The women who birthed Nashot HaKotel (Women of the Wall) 26 years ago could not have imagined that the tefilah group they founded would transform itself into the voice of Jewish feminism at the Kotel and throughout Israel. And what a journey that has been.
When my own life trajectory led me to make aliyah in 2010 from the US, the battles for gender religious equality in the liberal movements had already been won decades ago. And great progress was made in Modern Orthodoxy in June, 2009 with the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz by Rabbi Avi Weiss and with the growing public role of women in Orthodox synagogues, schools, and communities.
While all these advances were being made by women in the diaspora, quite the opposite was occurring here in Israel. Here, a small segment of society were forcing their very narrow views on the rest of the country. Women’s voices were being silenced at the Kotel, at public ceremonies, in the streets, and on the buses. Women’s pictures were removed from public view in Jerusalem. The haredization of Judaism was rapidly moving out of the synagogues and into the public sphere.
Beginning in the Spring of 2012, women (myself included) were frequently being arrested for praying at the Kotel while female. We were told that our way of worship was unacceptable to the Haredi rabbi who administered the Holy places. We were told that his very narrow view of the role of women – to pray individually and silently; unheard and unseen by men – was the custom (and the law) at the Kotel. We were told that our beautiful prayer services were provocations and that warranted us being arrested and banned from the Kotel.
Women being arrested for praying became hot news in Israel and the Diaspora. The arrests ended with Sobel decision that said that the custom of the Kotel was not necessarily Orthodox and that women had the right to pray at the Kotel in a group out loud, wrapped in tallitot and tefilian, and to read from a Sefer Torah.
There were other court cases related to gender discrimination. In January 211, the Supreme Court ruled that Israel’s public buses could not be gender separated. But it took until June 2013 for the attorney general to advise the government to end gender discrimination in the public sphere. That meant that the erasing and silencing of women was supposed to end.
In October, 2014, Women of the Wall started a bus advertising campaign featuring four young girls to promote celebrating b’not mitzva at the Kotel. Predictively, within days, over half of the bus ads were defaced and the buses vandalized.
This removal of women still appears on a regular basis. Last week, the Haredi newspaper HaMevaser photoshoped German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and other prominent women out of the photo of world leaders at the anti-terrorism unity march in Paris. This iconic moment of solidarity was distorted to adhere to the viewpoint that women should not be seen in public.
Two years ago, before Sobel, we were told that women were not allowed to dance at the Kotel. Dancing was clearly a provocation and not a joyful expression of faith. Last week, on Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat, a group of young seminary students were clearly part of a partner minyan with the yeshiva students on the other side of the mehitza. These young women joined in singing and dancing during their ruach filled service. Without the publicity and the world condemnation of the arrests of women for praying, it is unlikely that these young women would have even thought that it was possible to dance at the Kotel. Photoshop that!