Yom Yerushalayim and the battle for tomorrow

Rosh Hodesh Iyar at the Kotel. Photo by Hila Shiloni Rosner
Women of the Wall at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh Iyar - Photo by Hila Shiloni Rosner

On June 7, 1967 Israeli paratroopers liberated and reunified Jerusalem, re-instilling its Jewish character. Decades later, the very paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall for the Jewish people joined Women of the Wall at the Kotel and dubbed us “Modern-day Western Wall Liberators.” The veterans who passed the torch onto us understood the stakes and realized the formidable opponent that we were up against – the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on our holy sites.

This week we will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), a day meant to symbolize peace and prosperity in our holy city. To achieve this ideal, we must commit to freedom and tolerance. This of course means respecting the traditions of all Abrahamic faiths to whom Jerusalem is sacred. But on a deeper level, this also means that within Judaism, we must be tolerant of all streams. In Am Yisrael there are varying customs and traditions that deserve to be honored, even if they don’t conform to ultra-Orthodox standards. Unfortunately, we are falling short on this promise.

From the first Yom Yerushalayim onwards, the differences in faith and tradition in Jerusalem were meant to be respected, rights upheld. I know firsthand that religious intolerance in Jerusalem is alive and well. I experience it with my colleagues and hundreds of our supporters every Rosh Hodesh. But today in many ways, it feels as though religious coercion in Jerusalem is just starting to ramp up.

Recently, a new café in Jerusalem was ordered to shutter its business on Shabbat, on the basis that the café is situated on municipal property. However, as the cafe’s lawyers argue, there are other businesses on the municipality’s property that in fact do operate on Shabbat. Moreover the café is located in an area where the majority of the population is not Orthodox, thus raising questions of religious coercion. While some take for granted the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious sites, this case embodies the dangerous encroachment on our civil liberties as Jerusalemites.

This is not a matter of individual practice or whether I believe Jews should refrain from certain activities on Shabbat. As a Shabbat-observant Jew, I personally do not frequent cafés on Shabbat. But, crucially, I believe in religious freedom. My personal religious observance should not be forced upon anyone else in this city, Jewish or not. And if living in Jerusalem in 2023 means being forced to keep Shabbat by Orthodox standards in the public sphere, how can we claim to uphold religious freedom?

It is fitting that Yom Yerushalayim falls during the Omer, the time in which we count every day between our exodus from Egypt to our receiving the Torah on Shavuot. During these weeks, we not only count towards a goal, but we must notice every small step along the way. In Judaism, we are taught to always look forward, both hoping for and actively creating a better tomorrow. 

Still, every day we are given an opportunity to move forward or backward. As a mother, a Jew, and a citizen of Jerusalem, I wonder what this city may look like in five, ten, and twenty years. I worry about the lack of women’s faces on billboards in busy parts of Jerusalem, coddling extremists who are threatened by the mere sight of a woman. Likewise, I worry that the progress we’ve made for women at the Kotel will be stripped away. Many young families are already leaving Jerusalem due to the increasing extremism they feel here. I worry that this city will one day be inhospitable to any Jew who does not fit into a rigid box.

Still, in the spirit of the Omer, I find it necessary to count progress we’ve made until this point. Thanks to our struggle at Women of the Wall, women and girls can come to the Kotel, pray out loud, and donn tallitot and tefillin. I am immensely proud of and grateful for these accomplishments. But there is work to be done, and every day we are moving one step closer to our goal of religious freedom at the Kotel.

My sincerest hope is that one day soon, Jerusalem will live up to the ideal that the Israeli paratroopers envisioned 56 years ago. May this Yom Yerushalayim be a day of peace, tolerance, and love.

About the Author
Yochi Rappeport is the Executive Director of Women of the Wall. She was raised in Tzfat in an Orthodox family and served in the IDF as a commander in the Nativ Military Course - teaching Judaism and Zionism. She now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and two daughters, where they are part of a Modern Orthodox community that values feminism and pluralism.
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