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At the Kotel with Women of the Wall: A Firsthand Account

Jane Taves

Photo by Hila Shiloni

It was pre-dawn in Jerusalem on Friday, March 8.

I was in Israel with a small group of leaders from Women of Reform Judaism. We had timed our trip to participate in the Women of the Wall (WOW) 30th anniversary celebration. And now we were on our way to the WOW monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel—the Western Wall.

We had been warned that this would not be a typical Rosh Chodesh service. Knowing that the 30th anniversary would bring women from around the country and around the world, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) leadership had mounted a campaign to undermine and ultimately disrupt this celebration. We knew that Haredi students were being transported to the Kotel, to arrive ahead of our 7:00 am service, to fill the women’s section and prevent us from praying.

But nothing could have prepared us for the reality.

That early morning, four of us arrived together at the Kotel and found the women’s section packed with Haredi high school girls. As we approached, a WOW supporter on the periphery told us there was no room—it was impossible to reach the service in the middle of the crowd. But we joined hands, made a human chain, and began pushing through the crowd. Haredi girls blocked our way, tried to pull us apart, and did all they could to prevent us from joining our group.

It was one of most frightening short walks I have ever made.

We reached the service location, but it became immediately clear that there would be no joyful praying that morning. I never even took my WOW siddur from my backpack.

Our women had formed a circle around our prayer leaders to try to protect them from hands reaching for their tallitot, their kippot, and their siddurim. The Haredi girls around us were shoving, kicking, shouting. It seemed very possible that someone would be pushed to the ground and trampled.

During all of this, the police were absent.

As we had approached the Torah service, we learned that it was too dangerous to bring out the Torah that had been smuggled in for this purpose. The violence was escalating, and the WOW leaders decided that we would relocate to the rudimentary egalitarian worship space at Robinson’s Arch. As soon as this decision was made, dozens of police appeared and made a path to escort us out of the mob. At Robinson’s Arch, our heartbeats finally began to return to normal. We were able to draw the first deep breath in over an hour.

We finished our service with joy, singing, and dancing. Unbelievably.

What might be the impact of our experience? Might this level of violence finally goad the Israeli government into honoring their agreement to create an appropriate egalitarian worship space, one that is not under the jurisdiction of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate?

Traumatic as it was, some feel that this could be a turning point in the struggle.

To be clear: the struggle is not just about the Western Wall. The struggle is about who controls marriages, divorces, conversions. It is about who is considered to be a rabbi in Israel, who is to be considered a Jew. It is about being able to live an authentic, non-Orthodox life in the Holy Land, something we take for granted in North America. And someday—yes—we may be able to pray as a women’s community at the Western Wall.

Ken Y’hi ratzon.

October 16, 2019 17 Tishrei 5780