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The only shelter in the women’s section is a tiny room in the area of the Western Wall known as Barclay’s Gate. The room is filled with chairs and lined with bookshelves. Only about a dozen women can fit inside comfortably, leaving the rest to bake in the hot sun or shiver in the cold and rain.
In 2006, Rabbi Rabinovich published a volume of his legal responsa, entitled “Sha’arei Tzion” (The Gates of Zion). In a nine-page reply to the question of whether the women’s section might be enlarged at the expense of the men’s after the storm and earthquake of early 2004, he wrote that it was not allowed, since the men’s section possessed more sanctity than the women’s, and Jewish law permitted one to increase, but not diminish, the sanctity of a place. He wrote that the divider could be moved temporarily to alleviate overcrowding, as on the major festivals, but not permanently.
The spokesman confirmed that this was Rabbi Rabinovich’s position, adding that he hoped to expand the women’s section significantly toward the south.
The sacred space along the tour route
Another problematic area is along the tour route inside the Western Wall Tunnels. This space is said to be opposite the Holy of Holies – the sacred chamber in the Temple that only the High Priest could enter once a year on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Women pray there even though there is no separation between them and the many tour groups that pass through the tunnel every day. The space opens at midnight without restriction, but once the site opens for tour groups in the morning, worshippers may go there only on a rotating basis. It used to look rough and dim, with oil lamps providing most of the light. During its recent renovation the walls were plastered over and permanent fluorescent lighting was installed, together with some decoration. The white plastic chairs from the rough old space are still there.
When my friend and I arrived, the security guard stopped us, saying there were already 19 women in the space and we would have to wait until two women left. Although he was sympathetic, he, too, wore no uniform or name tag. As we waited and a line of women formed behind us, he explained that the women who were already there usually sneaked in by attaching themselves to tour groups, since there was no way the guards could tell who belonged with the group and who did not. Once the women were there, he said, they stayed for hours, and he didn’t want to get into any arguments with them.
As we waited, a man walked past. When the guard tried to stop him, he said he was heading for the synagogue. The guard let him pass.