Wall Flowers

Women fight to pray at the Western Wall.

Susan Silverman and her daughter Hallel being arrested.
Susan Silverman and her daughter Hallel

Photo by Deena Rosenblatt

Ask your average Israeli how he or she feels about the Women of the Wall—the organization dedicated to creating a space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for non-orthodox women’s prayer and song—and you’ll likely be met with a shrug. The organization, led by activist Anat Hoffman, has become a cause célèbre for Reform and Conservative Jews worldwide. But many Israelis, even lifelong liberals, academics, and civil rights activists, largely view the fight to wrest back control of the Western Wall as a fight over symbols they’ve long ago jettisoned. It’s a loud thing, a brash thing, an American thing.

The Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the kotel, is the last remaining section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple. In the centuries since the temple was destroyed in the year 70, Jews from outside Israel have yearned to pray near the wall as the holiest physical space on earth. The plaza in front of the wall is bisected with a partition so that women and men can pray separately, in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition. The rules governing the Wall are set by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, comprised solely of Orthodox Jews.

On any given day on the men’s side you’ll hear boisterous public services and song. On ordinary days, on the women’s side—in keeping with the Orthodox prohibition on hearing women’s voices raised in song—you can hear women praying softly by themselves and to themselves. But once a month on rosh hodesh, the celebration of the new Jewish month, the Women of the Wall show up to do their thing. That’s what they are asking for: An hour a month.

Dalia Marx, an Israeli Reform Rabbi and professor at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem put it this way to me as we took the early morning train yesterday down to the 7 a.m. monthly women’s prayer service at the Western Wall: “The kotel is almost an empty symbol of a lost Israel to most Israelis. It’s not a place I go to pray anymore. It’s so highly politicized on so many levels.” I ask Marx why she’s decided to attend this month’s gathering, given what she’s just told me. “I am going in solidarity. I am going because my Israeli and American students are going. I am going because the fight over Ultra-Orthodox coercion is a reflection of their control over things that really should matter to all Israelis: like personal status, marriage, divorce, and who can be a Jew.”

In the decades since Israel was founded, the Western Wall has somehow become a sacred place to only two constituencies: the extremely Orthodox and foreign Jews. You rarely see anyone else around. It’s as though even secular Israelis have conceded that religious matters are best left to the Ultra Orthodox. This isn’t really their fight.

Marx and I arrived just as the 200 women were gathering and starting to pull out smuggled prayer shawls and leather phylacteries—which they are prohibited by law from using at the site. Orthodox law holds that wearing these items while praying as well as reading the Torah scroll as part of the service is customary for men but not women, although the Women of the Wall follow the Orthodox strictures of eschewing mixed prayer and declining to recite any prayers requiring 10 men to be present. The problem is not what they are doing, in other words, but where they are doing it. The current law here only permits prayer in accordance with Orthodox Jewish customs at the site.

On this morning dedicated to celebrating the first day of the Jewish month of Adar, several women had had male friends sneak their religious garments past guards who have taken, in the past two months, to confiscating these items at the checkpoints. Others have hidden them inside their clothing. Some of the women have been coming to the women’s monthly service at the Wall for more than 20 years. In fact, one of them, Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi who wears her prayer shawl or tallit, when she prays each morning, attended the very first women’s monthly prayer service, almost 24 years ago to the day, where the women were met with violence, hurled chairs, and tear gas. In the years since, Orthodox Jews have gone to great lengths to ensure that women are not seen and not heard in the Holy Land—not just in sacred spaces, but on public buses, sidewalks, and radio.

Silverman (disclosure: she is a friend), her daughter, and eight other women were arrested yesterday for wearing their prayer shawls at the wall. They were held and interrogated, then released without criminal charges but barred from returning to the holy site for 15 days. This has become pretty standard. Arrest, interrogation, no charges. In fact, Susan changed transatlantic travel plans to be at the women’s service at the Western Wall, largely because her 17-year-old daughter, Hallel, planned to be here and planned to wear her tallit. Hallel, I should tell you, was in Rwanda with her father last week, testing a solar field for a youth village that suffers from frequent blackouts. She’s a gorgeous blonde who is about to begin her military service. I, personally, would not opt to mess with Hallel.

There is one strain of thought in Israel that holds that the women who insist on praying and singing here each month are simply provocateurs. The law is the law, they say, and this action is not legal. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which has total control over the worship space, told the New York Times in November that the wall “is not a site for any kind of protest” and “not a place for the individual, where everyone can do what they want.” I’ve seen these gatherings compared to forcing peanut butter on those with allergies. In more than one instance the women themselves have been blamed for the violence they incite.

Following four trips to Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice, the Women of the Wall were barred from wearing men’s prayer garments, singing publicly, or reading the Torah scrolls as men freely do on the other side of the partition. In 2003 the court demanded that they be granted an accommodation at an adjacent section of the same wall, an archaeological site south of the Western Wall Plaza, known as Robinson’s Arch. The site is seen as a reasonable accommodation by many, but the women see it as something akin to “the back of the bus with new upholstery.”

Frances Raday, one of the lawyers who has represented the Women of the Wall at the Supreme Court, dismisses the argument that the women are being deliberately provocative in refusing to pray at the proposed alternate site: “Robinson’s Arch is not a site for communal prayer of the Jewish people,” she explained in an email. “The Women of the Wall’s mode of prayer is in accordance with Orthodox halachic (legal) provision. The decision that the Women of the Wall should pray at Robinson’s Arch is therefore the exclusion of women, who assert their right to equal religious personhood, from the shared public space of the Western Wall Plaza, which is regarded by Jewish consensus as of central symbolic importance for Jewish religion, history, nationality and culture. It is a form of exclusion and banishment and so is certainly separate but in no way equal.”

Bonna Devora Haberman, who helped found the original group in 1988, puts it in a slightly different way: “Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful site; it is not the core of our collective gathering. Precisely at the kotel, the prayers of Women of the Wall must belong and contribute to the seething, passionate narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Until women’s voices, lives, bodies, work, and prayers are fully part, we will not be whole. Humanity will not be whole.”

The other innovation of the February prayer service was the presence of a group of former Israeli paratroopers, the same men who helped recapture the Western Wall from Jordan in 1967. One of the most iconic Israeli photographs ever taken features three of these young men gazing up at the wall. Yitzhak Yiftah, one of those soldiers, was at the wall again to support the women. A few Orthodox Jews fling insults at the women, while one asks the paratroopers if they had truly risked their lives for these women, for this? Yes, replies one of the veterans, exactly for this.

This wasn’t really their fight either. Over on the men’s side a man shouts, in Hebrew, “These women are our worst enemies; not the Arabs.”

Yet, as the women pray, they are surrounded, from partitions behind and beside them, by other male supporters. Husbands, rabbis, leaders of the Reform movement. Folks who felt it wasn’t their fight until they realized that perhaps it was. And while the women who dance at the center of the prayer group—in their prayer shawls and some funny hats in anticipation of the upcoming holiday of Purim—are chiefly American or American-born, Israeli women surround them as well, many in religiously modest scarves and skirts, and many more who don’t know the prayers by heart. They aren’t here to fight for their right to wear a prayer shawl. They are here because their sisters had asked them to be.

It looked as though arrests wouldn’t happen this month. Typically the women have been arrested midservice; sometimes midprayer. There are too many paratroopers; too many reporters, and so the police film the women and warn them but mainly leave them alone. It looked like it would be a rare victory, and Anat Hoffman was grinning as she left the plaza. This was to be the first time in 22 months that no one had been arrested on a monthly prayer gathering.

The police had waited until the women began to relocate to Robinson’s Arch to begin the arrests. The paratroopers and much of the press had left. Then the arrests of the 10 women, among them a rabbinical student in her eighth month of pregnancy, could begin. As has also become the custom in the wake of these monthly arrests, the women remaining relocate to the sidewalk opposite the Kishleh police station, in the Old City, to finish reading from the Torah scrolls while their friends are being fingerprinted and photographed inside.

Packed like shawl-wearing sardines on the sidewalk in front of the Christ Church Coffee shop, the cops offered to clear the sidewalks, but the cafe owners declined. The Christ Church Coffee shop became a safer place for women’s prayer than the Western Wall. At this point the remaining women have collected salty snacks, a Torah scroll, a Harley Davidson, and a scowling police presence. They finish their prayers and go home. After several hours those who had been arrested were released as well. Another woman, raised in an Orthodox home, told me she was moved to support the Women of the Wall because she saw this in its simplest terms as a suppression of women’s voices. She had simply grown tired of being told to continue to be silent, to be small.

Considering how many people tell me this isn’t really their fight today, the Women of the Wall have amassed what looks to be a small army of supporters. Which must be the surest route to social change. There are men here who have come to believe that this isn’t just a women’s issue, and Israelis who no longer believe this is just a diaspora issue. There are religious Jews here who are no longer persuaded that this is about liberal Judaism, and secular Jews who don’t see this as solely about religious freedom. This is about religious authority in Israel, and how it’s expressed. This is how change begins.