My proud Zionist story begins with my grandparents, Max and Rae Epstein.
They deserve a whole book or a movie, but the short version is still compelling. Max volunteered to serve in the first Jewish Army in the modern era to use Jewish symbols. He was willing to leave his home in Stamford, US, train in Canada and England and make his way as a newly minted soldier to help free the Palestine from the Ottoman Empire and help establish a national homeland for the Jewish people. Max met Rae when he was training in England and after his army experience, brought her back with him as his bride to Stamford.
Max was valuable as a mechanic and motorcycle operator, and was a confidential dispatch rider for General Allenby and Colonial Patterson of the British army. He was close with David Ben-Gurion and was asked to remain in the country and be a future leader. Ben-Gurion famously was the first prime minister of Israel; but my grandfather in his outrageous humor and wit said, “Look at the desert and malaria around here! I would die for this country, but who the hell can live here?”
Max ended up coming back to America, but never forgot his dedication to the Jewish people forging a new path. He helped smuggle arms to Israel in 1945, gathering equipment at night in his large moving vans and bringing them to a dock in New York for shipment to Palestine, soon to be Israel. His son Sidney raised one million dollars in Israel bonds in 1970, and all his children and grandchildren grew up with a devotion to Israel and Jewish causes. She was honored as Zionist of the Year in her community.
Why do I share this? I’m a pioneer woman cantor, fourth generation, and a proud Zionist. I am helping to form a choir for Women of the Wall, so the prayers and music can be even more beautiful and uplifting, surrounding the women with gorgeous harmony will be soul stirring, but without the protection of security, it is a risk no one should have to endure.
Who would think that a granddaughter of a proud Zionist who risked his life to help Israel, who fought bravely side by side with Ben-Gurion, who smuggled arms to Israel, would need protection to pray at the Kotel, the holy Western Wall in Jerusalem?
When I saw the coffee splattered stained tallit on Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, I immediately was repulsed. A woman praying at the Kotel got assaulted? This is insanity. My praying does not take away from yours if you believe only men should be heard. I sent Anat a handmade tallit I created using Swedish weaving and a new friendship blossomed. I soon invited Anat to speak to my Sisterhood at my synagogue, Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties.
I invited her to speak via Zoom as well, to the organization I founded, The Women Cantors’ Network. At that Zoom, she challenged us and asked me to help form a choir that would enhance and uplift the prayers of the women. With the initial financial support of the WCN, the WOW Choir is becoming a reality. I chose music, asked a talented friend, Beth Styles to arrange it for two-part choir, and we recorded learning tracks for new singers.
I found an incredible music director and conductor, Dr. Tanya Sermer who is a lecturer at the Hebrew University and the artistic producer for the Jerusalem Oratoria Choir. Tanya is looking for women volunteers for this new choir. Dedication to the cause of Women of the Wall and a singing voice is all that’s needed.
No one should worry about being assaulted with hot coffee, or a chair while praying, no one should have to worry about their siddur being thrown on the ground and ripped to shreds at the Kotel of all places.
Max Epstein’s granddaughter, should not have to worry about being spat on while praying at the Kotel. Truthfully, that scares me the most.
The writer is a fourth generation cantor, founder of The Women Cantors’ Network, recording artist, teacher, and tallit maker. www.cantordebbie.com