Hillel the Elder would say: To the place where my heart loves, there my feet lead me (Tosefta, Sukkah 4:2).
I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of collective prayer, or praying with a quorum, a minyan.
I believe in the necessity for me to pray in my own way, with my family at my side, my partner, my young son, my older daughters, in an egalitarian setting. I pray wrapped in a tallit with my eyes closed, facing the ancient stones of the Western Wall, respected and respectful in being called up to the Torah and its reading.
I believe in the power of a place to tell the story of the Jewish people and to connect to my ancestors.
On the way to the Orthodox section of the Western Wall, which is currently separated by gender and operated like an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, between the Dung Gate and security gate which also separates men and women, there is a small prayer space, uncared for and hidden from plain sight. Some of us call it the Ezrat Yisrael, some call it the Family Kotel and others the Egalitarian Kotel.
For this place my heart yearns and to this place my feet lead me to prayer. From the name alone, one would think that this place is accessible and open to everyone, to thousands of Israeli families and Jews from around the world, to visitors and tourists, coming for meaningful prayers and egalitarian services without partitions (mehiztot). However, this is not the case.
The place that my heart cherishes, the Egalitarian Kotel, which is surrounded by impressive ruins that testify to our glorious past on the one hand and to painful destruction on the other is subjected to state neglect, is only accessible by a narrow, steep, rickety staircase and presents a temporary prayer space, small and hidden from view, that does not grant close access to the stones of the Western Wall.
Moreover, on many occasions extremist ultra-Orthodox factions take over the egalitarian plaza in disgusting acts of trespassing and bullying, erect partitions, instigate public disorder and disturb families celebrating egalitarian bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies or groups assembling for prayer.
Month after month, members of the ultra-Orthodox public with the support of the rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, violently attack Women of the Wall who attempt to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall, as is their right and their practice.
On the last Rosh Chodesh Shvat, after a tense prayer service where young women from Ultra-Orthodox seminaries attacked women from Women of the Wall while they were praying, young men chased after women and men who came for the service (the men stood outside the women’s section) as they exited the plaza. Security ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation did nothing to protect us, as is their habitual practice.
This time, the instigators expanded their menacing reach by chasing after a group of young adult participants from our Mechina pre-army military preparatory program who came to participate in prayers as they headed farther away from the Western Wall and toward the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. When the Mechina participants arrived at the Hurva Synagogue courtyard, where they intended to come together for Jewish text study, they were attacked with stones and other objects by young ultra-Orthodox men led by one of their teachers. To no one’s surprise, when the police arrived at the scene, the teacher who incited the attack fled the scene, leaving behind his young students riled up and confused.
Month after month, we are witnesses to violence, incitement and attacks by ultra-Orthodox people against womens’ prayer at the northern section of the Western Wall, and we remain without the ability to pray according to our practice and in a dignified manner in the southern Western Wall Plaza.
Last week, in an op-ed for The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, related the experience of Jews visiting the Western Wall to that of family members coming together and putting all arguments aside.
It is hypocrisy and sanctimony on his part to call us, Reform Jews, members of his family and then to encourage other family members to attack us with verbal and physical violence. The lip service that the Western Wall rabbi is trying to present fails to hide his divisive conduct toward us, who disagree with his worldview. The fact is that he has made the Western Wall a place where many Jews who are part of the family, from Israel and the Diaspora, do not feel at home.
As well, we read an interview with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in which he said the present government will be unable to implement the Western Wall Agreement. Bennett, for the sake of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and to ensure Jewish unity and the relationship of world Jewry with Israel, you can’t afford to not implement this historic compromise!
Two weeks ago, Jews around the world held their breath as one of our own, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and members of his Reform congregation in Colleyville, Texas, were held hostage by an extremist Muslim terrorist.
At the same time, some of Rabbi Rabinowitz’ colleagues were posting on their social media: “Reform Jews are not Jews, no big deal if they blow up there,” and “Another congregation of Reform infidels.”
“What kind of Jew prays by Zoom on Shabbat?” Asked someone else while millions watched the live stream from Congregation Beth Israel of an empty bimah with threats and screams from the terrorist against the hostages heard in the background.
Does it sound familiar? To me it does. I hear this every month at the Western Wall, in shouts and screams by the throngs of angry mobs, instigated by the ‘Reformophobia’ of the Western Wall rabbi and his extremist, ultra-Orthodox peers.
“Reform Jews! Burn in hell!” they even shouted at me as I peacefully walked out at the end of the prayer service for Rosh Chodesh. Ahead of me, exiting the plaza, were many younger people, including Reform rabbinic students spending a year of their studies in Israel. Subsequently, they were attacked by rocks being thrown by young ultra-Orthodox men who knew full-well no action would be taken against them by the security ushers employed by the same extremist governing body.
This is not how members of a family treat each other. A family works out its differences and does not incite violence.
Just recently, Israel approved an unprecedented budget for supporting the initiative of Rabbi Rabinowitz – NIS 110 m. to expand the Orthodox Plaza – while the same government, many members of which have expressed their support for implementing the Western Wall Agreement, has yet to take a significant step toward its implementation.
I call upon Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, ministers and members of the Knesset to let us pray according to our practice, in a place of monumental significance to all Jews, the southern part of the Western Wall, in an egalitarian, dignified and accessible plaza, where we have a hand in its management and where the rules of egalitarian prayer are clear and known. Bring us one wall with two prayer plazas – a gender-separate plaza and an egalitarian plaza – and grant individuals the ability to choose where they feel most comfortable.
All we ask, on behalf of the tens of thousands of Reform, Progressive, and Conservative Jews in Israel and on behalf of the millions of Jews in the diaspora, is that you implement the Western Wall Agreement and allow us to pray according to our practice, in the holiest place for the Jewish people. As religious leaders, it is our commitment to bring people close to Judaism, to explore the treasures of our tradition, and to express ourselves through Jewish ritual and prayer. This is the way to do that and the time to do it is now.
The writer is the CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.