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Shame of Indoor Women’s Section at Western Wall

(Haaretz) — “You don’t belong here,” said the man trying to shut the heavy wooden door in my face. “Get out.”

I was standing in a little-known, indoor women’s section at the Western Wall, one that can be approached only through the outdoor men’s section. The space is clearly designated – in stone and glass – as a women’s prayer area, though a glass plaque recently mounted outside announces the hours when it is actually open to women: from midnight to 8:30 A.M. on all days of the week except Monday and Thursday, when it is open from midnight until 2:30 P.M.

The space is not actually a room but a narrow corridor, perpendicular to the main tunnel which is known as Wilson’s Arch. This main tunnel, which runs along the Western Wall, is open 24 hours a day and is for men only. (A friend remembers that Wilson’s Arch had no gender segregation in the 1980s. In 1983, a mixed-gender interfaith service led by a U.S. Navy chaplain was held there.) A heavy, latticed wooden door hung with a white curtain on the women’s side separates the corridor from the main tunnel. The door is often closed when I go there, but this time it was open, latched to the wall. My friend and I were the only ones there.

Wanting some pictures of the main tunnel, I stepped a few inches beyond the doorway, taking care not to venture too far inside. I managed to get some photographs, but a few moments later a man in a long black coat approached me, addressing me in American-sounding English.

“You’re in the wrong place,” he said politely but forcefully. “The women’s section is behind you.”

I took the few steps back into the women’s section. The man followed me, unlatched the door from the wall and began to close it. I held the door and asked him to leave it open. I wanted an unobstructed view of the tunnel – after all, the door had been open when I arrived, during the time that the women’s section was posted as being open to women.

The man’s veneer of politeness quickly vanished. “Get out,” he said. “You don’t belong here.”

“What’s your name?” I asked him. “By what authority are you telling me to leave?”

“I don’t have to tell you my name,” he said, and left.

A few minutes later, a male employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation entered the women’s section and closed the door. He gave me his name when I asked for it, but like all the men I have seen who work for the foundation, he wore no uniform or name tag. When I asked him whether the man who had scolded me had sent him, he said yes.

With a polite smile, the employee informed me that the women’s section was closed and I had to leave. Since it was 2:00 P.M. on a Thursday, I asked him to accompany me to the glass plaque outside and showed him where it stated plainly that the women’s section closes at 2:30 P.M. on Thursdays.

“That’s what I said,” he told me. “You have to leave at 2:30.”

This incident was just another attempt by Western Wall officials to marginalize women at the holy site.

Always relatively small, over the past decade women’s access to the Kotel – the space allotted to the outdoor “women’s section,” as well as to prayer spaces in the Western Wall tunnel complex – has been reduced further.

In response to a query to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation as to why this section was only open to women for such a limited time, a spokesman for Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich – the Israeli government official in charge of the Western Wall and the holy sites (and the head of the foundation) – said the area was open to women only when it was not needed as an emergency exit. He noted that the women’s balcony above it was available whenever the Western Wall Tunnels were open to visitors.

The current mehitza, or divider between the outdoor sections for men and women at the Western Wall, was put in place in July 1967. (Under Turkish and British rule, Jews were not permitted to have a mehitza – or any other furniture, such as chairs or tables – at the Western Wall, nor were they allowed to perform other religious rituals, such as blowing the shofar.)

The current women’s section, which has always been about one-third of the men’s section, was reduced still further after an earthquake on February 16, 2004 destroyed the earthen ramp leading to the Mugrabi Gate on the Temple Mount, sending tons of soil and rock into the women’s section.

A temporary mehitza put up to enlarge the women’s section slightly was soon removed, leaving the women’s section much smaller than before. The archaeological digs in the area were completed only recently, and the women’s section is now slightly larger than it has been for the past nine years. The limits of the space are felt most acutely on festival days. Recently, the practice has begun of moving the mehitza temporarily at those times, enlarging the section slightly to accommodate more women.

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.

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.

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