Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Israel’s Rosa Parks Moment

Egalitarian worship at the Kotel, near Robinson's Arch, 2010. (courtesy)
Egalitarian worship at the Kotel, near Robinson's Arch, 2010. (courtesy)
Egalitarian worship at the Kotel, near Robinson’s Arch, 2010. (courtesy)

It’s stunning that when Israel’s current internal tensions spilled over into a full-fledged culture war, the match to ignite it was not abortion or LGBTQ rights, as it would be in America, or issues of religion and state that have been most incendiary in Israel, like Haredi conscription or manifest destiny over some barren hilltops. No, the match was provided by a controversy all too familiar to American Jewish communities: the mechitza, the barrier enforcing gender separation in prayer, most often with the women being sent to the back, or upstairs.

Many traditional women feel the mechitza is liberating. All power to them, but I know many others who consider it a hijab with chairs. Check out some of the mechitzas in old synagogues of Europe. One in Prague reminds me of a maximum security cell. For others, the whole idea of “Go to the back of the shul” just screams out “Rosa Parks.” And in fact, Yom Kippur might have been Israel’s Rosa Parks moment — though a little on the messy side for Rosa.

Yes, it was messy, but so was the Boston Tea Party. Sometimes messy is what happens following decades of humiliation. Sometimes messy is inevitable when no one takes your religious views seriously.

Gender separation in prayer is something that most American Jews abandoned many decades ago, yet it has lingered as a sore point when diaspora Jews visit Israel. Despite the massive efforts of the progressive movements and the Women of the Wall, few Israelis seemed to care about mixed prayer. Among secular Israelis, as the joke goes, the shul they never attend is Orthodox. If they had cared a whit, the Kotel agreement, allowing for mixed prayer at certain spots near the Western Wall, which was painstakingly negotiated with the help of world Jewry, would have been implemented long ago.

A strong plurality of Israelis supports the Kotel deal, but I doubt anyone would have considered going to war over it — especially on Yom Kippur — until this year. And while I do not condone the violence, I can understand the feelings of humiliation that provoked it. Even if for many Israelis the seating arrangement of a prayer service was never an issue, clearly now it is.  Increasingly, in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, progressive and moderate Israelis are discovering that there are synagogues to match their values. Diaspora concerns have infiltrated the moral sensibilities of secular Israelis. At long last, it is sinking in that Jewish observance need not be an all-or-nothing proposition, that the American progressive model is not only in line with an inclusive ethos based on love, acceptance and kindness, but also authentically Jewish.  It is a not watered down version in any respect.

Gone are the days when Israelis smugly would say, as the novelist AB Yehoshua once did, that American Jews only “play with Jewishness,” while Israelis live it every day. We are no longer on the sidelines of the struggle to build a Jewish future.  We’ve begun playing some home games in our own sandbox.  And we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

By separating ourselves from the distorted, bizarro version of Judaism propagated by the extreme Israeli right, Diaspora Jews can help forge a Judaism that can help secular and traditional Israelis to see that Huwara Judaism is not the only option.

Israel belongs to all the Jewish people.  It is ours to shape and critique and protect.  For the first time, Israelis who typically have asked diaspora Jews to butt out of its internal affairs are begging us to come to be active participants.  And we should. This is an internal struggle – and we are part of the family.

While Israelis have just begun to resist the kind of subjugation of women (and the delegitimization of the progressive religious streams) that the mechitza represents, this is a struggle that we in the diaspora have been fighting for a long time.  The humiliations have been legion.  Let me cite a couple of examples where enforced gender separation disrupted the prayers of groups I was leading:

When I was in Israel with our New England “March of the Living” group in 2010, our mostly non-Orthodox group stayed in a nice Youth Hostel near the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Our group arranged to have access to the hostel’s synagogue, a simple meeting room with an ark, for a private Kabbalat Shabbat service. No other group was in there at the time. The Orthodox members of our group decided to daven with a mechitza in another location in the building – it was an arrangement that worked well throughout our trip.  About ten minutes into our egalitarian service, our group leader came up to me – as I was leading the service – and said that the hostel’s manager had told him that our service cannot continue unless we separate the boys from the girls.

Now this was a group of 70 teens who were, for the most part, experiencing Israel for the first time. Just days before we had cried at Auschwitz and stood silently by the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were exhilarated to be in Israel and I was trying not to douse their enthusiasm by interjecting the sorry state of Israeli “pluralism” into their experience. So rather than tell this group that this state-run hostel was hostile to the way they pray, I looked for an escape hatch – literally. There was a door in the back of the room, leading to a large outdoor patio overlooking the city. The weather was perfect, and I had planned to take them outside for Lecha Dodi anyway, so I stalled for time until we got there (as my group leader stared at me nervously, I stared back defiantly), and then, as we reached Lecha Dodi, we danced out the door and onto the patio, where we danced and prayed for the remainder of the service.

Of course we were the ones expected to respect the wishes of mechitza-observant Jews – who were not even there.  Evidently, our vision of Judaism was not worthy of their respect.

And now, the Kotel: For 2,000 years men and women stood and prayed together at the Western Wall, right up front. Even after 1967, when a mechitza was installed, this practice continued farther back in the plaza. In 1987, I brought a group from my previous congregation to the Wall and we prayed, men and women together, about halfway back, nowhere near the segregated men’s and women’s areas, which we respected — as we should.

In 1994, in the same spot. my group was forced to end our Friday evening service abruptly by Haredim and police.  It was a shock to the children, and to me. Subsequent groups that I brought prayed other locations entirely on Friday evenings. If we had tried to gather anywhere on the Kotel plaza, we wouldn’t have had a prayer.

But in that same year, 1994, we prayed in unison in Tel Aviv, on the promenade adjacent to the beach. No one bothered us at all, though several onlookers stopped to see this curiosity of American Jews who prayed so differently from what they were used to seeing. And some stopped because they had no idea what we were doing, the music, the smiles…something, pulled them in.

I’m not suggesting that all prayer with gender separation should be eliminated in the public domain.  But decisions made by fiat, without taking into account the sensitivities of those participating in the service or living nearby, can no longer be acceptable.  I’m fine with that going both ways.  In Bnai Brak a mechitza in a public square is probably the way to go.   But establishing a policy of  “goes both ways” requires that everyone accept that there are multiple ways.

It’s called pluralism.

That acceptance would go a long way in rectifying the humiliation that has taken place for decades and should no longer be tolerated.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. Contact Rabbi Hammerman:
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