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My friend and I waited for close to 30 minutes. I think the women behind us waited longer. The guards’ shift changed, and after a few more minutes the new guard took pity on my friend and I and let us inside. There were a few other women in the space, but nowhere near 19, and there was enough room for at least six more.
The secret synagogue
I wanted to show my friend the beautiful synagogue above the improvised women’s prayer area, which was built in the early 1980s on the initiative of the late Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, former administrator of the Western Wall. To reach it, one turns left just before reaching the space said to be opposite the Holy of Holies and walks up several flights of stairs. Constructed widthwise, in line with the tunnel, the synagogue has dozens of plush red seats, a beautifully carved Holy Ark, containing several Torah scrolls, and metal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. In contrast to the dim, hot and stuffy prayer area below, the synagogue is air-conditioned and brightly lit.
In a tiny storage area at the back is a small wooden screen with decorative carvings that looks like it could be used to create a small women’s section at the front of the synagogue. On the wall just behind that section is a large stone plaque honoring the man who made the synagogue’s renovation possible.
I walked quietly into the synagogue, my friend a few steps behind. One man sat inside, his book open before him. As soon as he was aware of my presence – I stood in the row behind him – he turned toward me and said, “Get out of here! You’re preventing me from learning.”
When I asked him by what authority he was ordering me out, he relented slightly. “You can stay, but stay behind me,” he said.
Then an older man whom I hadn’t seen before approached me. He wore no uniform or name tag. “You have to leave,” he said with an air of authority. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Please identify yourself and tell me by what authority you are asking me to leave.”
He gave his first name. When I asked for his surname, he refused, using a Hebrew expression: “Shmi holekh lefanai.” In this context, the expression meant: “Everyone who needs to, knows who I am. If you don’t, that’s your problem.”
He approached the intercom system. “You have to leave right now. If you don’t, I’ll call an usher,” he said, bending to press the button.
Not wishing for further confrontation, we left.
Regarding the exposed nature of the women’s prayer area beneath the synagogue, Rabbi Rabinovich’s spokesman said that solutions were being looked into and would be implemented once they were found. When questioned about the divider in the storage area behind the synagogue, he said it was for use as necessary in the Western Wall plaza. Yet to this writer, the divider seemed much smaller than the ones used behind the prayer area during the two week-long festivals, Passover and Sukkot.
The women’s balcony in Wilson’s Arch
In 2005, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation constructed a women’s balcony in Wilson’s Arch. It is reached through the entrance to the Western Wall Tunnels and clearly marked as a women’s section. Although it is spacious, with enough seats for several dozen women, it has no direct access to the Western Wall. Curtained windows with panes of one-way glass look out over Wilson’s Arch, with its worshippers and Holy Arks that store dozens of Torah scrolls. Only the balcony’s top portion is open, and outlets for earphones are built into the front wall for women who want to listen to the services below – for example, if they are celebrating the bar mitzvah of a son, grandson or other family member.
A cleaning-supply closet is located inside the balcony, and male employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation may enter it at any time to take whatever supplies they need. (By contrast, women may not enter the men’s sections. Women who enter the men’s outdoor section to reach the indoor women’s section described above are often challenged.) Near the entrance to the balcony, a latticed wooden door guards access to a flight of stairs that descends into the men’s section below, which is open to the outdoor men’s section. I was told at one point that the door’s purpose was fire safety and it was supposed to remain unlocked, but it has been locked every time I have been there.
Many years ago, on a trip to Har Hamenuhot – the cemetery near the entrance to Jerusalem – I read a tombstone inscription stating that the woman buried there had died in sanctity while praying at the Western Wall. A closer look showed that she had died in the Hebrew month of Sivan, which corresponds to June in the Gregorian calendar – the month when Shavuot falls. This is when Israel’s long, hot, dry summer begins.
During the summer, the Western Wall plaza becomes like a stone oven. Men can take shelter from the sun and heat in Wilson’s Arch or in the air-conditioned synagogue inside the tunnels. But except for the tiny room at Barclay’s Gate in the outdoor women’s section, the indoor options for women are less accessible, not well publicized and subject to the arbitrary restrictions of Western Wall Heritage Foundation employees. The enclosed women’s balcony in Wilson’s Arch, which is available only when the Western Wall Tunnels are open, does not even provide a direct approach to the Western Wall – and it was built less than a decade ago.
As I recall the tombstone inscription I saw back then, I cannot help wondering whether the woman it described died not in sanctity, but of heat stroke.