best way they knew how.
At the end of the evening, I waited for my husband at the appointed time and place we had chosen. When he didn’t show up for 20 minutes, I went back to our host’s. When he finally arrived he said he couldn’t tear himself away from the group of soldiers and civilians who were dancing and singing for hours.
I think the next time we are in the Old City on shabbat I will take my daughters to Beit Knesset HaRamban and leave the trek down to the Kotel to the men in the family.