Last weekend, my family and I took a mini vacation to the south of Israel and stayed at a hotel in Ashdod for Shabbat. I can’t say I’m ever a huge fan of hotel synagogues, but what I saw this past Shabbat morning was devastating to watch.
As hotel guests gathered in the synagogue, a young boy was preparing to celebrate his bar mitzvah with his family. When his mother entered the synagogue, she saw that the five chairs in the women’s section were already occupied. (In the men’s section, there were over 50 chairs.) The result? This mother who came to celebrate this joyous occasion, was left having to stand for the entire ceremony.
The issue here was not gender separation. As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I too pray with a mechitza. This is my custom — in my personal religious life, the tradition of separation is a valuable part of prayer. Even if I didn’t pray with a mechitza, it would go against my values of respect, Ahavat Yisrael, and pluralism to criticize those who choose to pray with one,
That being said, a mechitza should not mean that a mere 10 percent of women can sit compared to men. A mechitza should not force the mother of a bar mitzvah boy to stand in a tiny spot far back for hours on end. There is no halachic basis for this, no religious explanation. The message is loud and clear — women need not participate. In this case, the message went even further — it was more important for a group of unrelated men to be there for this boy’s bar mitzvah than his own mother — the woman who gave birth to him, nurtured, and educated him for his entire life.
Unfortunately, what I saw in Ashdod is somewhat of a microcosm of the situation at the Kotel. Today when a boy wants to read from the Torah at the Kotel for his bar mitzvah, his family has two options.
First, they can hold the service in the men’s section, leaving his female family members to stand on plastic chairs to watch over the mechitza. Secondly, they can have the service at the egalitarian section, where the family can stand separately by gender if they choose, and every family member – regardless of gender – can take part in the simcha.
That sounds fine, so what’s the catch? In the egalitarian section, as it stands today, one cannot touch the stone of the Kotel. It is also difficult to access via wheelchair or with a stroller. Finally, there is a security risk. Just last summer, several bar mitzvah ceremonies were violently disrupted when a gang of ultra-Orthodox boys flooded the plaza calling these families Nazis and destroying their prayer books. The most infuriating part? There was no security there to stop them.
How can we solve this inequity? As executive director of Women of the Wall, my organization fights for women’s right to pray freely in the women’s section. However, we have long accepted and fought for the implementation of the Kotel Agreement. This compromise, which was passed 15-5 under PM Netanyahu’s government in 2016 (and subsequently shelved due to political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox sector), would allow for the necessary renovations and security in the egalitarian section of the Kotel — making it a safe, respectable place for all who choose to worship there.
From the hotel synagogue in Ashdod to the Kotel, we have a choice in how we treat women in religious spaces. Everyone has a choice to work toward progress or to stick their head in the sand and allow for the continued marginalization of half our population.