I have been praying at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall for more than four years. For the last six months or more I have noticed a new phenomena: a group of young women (unrelated to WOW) who gather and pray together at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh. They are a part of an Orthodox prayer service that is being led by the men and followed along by the women, separated by the tall, thick Kotel mehitza- partition. Though the women do not lead services, they do seem engaged and vocal in their participation in the prayer. Despite the early hour, they sing, dance, and cheer with all of the genuine spirit that is in their hearts during their prayer. Their energy is often electric and contagious.
To me, this is the proof of one of Women of the Wall’s greatest contributions to Israeli society: a status quo of pluralism at the Western Wall. When I see these free spirited religious women, completely unrelated to Women of the Wall, praying out loud, dancing and singing, I know that we have created real change in the way Israeli society, the government, and the police welcome and treat women at the Kotel. Just a few short years ago, women were physically silenced by police and haredi onlookers, we were shuffled around and “shushed” by officers as if were naughty kindergartners at nap time. Then, we were arrested for expressing ourselves, for praying out loud according to our tradition, and now both Women of the Wall, these girls and ALL women are free to pray as they like.
Unfortunately, a strange thing happens to these young women, after the singing and dancing during the morning prayer and Hallel have concluded. The men take out a Torah scroll on their side of the mehitza, one of hundreds available to them at the Kotel, and they read, spiritedly, and eventually conclude their prayer. During the Torah service and reading, the women can barely hear and cannot at all see what is going on over the mehitza. They become restless and bored. Gone is the group experience of singing and dancing which they managed to share with the men, and the women’s gazes begin to wander, they chat, take out their cell phones.
Sometimes when they are not engaged by the prayer taking place on the other side of the partition, excluded from their own group, their focus turns to Women of the Wall. In October 2014, Women of the Wall smuggled a Torah into the Kotel in order to read from it and hold the first full bat mitzvah in the women’s section. We did so after requesting entrance to the Kotel with our Torah and asking to use of one of the Western Wall Torah scrolls— all requests being refused. When we took out the small Torah, the young women who were no longer engaged in the prayer on the men’s side, came over to see what was happening. They listened to our Torah reading, they observed and some joined in.
In the months since, we have not had access to a Torah in the women’s section- and the young women of the new minyan often stare, inquire, whisper and take photos when they are bored and have lost the battle to hear and see the prayers in the men’s section. Some of these young women even laugh and make fun of our prayers and participants while we sadly chant the Torah portion from a book, for lack of a scroll to read from.
Free access to Torah scrolls at the Kotel is the last major hurdle on the path to full equality for women at the public, holy site. Torah is what connects all Jews and I believe that our new Rosh Hodesh neighbors, the dancing, singing girls with the electric spirit, would agree that we all stood together and received the Torah together at Sinai- Jews of all denominations, men and women alike.
I often wonder if the the ‘dancing girls’, the young Orthodox women from this new prayer group, know that were it not for Women of the Wall they would be silenced and unwelcome at the Kotel?
Is it, as I observe and suspect, the absence of a Torah in their arms leaves them unengaged with fingers fiddling their cell phones at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh after the first half of their prayer has ended?
No matter where you find yourself on the Jewish spectrum, we welcome you to join us in prayer and in our struggle for equality and liberation. Join us at the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh Adar February 20, 2015 at 7AM, or on Purim women’s Megillah reading, March 6, 2015 at 10 AM. Join us online, join us in person at the Kotel or join us in spirit