By Guest Columnist Rose Ashford
I was in Israel during the summer of 2016 and attended a 7:00 am Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel with Women of the Wall. The primary purpose of our trip was a “dual narrative” tour of the West Bank with Israeli and Palestinian guides and we heard a wide spectrum of fascinating unexpected narratives. After the tour and much web searching, I could not find a comfortable way with to support a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict; my only real understanding was why there has not been a solution in 70 years.
Yet Women of the Wall was a cause I could get behind, a cause that felt truly just to me, so I was very happy when our Rabbi announced a trip to Israel in support of Women of the Wall’s 30th anniversary. Our small group joined in Women of the Wall’s evening celebration, and I was proud that my meager donations earned me a spot holding the chuppah over WOW’s Board members as we blessed them.
However, we were totally unprepared for what we faced the next morning at the Kotel when we arrived for WOW’s monthly Rosh Hodesh service. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men and boys blocked our entry into the women’s section. They pushed, shoved, screamed and spat at us. I have never experienced such a wave of hatred coming toward me. I am deeply disturbed that the experience came from other Jews, and that this happened right near Judaism’s holiest site.
Our group split up; some of us opting to leave the Kotel area, and some willing to try to reach the Women of the Wall, whose distinctive kippot and tallitot I could see in the distance. I was in the latter group. We slowly pushed our way into the women’s section, which was filled with thousands of ultra-Orthodox girls who had been bussed in from all over. Clearly, the intent was to fill the women’s section sufficiently that there would be no space for Women of the Wall. Many of the girls were pretty obnoxious, but a few seemed troubled by what they were doing. One apologized, saying “Slicha” when she bumped into me. Another was crying. I was incensed; what values are they teaching these kids?
We got within 20 feet of the Women of the Wall group, but we were blocked by an impenetrable wall of girls and their teachers who prevented us from getting closer. Then Women of the Wall leaders decided to move to Ezrat Yisrael, a platform available for worship in the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel. There, about 150 women and quite a few supportive men (thanks guys!) conducted a joyful and uplifting Torah service followed by Musaf and dancing. I later heard that those of our group who left the Kotel area earlier were treated to an impromptu, and very much appreciated, service near the Dung Gate, led by one of our Rabbis.
Our group eventually reconnected in our van. Some of us were clearly traumatized. We had been told to anticipate resistance, but none of us expected the sea of angry and threatening humanity arrayed against us; nor were we prepared for the huge outpouring of hostility and vitriol. A few of us attended the well-planned and informative events with Women of the Wall later that day. The rest of our group moved on into their day doing other things. Then we reconvened and joined a local Orthodox family for a delightful Shabbat Dinner in their home. The experience was restorative and, for me, it was also very healing. At one point in the conversation, the family’s bar mitzvah age son said, “You don’t hate people you disagree with.” That was the teaching that seemed to be missing during our experience at the Kotel.
Two days later, we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. I had been there before, so I knew what to expect. Amid the crowd of tourists and locals, I saw a couple of Orthodox men shuffling through the exhibits. Then it struck me; most of the Orthodox people who had terrorized us at the Kotel might be direct descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors. I grew up in post-war England and never even knew about the Holocaust until I was an adult. For me, with no personal history other than the parents of a few of my friends who had faded numbers tattooed on the inside of one forearm, the Holocaust was an indescribable atrocity. If it had been my personal experience, however, I wonder how I might behave if I believed that my way of life was under threat again. I am not sure that I can pass judgement on others’ bad behavior if I cannot be sure that my behavior would be much better under the same circumstances.
I am now back home in California. I still plan to support Women of the Wall. I believe they will eventually succeed, as they should. One of the cries I heard that morning at the Kotel was, “God hates women’s voices”. That is an anathema to me. Surely, God cannot hate any part of God’s own creation. I can only pray that the conflict among Jews over the Kotel not become as intractable as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
 Rose Ashford is a retired aerospace engineer residing in Santa Cruz, California. She is a member of Chadeish Yameinu (Jewish Renewal) and Temple Beth El (Reform).