Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

An open letter to the rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Rabinowitz

K’vod HaRav.

I am a Jerusalem woman who treasures every moment in this city. I am Shabbat observant, Zionist and truly grateful for the privilege of living at a time when we can pray at our holy sites, including alongside the Kotel, when we wish to do so.

It has become my custom to join the pilgrimage on Shavuot to arrive at the Kotel in time for the daybreak prayers. I study with a group of women until 4:00 am — this year, we studied Tehilim (Psalms) — then, we head off together. The 30-minute walk to the Kotel in the dark, joined by ever larger groups of people as one gets closer, evokes the sense of pilgrimage of bygone years. It is my favourite night of the year.

This year, as I have learnt to do, I arrived in time to find a spot close to the mechitza separating the men and women in order to hear the Torah reading. I believe that I may have been praying with the same minyan as you were. (A woman near to me was sure that she spotted your tallit.)

The women's side of the kotel on a summer's day, Peta Jones Pellach.
The women’s side of the kotel on a summer’s day (Peta Jones Pellach).

When the time arrived for saying the Shema, we began to pray aloud. The chazan had a strong, musical voice. The competing prayers from other minyanim nearby did not distract; they added to the beautiful, prayerful atmosphere.

All was going well until the Torah reading, which we struggled to hear from the beginning. I want to emphasise that I was only three or four places away from the mechitza. I did not have a seat — I was standing three or four body-widths away. Of course, the 80 to 90 percent of women who cannot or do not arrive early enough to be as close as I was do not expect to hear the Torah reading.

You may say that I was naïve, but I did expect to fulfill my obligation to hear the reading of the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments) that morning. That was not to be.

Despite an appeal by one of the women who stood on a chair in order to make her request to the reader, the Torah reader did not raise his voice loud enough for women to hear. How disappointing to have let myself down. I did not achieve what I had hoped to achieve. I was too tired to go to a later Torah reading. After the completion of the prayers, I walked 40 minutes to my home and went straight to sleep, my religious obligation unfulfilled.

Now, of course, it is too late to do anything about last Sunday morning. So, K’vod HaRav, the purpose of my writing is not to complain. It is to ask you how we can solve this problem for the future.

Despite the acknowledgement by many poskim (legal experts) that women can read the Torah for other women, you have chosen not to make this an option at the Kotel. Unquestionably, it would be a break from tradition and many people are scared to break from tradition intentionally, even though so many aspects of our lives, including so much of our access to the holy places of Jerusalem, is a break from the tradition that our grandparents knew, in which Jerusalem was a mystical place to which we would return only in messianic times.

I will admit that I enjoy women’s Torah readings and have seen the impact they have had on women who have been alienated from fixed prayer and find themselves transformed, finding great meaning in the ritual. But the purpose of this letter is not to explain why women reading for women is a good idea. It is to deal with a pragmatic issue, whereby Torah reading, which is compulsory for all to hear, takes place in circumstances where half the intended audience cannot participate.

You must know that if women are not alongside the mechitza, they cannot hear the Torah reading, and you must know that this means the vast majority of women in the best of circumstances. Even if the reader had responded on Sunday, few standing beyond me would have heard.

What solution can you offer?

Torah readers are needed in the middle of the women’s section — at the very least for Shavuot. Will you send some men in for that purpose?

I have heard you say that you believe that the Kotel is a place for all. Perhaps it is for all men. It certainly does not meet my needs, as a traditional woman who is happy to attend a synagogue with separation between men and women — providing that I can hear the service.

I look forward to your response.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.