Twenty-five years after they first donned prayer shawls at the Western Wall, some 1,000 egalitarian worshipers marked a bittersweet anniversary on Monday morning by lifting their voices in song and solidarity at the monthly Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel.
They made it into the women’s section — in recent months they have occasionally found themselves barred from it, due to security decisions by the police — but the group was penned in on one side by a line of female police officers and faced on another side by a wall of jeering, booing ultra-Orthodox men who peered over the barrier separating the men’s and women’s sections and made their disgust clear.
Women of the Wall, a feminist, egalitarian organization, has been fighting since 1988 for the right to pray at the Western Wall in a way that some Orthodox Jews say runs contrary to accepted religious norms.
The women don prayer shawls, kippot and tefillin and raise their voices in public song, all practices which are considered among traditional Jews to be the exclusive province of males. In the past three years, women have been arrested at the Kotel on charges of civil disobedience, and prayer meetings have been marred by organized ultra-Orthodox protests that have included jeers, screams and sporadic violence.
The days of Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer meetings in the Kotel’s women’s section, however, may now be numbered thanks to a recent agreement hammered out between the group and the Jewish Agency for Israel. After bitter debate and threats among some group members to splinter off entirely, the Women of the Wall’s board last month accepted a proposal from Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to move to a section of the wall near Robinson’s Arch. The decision to accept Sharansky’s proposal, which stipulates the building of a specially designed section, caused several board members to resign in protest.
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, however, said she has come to terms with the plan. “I’m not happy about it, but I’m at peace with it,” she said, standing at the back of the women’s section in a Tshirt emblazoned with the organization’s logo and a tallit thrown over her shoulders. “It took a tremendous amount of courage.”
After 25 years of struggle, Hoffman added, she was proud of the group’s progress and the change they had created for egalitarian prayer in the state of Israel. “We’ve come a long way, baby!” she exclaimed.
Many of those praying with the Women of the Wall on Monday morning were American supporters who had flown in specifically for the 25th anniversary. While the women squeezed into the women’s section, their ranks eventually swelling until they took up more than half of the small area, hundreds of men crowded just above them at the Kotel’s front plaza to pray in unison. Haredi schoolgirls stood by and scowled, while several older women heckled the crowd. One religious woman shouted at a female in a prayer shawl, “You’re the reason our soldiers have died!”
Up in the plaza where the men stood, a line of Haredi boys formed a sort of face-off with American secular teenage boys, many of whom attempted, in fluent but accented Hebrew, to defend the women praying below. Lines of Israeli police — male in the upper plaza and female down below in the women’s section — stood idly by, looking bored and squinting in the sun. One yeshiva student, an American who had moved to Israel from Brooklyn, shouted out, “If you want to wear a pair of tefillin, first grow a pair!” His friends clapped him on the shoulders and howled in laughter.
Despite the many insults thrown around from both sides, however, there was no violence.
Julie Silver, a musician from California, had flown in to Israel for the event and said she was excited to be at her first Rosh Hodesh with the Women of the Wall. Staring at the ancient stones in front of her, she said, “I feel very strongly in bringing together historically marginalized people and currently marginalized people.” She said she did not know much about the controversy of the proposed third section, but that, as an American, she was appalled that women did not have the right to pray in any way they wished at the space.
For Batya Kallus, a longtime board member of Women of the Wall, the move to Robinson’s Arch is a decision that will bolster the group. They should be proud, she said, that after a quarter of a century they have earned their own space in which to pray as they see fit.
“It’s a day of celebration,” she said of the Rosh Hodesh anniversary. “We have achieved so much. We have actually won.” For nearly three decades, she said, no one had asked the Women of the Wall what they really wanted — until now. And while they would prefer to stay in the women’s section, she said it was foolish to refuse to compromise.
“This is the first real offer,” she said. “So when we’re given a real offer made by the prime minister himself, we can’t step away … We want to be part of the process and part of the future.”
The voices of dissent, however, remain strong. Phyllis Chesler, one of the Women of the Wall’s founding members, did not fly from her New York home to join the Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Kotel on Monday. Speaking by phone over the weekend, she said that in accepting Sharansky’s proposal, the group was losing sight of its original vision of an all-women’s prayer group at the Kotel.
“If we are dragged against our will to Robinson’s Arch, the original vision becomes an afterthought,” she said. “It will be marginalized in the middle of a mixed-gender prayer group, and all of our energy and vision and hard work will have been hijacked.”
Chesler insists she respects the desire to expand the Women of the Wall’s prayer to fit the standards of more secular Jews, but that in the meantime several of its more Orthodox women have felt sidelined. “Anat has exiled certain people,” she said of Hoffman. “I think it’s unforgivable.”
Sharansky, speaking on Monday morning, said he wasn’t sure when he made the proposal if it would be accepted. He had tried, he said, to be sympathetic to the demands of all sides, and to act “as a bridge” between them.
“For the Kotel, the most important thing is to keep the most ancient Orthodox synagogue in the world in one piece,” he said. “I have no doubt that on both sides, there is a feeling that they didn’t get everything they deserved. But if one side gets everything, that means the other side is defeated. And then we all lose.”