Where is the respect at the Kotel?

The Kotel (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
The Kotel
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
What is sacred to you? Is in an object passed down in your family for generations? Is it a relationship with a person you cherish? Is it a life event or a memory that carries meaning?
And how would you feel if someone shattered that sacred object or event, telling you it’s archaic or meaningless, or that you are doing it all wrong?
For me, that sacred space is the Kotel. It is where I come regularly to pray, to connect with God, to ground myself around the values I want to permeate my life. I share this sacred space with untold multitudes, who see the Kotel as their spiritual home and who are deeply hurt by any attempt to change the millennia-old tradition practiced there.
This sacred relationship brought me and 20,000 other women to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh Adar. Unlike the media reports you have been reading, the overwhelming majority of these women engaged in sincere prayer. On the sides, several dozen rowdy teens behaved violently, which is inexcusable. Yet it is just as inexcusable to marginalize thousands of innocent people by projecting the behavior of a small group of hot-heads onto them.
It is certainly much easier to demonize these traditional worshipers by painting them in broad strokes than to hear their message. And their message is one of pain. Women of the Wall activists like to talk about the “hate” they see in the eyes of the other women, when in fact what they are seeing is this pain.
It is the pain of seeing someone try to superimpose their values and worldviews on a cherished site you come to regularly, without any regard for the thousands years of tradition or the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the regular worshipers. Every Rosh Hodesh I get to talk to dozens of women, who leave the Kotel plaza in tears after witnessing Women of the Wall’s ceremonies. You may not understand it, but they truly feel their sacred space is violated.
It is the pain of being deeply disrespected. While Women of the Wall scream foul, in reality in recent months, dozens of traditional women have filed police reports after being pushed, screamed at and stepped upon by WOW members. Last month, a Women of the Wall member was arrested after slapping a 14-year-old teen across her face with the WOW siddur of all things. On Rosh Hodesh Adar, WOW members pushed their way into the crowd of thousands with complete contempt for other women, in what the Israeli police characterized as a “provocation.”
It is the pain of being prevented from praying at Judaism’s holiest site. Every month, the Women of the Wall’s appearance is accompanied with dozens of cameras, a slew of reporters and noise levels that make it hard for anyone else to hear themselves think. Ahead of Rosh Hodesh Adar, Women of the Wall demanded that the Kotel rabbi give them access to the public address system, so that they could project its prayers loudly all over the plaza. WOW couldn’t care less about the thousands of worshipers, women and men, who gather at the Kotel at the start of very months and for whose convenience the loudspeaker is usually turned on to enable everyone to hear.
Women of the Wall see themselves as feminist activists. Their agenda is changing how women pray at the Kotel. And in the Israeli democracy everyone has the right to fight for their agenda. However, Women of the Wall do not have the right to impose their agenda on the actual women who pray at the Kotel, certainly when these women have been saying quite clearly for the past 30 years that they do not want these advances.
Women’s empowerment is first and foremost about respect. Even on the day of its 30th anniversary, Women of the Wall could not muster more than a couple hundred women for their ceremony. Yet their small numbers did not prevent the group from exercising its privilege and viewing the thousands of other women as a disturbance to their own celebration.
The prayer services at the Kotel do not mirror what happens in most liberal North American congregations. They do not align with the feminist ideology. But this is how Judaism has been practiced here for two millennia and this is how the actual flesh-and-blood people, women and men, who pray at the Kotel day in and day out cherish it.
Forcefully challenging that is simply disrespectful. Nobody wants their sacred treasures mistreated in the name of someone else’s ideology.
The writer is the founder of Women for the Wall, a grassroots women’s organization dedicated to preserving the tradition and sanctity of the Western Wall in the spirit of Jewish unity.