The Kotel (the Western Wall), located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, is unquestionably the holiest place in the world for the Jewish people. The remaining piece, the retaining wall of the Second Temple, is the place toward which Jews have prayed for as long as there have been a Jewish people. Simply put, wherever we are in the world, that is the place toward which we pray.
However, since 1967 when the Kotel came under the control of the State of Israel, this national and religious focal point morphed into a restrictive Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue in which non-Orthodox, egalitarian prayer is not welcome.
That the Wall is holy to the entirety of the Jewish people cannot be disputed. But the fact that the Kotel is a place of prayer for only certain Jews or Jews willing to follow the rules of the Haredi establishment has become a matter of strife and volatility. Indeed, the debate which is occurring over the right of non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Kotel in the manner to which they have been accustomed is symbolic of the divisions which are inherent within the Jewish community. The controversy regarding the Wall is symptomatic of a fraying of relations between the State of Israel and the American Jewish community.
My experience at the Kotel during my most recent visit there convinced me that this matter can no longer be swept under the rug or delayed on the pretext of other issues and security concerns which are a greater urgency to the State. A strong relationship between the State of Israel and the American Jewish community is indispensable to us both. I believe that this issue, relegated to the back-burner for decades, must now become a front-burner issue for us both.
My visit last week came in response to a request of a coalition of non-Orthodox Jewish organizations to raise our voices together over the issue of access to the Wall for the purpose of prayer. This demonstration, however should not have taken place at all. As this document explains in greater detail, the demonstration was organized to protest against the government for reneging on an agreement between this coalition of organizations, Natan Sharansky, the Prime Minister and the Knesset.
The agreement was to create an egalitarian prayer space further south along the Western Wall, away and out-of-sight from the Kotel itself. To establish a “new Kotel” away from the traditional location was a major concession of the coalition to the status quo. But it was felt that compromise was better than confrontation. We accepted the compromise. It was that deal on which the government reneged.
On that morning, I arrived at the Kotel early. Already, as I approached the Wall, I could sense tension. A group of women, on the women’s side of the mechitzah (divider), were singing together in celebration of a bat mitzvah. Standing on chairs, in order to be better heard, was a line-up of Haredi Jews, screaming at the women as loud as they could: “Zonah, peritza: You are whores, immodest dogs! You are not Jews. Leave this place.” I decided to go into the men’s section. I wanted to engage some of the men in conversation, to find out how the hateful language I heard and the anger I was witnessing could co-exist with the professed piety of those who were screaming.
Neither adults nor their children would speak. Instead, they turned on me and began yelling at me. I tried to record the events and take pictures of what was transpiring, but the children had been well trained. They put their hands in front of my camera. When I pushed their hands away from the camera they screamed, “Al tigah bi: don’t touch me.” I continued to take pictures, they continued to put their hands in front of me which I tried to hold back. At that point, a solidly built young man, I would say in his early twenties, charged at me screaming “Don’t touch us, don’t touch us.” He pushed me back and I fell to the ground. My attacker disappeared in the crowd.
My immediate reaction surprised me. I expected myself to get angry. Instead, I felt a profound sense of sadness. Here I was at the holiest spot in the Jewish world being attacked by other Jews. Here I was, in Jerusalem in order to study Torah for two weeks, being told that I was not a Jew. Here, the place to which I have accompanied, as a group leader, hundreds of Jews, over the course of four decades, to Israel being told that I am not welcome there….I was helped to my feet, uninjured though profoundly sad.
Israel is a place in which all Jews, those who live there and those who do not, have a part. It is a place which brings us joy and pride. It is a place for which we assume a high degree of responsibility. Our support for, our love for and our sense of connection to Israel cannot be shaken. But the flip side of that statement is also true. Israel must welcome us by showing appreciation for the support we provide and for the connections we maintain. Our Judaism, the value and priorities of the American Jewish Community, may not all be shared by Israel, but they must be respected by Israel. The letter attached says just that.
We had an agreement. We had been promised that now would be the time to create a special place designated for egalitarian prayer. Now there would be a place for us to conduct a service which does not disturb the status quo nor would it be visible from anywhere at the current Kotel. But beyond providing the real estate which could accommodate this arrangement in a way which would be respectful and tasteful, this compromise would send a clear message to those of us who have strongly supported Israel.
The message of the agreement would be a legitimization of the variety of forms of Jewish expressions and a willingness to embrace and accommodate these more modern modes of worship. Even though these egalitarian worship services may not (yet) reflect mainstream Israeli society, a new space at the Kotel would be an acknowledgement of the variety of Jews who come to and support the State of Israel. In particular, It would send a clear signal to the American Jewish community saying: Yes, there is a place for you here. Come to visit. Come to study. Come to live. Just come, and you will find a place where you will feel comfortable and at home.