Before President Donald Trump and his family members made their way to the Western Wall speculation was rife, as to whether or not they would obey the gender separation rules and split up to the women’s and men’s sections. One might think that there would be no technical reason for the foursome - the president Trump’s wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner - to separate, given that the Wall was completely cleared out for them and they were related to each other.
But in the end, they decided to play by the rules in what is arguably (and there are plenty of arguments about it) the holiest site in Judaism. Ivanka and Melania headed to one side and Donald to the other, to have their moment, touch the stones - in Ivanka’s case, visibly shed a tear - a detail noticed and appreciated by many - and put their notes in the Wall.
It was Ivanka whose decision came under the most scrutiny. But when the first daughter made her way to the women’s section of the Western Wall, tiny hat - technically called a fascinator - perched on her head, black and navy sleeves down to her wrists and in a long skirt - unlike the sleeveless flowered short-skirted sheaths she sells on her fashion label, the Jewish world was watching as she touched the stones and shed a tear.
To those who really understand where Ivanka is coming from, it wasn’t really even a question that the president’s daughter - a self-proclaimed feminist - would stick to Orthodox convention - down to covering her head - which Melania Trump left bare, as both of them had in Saudi Arabia, flouting local custom. She is an Orthodox convert, and therefore knows that she must bend over backwards to stick with tradition as a sign of belonging and loyalty.
“I wasn’t at all surprised that they chose to be separated. There was no reason to make a fuss. She is after all, used to a mechitza (divider between men and women) when she goes to an Orthodox synagogue. So for her to start a jihad so the family could all be together would have been out of character and seen as disrespectful,” says Bethany Mandel, a writer who, like Ivanka, is both observant and a convert.
Ivanka may call herself a feminist and believe in empowering women, but she’s a far from being a Woman of the Wall - the group of feminists who have been fighting for decades to wear prayer shawls and bring a Torah to the holy site, nor is she a Conservative or Reform Jew, like those who want the holy site to include a place for mixed-gender egalitarian prayer.
While leaders of those groups were low-key and gracious about the Trump’s decision to go to the Wall separately, the ultra-Orthodox on the other side of the battle viewed the decision as a grand vindication and a victory.
Western Wall administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz took to Israel television and radio praising their behavior, and Shas leader Aryeh Deri congratulated for “following the customs of the site.” United Torah Judaism MK Yakov Asher was more pointed in an interview in the Jerusalem Post as saying it was “very frustrating that while the president of the U.S. and his wife respect the customary principles at the holiest place for Jews, the Reformers and their helpers crassly trample on those customs.”
Many in the Orthodox community who praised them for their behavior at the Wall had just a day earlier, looked askance at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s decision for flying to Saudi Arabia over the Jewish Sabbath. The couple let the world know via a press leak that an unnamed rabbi gave them official permission to board a plane to Saudi Arabia on Friday, and ride in vehicles there on Saturday. In January, they received similar permission to travel during the Trump inaugural festivities.
At both times Mandel said she was appalled by the judgmental and disparaging posts she saw on Facebook “ripping Ivanka apart,” criticizing her for her level of Shabbat observance. “You think she’s not Orthodox enough?” she asked. “I’m thinking: on what planet is it kosher for you to publicly shame another Jew - a convert, even - claiming she’s not religious enough?”
That - like judging Ivanka’s decisions at the Wall, she said, is not a very Jewish thing to do.