Jonah Rank
Rosh Yeshivah, Hebrew Seminary

Becoming Nobody: My Last Time (?) With Women of the Wall

I had never felt more divided.

Yesterday, as I stood in front of dozens of young men dancing in a circle marked by high levels of testosterone, I struggled to hear my own prayers over those Carlebach niggunim sung and shouted so loudly that my ears actually hurt.

Of course these young men had every right to a loud festivity. And they had every right to hold it in front of the Western Wall.

And it was about as tasteful as could be (while being so rambunctious). These young men were off in a corner in the back, where they would be the least distracting.

And I also want to commend these men for choosing that back corner, where they prayed parallel to some female family and friends of the crew. Even if these women’s voices were not heard per se, and even if they were literally not seen, the presence of these women was fully acknowledged by their vociferous male counterparts.

Here’s the problem though with that corner.

There’s only one back corner by the mehitzah. How can your group and my group be there at the same time without disturbing each other?

The math actually says it’s impossible.

In order to avoid accusations of being provocative, Women of the Wall‘s services always take place in the back of the Women’s section.

Yesterday I could not be in the back of the Men’s section because the space was already taken by somebody else trying to reduce their own noticeability.

But because I pray with people who fear that being too noticed could land them in prison, and because some other men prayed in the back yesterday, I could not hear the prayers of those with whom I wanted to pray.

In a plaza as large as that of the Western Wall, and in a country determined to be a home for all Jews, I was amazed that I could not find a place that felt like beit tefillati–a home for my own prayer.

I wanted to sing with the Women of the Wall, and I wanted my voice to be heard with theirs. But in the cacophony surrounding me, their voices were not to be heard. So neither was mine.

For the first time in my life, I truly knew I was a disenfranchised Jew. The mehitzah to my side not only said that I could not see the women with whom I was praying. And it said more than I could not hear these women. It said I couldn’t even acknowledge the presence of their prayers.

Do you know what it’s like to go to shul and be the only person there?

For starters, it’s lonely.

And do you know what it’s like to be the only person at shul and still have to wait around until services would normally end?

It’s boring.

Lastly, do you know what it’s like to wait around with nothing to do other than listen to some guy screaming and cussing about the people with whom you wish you were praying?


I was one of three men who attempted to pray on the Men’s Side side by side with Women of the Wall yesterday.

But none of us could.

We just prayed at our own rate. For me (a fast davener), this meant a long wait until we could later join the Women on their trek over to Robinson’s Arch. (That’s by the way where things get really controversial; women read Torah down there).

I was already frustrated by the time we did head over to Robinson’s Arch.

But on our way over, the Kotel police stopped us.

Three friends of mine had each accidentally worn their tallit in a way that–according to relatively new regulations–is now illegal at the Western Wall. (It is illegal for a woman to wear a tallit in a way that makes the tallit look like a tallit. This is new. And, I’m willing to say, ridiculous.)

So, we were stopped, just a few dozen meters away from the security checkpoint of the Western Wall.

A few deeply concerned members of the Western Wall’s crime-fighting police force were detaining my Rabbinical School friends Erica Miller, Ariella Rosen, and Sarit Horwitz. Because of a miscommunication.

The police took down the contact info of my friends. This way, the authorities would be able to be in touch if anyone intends to put these women on trial for their morning criminal rituals.

On Tuesday morning, I joined Women of the Wall to pray alongside  them. But I could not do that.

When we left the auspices of the Western Wall plaza, I thought we were en route to a greater religious freedom. But, when the police detained my friends, I was thrown a haphazard curve ball.

This week, Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, when Israeli Jews finally got access to so many sacred sites–including the Western Wall.

But the truth is that I can’t access the sanctity of the Western Wall.

At the Western Wall, I can’t pray without a barrier between women and me. To that end, I can’t be visible.

At the Western Wall, if someone else grabs the back corner, I can’t pray parallel to the women who are pushed to the back. To that end, I can’t be invisible.

At the Western Wall, some of my closest friends can’t dress properly for prayer–certainly no tefillin, and they’ve got to hide their tallitot if they wear them. To that end, my friends can’t be fully present worshipers.

If I can’t be visible, and if I can’t be invisible, and if I’m there to support people who can’t be fully present, I really have to wonder who I am.

I have to wonder if I really am anyone at all in this country.

I’m sad to know that I’ll be leaving Israel in just a few weeks, and to know that the taste of the Wall that will stay in my mouth will be a bitter one. The vision of the Wall that will stick with me will not be the Wall itself, but the barrier–the mehitzah.

In praying with Women of the Wall over this past year, I have come not to recognize the Western Wall as a great sacred place. I have come to recognize it as a barrier to a place of great sanctity.

The Wall itself has much beauty and history behind it. When I can detach myself from my surroundings, I can sometimes see what lies behind the Wall.

But when I can’t feel my own thoughts, when I only hear shouting, and when I see my friends policed for the the crimes of liberal religiosity, I am acutely aware that this Wall is a Wall of barriers.

In the photo below, you might see something curious.

Women and men praying without a Mehitzah at the Western Wall.

This was before Jerusalem was unified.

Just after Jerusalem was unified, the Wall was divided.

Before the unification, I would not have been removed from women worshipers.

Before the unification, no police would have stopped a woman from wearing a tallit. (Tell me if you can find a police officer in this photo.)

Before the unification, yesterday’s loud young men could have celebrated alongside the girls in the back and not have to worry about taking up the space I wanted–or vice versa.

Before the unification, I could stand in the back or in the front.

Before the unification, I could be visible or invisible.

Yom Yerushalayim is about the history of this Holy City. In my academic year here, it has been empowering to get to know the Wall and Jerusalem: to learn the history of the “good old days,” and to see how far we’ve gone.

But Yom Yerushalayim is also a day for seeking our future: Jerusalem’s next steps.

If we really want a unified Jerusalem, we have a long way to go. The one request that history urges me most loudly to ask is the following:

Can we break down the barriers–the police, the arbitrary laws, the mehitzah, the derogatory yelling?

Can we break down the barriers of the Wall in order to uncover the sanctity inside it?

Can we unify the Wall? Can we become one with it?

Because I for one cannot.


(Maybe next year in Jerusalem?)

About the Author
Jonah Rank serves as President and Rosh Yeshivah of Chicagoland's pluralistic Hebrew Seminary: A Rabbinical School for Deaf & Hearing. An award-winning Jewish songwriter, he earned an MA in Jewish Thought and was ordained in 2015 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Rank served as the Maskil (“Teacher-of-Tradition”) at the Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his spouse, Rabbi Dr. Raysh Weiss, served as Senior Rabbi. Following his family’s return to the United States, he became the Director of the Shul School at Kehilat HaNahar in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Rank previously was appointed to the Environmental Advisory Council in the Township of Lower Makefield, PA, and now lives with his family in Natick, MA.
Related Topics
Related Posts