This past year was one of extreme opposites – with triumph and set-backs – for Women of the Wall and the fight for Jewish pluralism in Israel. Here are some of the highlights of our struggle.
On Rosh Hodesh Adar, a snow storm that threatened to close Jerusalem struck and while most people hunkered down for the duration 50 women walked to the Kotel to pray. What most people do not realize or refuse to accept is that Women of the Wall is a women’s Rosh Hodesh Tefilla group that has been praying together for 27 years. Only the people who do not want us there, say we come to provoke and protest. I guess the men that threw snow balls weren’t as intent on their own prayer as they were at disrupting ours.
Also in Adar, we held our annual Megillah reading at the Kotel on Purim. The fact that women are allowed to read Megillah isn’t contested by the Haredim so our prayers were not disrupted by male or female hecklers.
But the month of March also brought a new government into power, one that would bring the ultra-Orthodox parties back into the coalition and the cost of their participation was extremely high in terms of religious pluralism. The setbacks included a return to the “status quo” in terms of weddings and conversions, increased yeshiva stipends and the administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, decided to flex his new muscles with increased violations of the Solbel ruling and the harassment of women at Judaism’s most holy space.
On Rosh Hodesh Iyar, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, WOW board member opened the gate in the mehitza (partition) to where our male supporters were praying and carried one of the many Torahs available for use by the public from men’s section into the women’s section. We all held our breath. It looked like no one noticed and it was quiet… until they did.
In my blog Sobel +2, I wrote: “Suddenly, there was a commotion from the men’s side when a group of Kotel employees forcibly pushed their way through the men’s minyan praying near the mehitza, injuring Charlie Kalech who was praying there. Alden Solovy, another man praying in the minyan, was attacked and injured by an infuriated Haredi man who decided to force his way into the women’s section to retrieve the Torah. He ran at us yelling, ‘The Torah belongs to me.’ Other men also ran into the women’s section forcing us to protect the Torah with our bodies and fortunately the police managed to protect us from the angry men.
On Rosh Hodesh Sivan, just days before Shavuot, the Torah was locked out of reach for the hundred women who came to pray with Women of the Wall and celebrate and with six 12-year-old b’not mitzvah girls at the Kotel. The mehitza gate was locked and there was a patrolled three-meter swath of no-man’s land between the sections.
In June, Minister of Religious Affairs David Azulai was interviewed by Israel Hayom and said: “To come with a tallit, Tefilin and a Torah scroll isn’t to come to pray, it’s to cause a provocation.” The provocation he spoke about was WOW’s Rosh Hodesh prayer service. We were able to sneak a Torah through security and despite a large amount of harassment and whistle blowing, we prayed 250 women strong. In response to Azulai’s remarks, WOW and the liberal movements asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to condemn public expressions of discrimination from cabinet ministers. He did.
The next month, Linda Siegel-Richman, a student studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, was banned from going to the Kotel wearing a kippa by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation goon squad. And that was just the beginning.
In my blog, The Ghost of Kotel Future, I described how we received a letter from Rabinowitz, just days before Rosh Hodesh Av, asking us to give up our cause and let him run the Kotel as he sees fit. We did not accede to his request so we went to the Kotel to pray. The goon squad was ready for us. They searched us and our belongings looking for a hidden Torah. I wrote: “The restrictions, enforced by a very large intimidating man, kept coming. Journalists were told that they could not bring cameras in without prior permission from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. We waited at the entrance and were not allowed to enter until the police commander who oversees the area intervened.” We were not aware at the time that Rachel Cohen Yeshurun had been arrested for trying to bring a Torah in – something that is allowed according to the 2013 Sobel Decision.
We dedicated our Rosh Hodesh Elul service to the memory of Shira Banki Z”L, the young woman murdered at the Jerusalem Pride March by a religious extremist. But that didn’t stop the extremist goon squad from trying to prevent us from bringing in Shofarot and siddurim. Our Torah was already brought in overnight.
That month, like the last, our service was marred by increased incitement and hatred. Men yelled, “Your actions are sacrilege and punishable by death.”
By Rosh Hashana, the country has been gripped by what has been called the Jerusalem Intifada or the Facebook Intifada. In deference to the police and soldiers who have been keeping us safe, we chose not to try to bring a Torah into the plaza. This sadly did not stop the religious minister’s attacks against us or ease up our treatment as we go through security.
We all needed some Hanukah light to help lift the gloom. In 2014, we asked Rabinowitz to include women in the Kotel menorah lighting. He refused and we brought our own to light. This year, three MK’s, Tamar Zandberg, Michal Rozin, and Ksenia Svetlova wrote a letter to Rabinowitz allow the participation of women or to place a large hanukia in the women’s section so that women could hold their own ceremony. He said no.
On November 22, WOW board member Adv. Riki Shapira wrote to the Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein saying that the exclusion of women from the national Hanukah candle lighting ceremony is discrimination. The Assistant Attorney General agreed and said that women must be included this year. Rabbi Rabinowitz did not obey and still held the lighting in the men’s section and had a smaller, second lighting where he invited some silent women who were not allowed to bless the candles.
Also in November, Susan Weiss (Center for Women’s Justice) filed a Supreme Court petition against the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s ban on Torah reading for women at the Kotel.
On the last Rosh Hodesh of 2015, the weather was horrible with steady rain but Women of the Wall was there, as we have been for 27 years. We come in the winter snow and rain, in the summer heat, during times of war, and during three intifadas. We come to pray. And we come so that our daughters can pray freely at the Kotel, in tallit, in tefillin and with a Torah, if that is their choice. The Kotel belongs to women, too.