A Taste of Joy: Reflections by Susan C. Bass (WRJ)

Dear Friends, 

I am honored to share with you words of reflection from WOW’s 30th anniversary service on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, sent by Susan C. Bass, President of Women of Reform Judaism. She gives voice to our struggle, and our resilience:

We knew about the campaign. We read about the billboards proclaiming that a Reform grandfather led to an assimilated son, which led to a gentile grandson. We heard about the plan to bus students from near and far into the Western Wall Plaza, in the hopes of filling the space, preventing Women of the Wall and their supporters from celebrating Rosh Chodesh Adar II. We spent Thursday evening honoring those who had the vision, commitment and persistence, 30 years ago, to raise their voices for women to pray “in their custom” at Kotel. Still, nothing prepared us for the reality of more than 10,000 girls and young women who filled the women’s section at Kotel, on the morning of March 7.

According to midrash [Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer], Rosh Chodesh was given by G-d to women, to honor their refusal to surrender their gold rings and earrings to create a “graven image,” as Aaron had requested [Exodus 32:2].  How fitting then, that 30 years ago, these women refused to surrender to the demand of the rabbi of the Wall to refrain from wearing tallit, tefillin, and singing and praying out loud. For 30 years, every Rosh Chodesh not on Shabbat, a group of women come before God, singing in joy and gladness [Psalm 100:2]. Increasingly, however, the Haredi leadership has escalated their efforts to stop this practice.

As we approached the Dung Gate security checkpoint, we saw the mass of people. Boys and men, girls and young women all dressed in the uniform of Haredi. There were 4 of us, making our way through the crowd, cutting across the men’s line (this was the easy part, since they did not want to touch us), and inserting ourselves into the women’s line. Carrying our tallitot, we went through security. Since we were warned the night before that security personnel would make every effort to slow our entry, by going through every item in our bags, we pared down to only the barest essentials. Clearing security, we began walking towards the women’s section. In the plaza, the crowd seemed larger than usual, and the police were present, but not particularly engaged.

Entering the women’s section, we saw the throng of women, a sea of young faces. The service had begun minutes earlier, and it took us a moment to locate the WOW group. They had set up a small table, a couple of step stools and some white plastic chairs, the type that stack easily. We could see Dena, the service leader, standing on a stepstool, proudly wearing her tefillin and WOW tallit. She wore a microphone that broadcast to the few women who were given earpieces, as a way to help the worshippers keep up with the service, since we were denied a loudspeaker.  The 4 of us joined hands and entered the crowd, pushing our way to the WOW group. There was quite a bit of shoving and blocking by the girls and women who clearly objected to our presence.

Once we got close to the service leaders and were able to join in, it was obvious that the idea of praying with joy and gladness was nothing more than a dream. The young girls continually grabbed at Dena, trying to remove her tallit while she was leading the service. My kippah was pulled off twice – so I finally removed it and put it in my bag.  Immediately, one of the girls asked (in English) why I was wearing a tallit but not a kippah!

The jeering and yelling of the girls around us was frequently drowned out by the amplified sounds coming from the men’s section (they had a loudspeaker), and the crowd of male hecklers standing just behind the divider at the back of the women’s section. The majority of praying at that point was that no one would be seriously hurt by the mob.

There were two older women sitting in the chairs by the service leader’s table. As the crowd surged, it became dangerous for these women, as the chairs were not solid enough to withstand the waves of shoving initiated by the girls at the back of the crowd. One of the WOW volunteers who had a radio, called for the police to evacuate the women, before they were injured. As if by magic, police appeared, and removed the women to safety. It was almost like the Red Sea parting to allow the Israelites to pass safely, then immediately filling up with the girls and young women, again shoving their way toward the Women of the Wall, attempting to pray.

As we began to pray Hallel, the crowd was getting increasingly physical and verbally abusive. I do not understand Hebrew, but those around me who did were clearly upset by the things these young girls were screaming at them. I felt constantly under physical attack. Every time the girls at the back of the crowd shoved forward in an orchestrated move, it did not take long to reach those of us standing near the service table. Several times, I struggled to keep my balance and deflect the elbows and knees that were landing on my arms, legs and back. At one point, something hit my head (I have the bruise to show for it), but I have no idea what it was.

Lesley Sachs, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, began circulating among us, telling us that it was not safe to bring our Torah out, as the crowd was escalating and she feared for our safety. Rather, we were going to move to the egalitarian section of the wall to read Torah and finish our service.

Again, as if by magic, the police appeared and created a safe passage way through the girls, many of whom continued to hurl invectives at us. Many in our group responded by saying “ahava [love]”, while others, visibly shaken, trudged forward. Since I had been near the service table, I was one of the first ones out. Leaving the women’s section, I saw the plaza was packed with men in black hats, boys with their payos (side locks) flying, all screaming and taunting us. The police formed a barrier line to keep the men away from us, all the way through the Dung Gate security check point.

When I got to the entrance for the egalitarian section, I stopped and spoke with a young woman who had walked just ahead of me. “Are you okay?” I asked her. Immediately, tears began to roll down her cheeks. As I hugged her, she began crying, then sobbing, her entire body shaking and heaving with emotion. This went on for several minutes. When she quieted down, she said in almost a whisper, “Why do they hate us so? How can Jews say those things to other Jews. It just hurts so much.” Then, she began crying again.

After several minutes, the WOW leaders including Anat Hoffman, made their way into the egalitarian space, carrying a Torah and singing the WOW Anthem, “Ozi V’Zimrat Yah.” Yael, the young woman I had been standing with, saw her friends, thanked me, and walked away with them.

After a few minutes, the Torah service began, and everyone was able to breathe a sigh of relief. At last, we could come before G-d with joy and gladness. We raised our voices, we danced with Torah, and prayed for a day when we would be able to do it safely in the women’s section.

Ken yehi ratzon.

[Hila Shiloni photography]

About the Author
Lesley Sachs is the 2014 recipient of the NCJW Jewel Bellush Outstanding Israeli Feminist award and was one of the founding members of “Isha L’isha – Haifa’s Feminist Center” and worked for 10 years in the Israel Women’s Network. Lesley served as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), vice president of the World Union For Progressive Judaism and founding director of Project, Kesher Israel. She is currently working as the executive director of Women of the Wall. She served on the board of directors for the Jerusalem Women’s Shelter, board of directors for the JNF-KKL and currently she is chair of the pre-army mechina Michmanim in Jaffa.
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