I was in Jerusalem twice last month — both times to pray at the Western Wall. The first was for the monthly Rosh Hodesh service of Women of the Wall, and the second was for a family bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, neither prayer services went smoothly.
I have been active in Women of the Wall for more than 15 years. I am on the board and had been praying at 7 a.m. each month, rain or shine, at the Kotel with this group of women. That is, until I moved with my family of eight this past summer to Kibbutz Hannaton in the Lower Galilee. It’s a religious Kibbutz, but it is religious in the same unacceptable-to-the-Israeli-religious-powers-that-be way as Women of the Wall and all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Kibbutz Hannaton was founded by Masorti (Israeli Conservative) Jews in the 1980s and is still connected to the movement in various ways, although most of its members prefer not to affiliate personally with any one stream of Judaism. What we all do agree upon, though, is full egalitarianism. We have a synagogue that is the center of our communal life, but it has no mechitza and women participate fully in the services that are held there. We have a mikveh that is in frequent use, but we have an open-door policy that allows anyone who wants to use the mikveh for whatever Jewish ritual purpose, to do so — unlike the reality at the Kotel today. Because of our egalitarian religious approach, we are not treated by the regional religious governmental office like a religious kibbutz in many respects. For instance, we do not receive equal funding or recognition.
Although I had not made it back to the Kotel for the previous Rosh Hodesh services since our move two hours away from Jerusalem, I decided to make a special effort to be there on Rosh Hodesh Tevet to support my ideological sister Nofrat Frenkel after her arrest the month before for wearing a tallit at the Kotel, as well as to show my continuing support of the group’s cause, which is to fight for our right to pray at the Kotel in the manner we are accustomed (as a group, in full voice, and in tallitot). The truth is that we have made many compromises over the years and do not actually pray at the Kotel as per our custom, which is for us to read from a Torah scroll and for some of us to wear tefillin. For this, we go to the space we were exiled to by the Supreme Court: Robinson’s Arch.
So I drove into Jerusalem in an electrical storm to join the Women of the Wall service. As soon as I arrived at the Kotel, I spotted my group. In fact, aside from a few female worshipers under umbrellas up at the Wall, we were the only women who showed up that stormy morning. Yet, I heard loud protests coming from the men’s section. It seems a group of ultra-Orthodox men had shown up that morning not to pray, but to protest our service. They were yelling “Gevalt! Gevalt!” (a Yiddish expression of dismay) and “Notzrim!” (Christians) over and over again. And when we left the Kotel plaza to head to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service — singing in Hebrew the song, “Not by Might and Not by Power”— they followed alongside us on a raised platform and spat on us and threw plastic bags filled with water on us from above.
The bar mitzvah service I attended two weeks later did not even begin in the Kotel plaza — the entire service was held at the Arch — because it was a mixed group of both men and women and was fully egalitarian. When the Women of the Wall were sent to the Arch by the Supreme Court, the Masorti Movement was sent there as well to conduct their egalitarian prayer services. We got caught in traffic, we arrived late and were told by the guard at the door that we would have to pay to join the bar mitzvah service, since after 9:15 a.m. this archaeological site opens as a tourist site. We did not pay on principle, refusing to comply with this attempt to treat the Arch like anything other than a prayer site. If it was assigned to the Women of the Wall and the Conservative Movement as a separate but equal prayer site at the Western Wall, that is how it should be treated.
I should add that my ideological stance was based also upon an experience I had at Robinson’s Arch the year before when we had my son’s bar mitzvah at the site. When we showed up with a guitar and shofar for the Rosh Hodesh Elul service (for which is it customary to blow shofar, and for which we wanted to enhance our service with musical accompaniment), they were confiscated at the door because, we were told, “musical instruments” are forbidden at an archaeological site. Luckily, one of our guests also had a shofar with him tucked away in his bag, so my son was able to blow shofar as per the traditional custom after months of practicing for this occasion — much to the dismay of the guard at the door who was hired to prevent such occurrences. So being told 15 months later that we had to pay to pray at what was supposed to be a prayer site for liberal Jews while anyone coming to pray at the “Orthodox Kotel” can come any time of day or night without having to pay a shekel, opened old wounds.
To make matters worse, I received news last week that Anat Hoffman, a long-time Women of the Wall activist and Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was detained for interrogation by Israeli police, accusing her of not obeying a legal order (meaning a legal order that forbids women to pray with prayer shawls or read from a Torah scroll in the Kotel plaza) and of disturbing the peace at the Western Wall.
It is already absurd that praying at a prayer site can be considered illegal and a disturbance of the peace simply because it is women who are doing it. But it is beyond absurd that police are receiving instructions from above to enforce this law. Certainly the Robinson’s Arch “solution” is not a serious one as long as it is run like an archaeological site and not a prayer site. In both cases — all-women’s prayer groups and egalitarian prayer groups — the problem runs much deeper than a technical issue of location.
As long as women’s prayer and egalitarian prayer is not taken seriously enough in Israel to warrant use of holy ritual objects like tallit, tefillin, shofar, and a Torah scroll — these two public prayer sites will never be separate but equal, and any Israeli Jew with progressive religious notions will be treated like a tourist who must pay his or her way to earn basic rights. When I heard ultra-Orthodox men calling me “Christian” that morning at the Kotel, I understood that this is where the problem lies. Especially because it is not only the ultra-Orthodox who believe that they are the only authentic religious Jews, but the majority of the Israeli population — even those who are secular themselves — seem to agree.
So while it is also frustrating to return home to Kibbutz Hannaton, knowing that because of our non-Orthodox approach we are treated by the Israeli government as something less than religious, at least I know that I can pray here without fear of arrest or police intimidation, without having to make any compromises (I can even wear my tefillin when I pray on weekdays!), without being physically harassed (I can even let my fervor carry me away enough to raise my singing voice above a whisper!), and without having to check my ritual prayer objects and pay at the door.
Rabbi Haviva Ner-David is founding Director of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage, and of Sh’maya: A Spiritual and Educational Mikveh in the Galilee. Her first memoir, “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination,” was published by JFL books in 2000, and her new memoir, “Giving Chanah Voice: A Feminist Rabbi Reclaims the Women’s Mitzvoth of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening,” is slated for publication later this year.