Who can pray at the Western Wall?

Who can pray at the Western Wall?

JCC program highlights the struggle of a women's prayer group

Panelists discussing a screening last week of “Praying in Her Own Voice” are, from left, Rabbis Barry Schlesinger, Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, and Lawrence Zierler. With them is Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, the moderator. courtesy kaplen jcc on the palisades

For women who are used to being counted in a minyan, the ongoing struggle of Women of the Wall to gather and pray at the Kotel once each month is both powerful and poignant.

Not surprisingly, then, “Praying in Her Own Voice,” screened last Wednesday evening at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, elicited a strong reaction from Reform Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

The Reform leader – whose international network includes women Reform rabbis and rabbinical students – is vice-chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall and prays with the group whenever she is in Israel.

Following the film, a documentary by Yael Katzir, she joined Rabbis Lawrence Zierler and Barry Schlesinger in a panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, Judaic scholar-in-residence at the JCC.

While the film depicted only verbal abuse of the women’s group, Ellenson stressed that some attacks have been violent as well.

“I’ve been with the group when nothing has happened – when we prayed and it was wonderful and no one paid attention,” she said. But she’s also been there when hecklers, both men and women, have maintained “a constant level of yelling,” making it difficult to pray.

According to its website (womenofthewall.org.il), Women of the Wall, founded in 1988, strives to “achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

In 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for the women’s group to hold prayer services and read Torah in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza. But shortly afterward, the Knesset countered with bills that would overturn that ruling and make women who prayed in non-traditional ways at the Western Wall liable to imprisonment.

While the bills did not pass, in 2003 the court reversed its decision, holding that the group’s actions constituted a threat to public order. It also held that the government had to provide an alternate site, Robinson’s Arch – at the southern section of the Wall – for the women to pray.

In recent years, two Women of the Wall members have been detained by the police: Nofrat Frenkel in November 2009 and Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader, in 2010.

Kimelman, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and a senior associate at CLAL”“the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told The Jewish Standard on Friday that while the movie was clearly sympathetic to the women’s group, it did “a good job of reflecting the complexity of the issue and making sure that different voices were heard.”

Referring to the issues surrounding the Women of the Wall, he said that democracies must balance competing interests, addressing issues such as “keeping social order and the conceptions of majority opinion, precedent, and rights. As far as I know, democracies don’t legislate on rights [concerning] places of prayer,” he said. “The American government won’t legislate where people can pray. We would oppose involvement in these issues.”

Kimelman said the Women of the Wall issue resonates with American Jews because it combines three elements – women’s issues, denominational issues, and an opportunity for “Orthodox rabbi-bashing. I’m distressed that this issue resonates so little with the Israeli public,” he said, suggesting that the movie – with scenes of group leaders speaking in English – did a real “disservice. You got the feeling that this was a bunch of non-Israeli women there to cause trouble.”

Noting that Israeli political demonstrations usually attract large numbers of people, he said he was “befuddled at the lack of resonance in Israel for Israelis who have not had American experience. I saw only 15 to 20 [women] when I was expecting 200 to 300. No politician will get involved when it looks like a bunch of foreigners causing this.”

Kimelman said that while some panelists focused on the history of the Kotel in addressing the problem, “who cares what it has been historically? Today it is one of the central places in Jewish consciousness… [It is] the centerpiece of historic Jewish consciousness.” The issue is neither historical nor halachic, he said. The “real beef” is that if the government requires that the women – and other non-traditional prayer groups – pray at Robinson’s Arch, “It should provide equal amenities.”

Ellenson disagreed with Kimelman on the issue of foreign involvement, noting that the core group of Women of the Wall members is made up of native Israelis and those who have made aliyah. And, she said, while some comments in the film were made in English, many others were in Hebrew.

“I don’t see that as discrediting the cause,” she said. If the movement hasn’t developed a “strong, gigantic core of Israelis, it is because they feel the ultra-Orthodox are pushing them away.”

Zierler, too, took issue with the claim that the women’s group was a foreign import.

“If you’re living in Israel, you’re an Israeli,” he said.

“Americans should be concerned about how Jews – and everyone else – are treated in Israel,” said Ellenson. “If we can’t find a way to have equal access for any Jew, then there’s something missing, something wrong.”

“The [Kotel] has basically been turned into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “There have been many examples of mixed groups coming down to the Wall singing and walking together, and of them being harassed and intimidated. It doesn’t only happen to the Women of the Wall.”

Zierler – religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem – said the film, while moving, might almost be considered a “period piece,” since new proposals have been offered to deal with the problem.

He mentioned, for example, the Knesset’s 2010 proposal to redesign the Western Wall plaza, creating “a general common space” and virtually eliminating the men and women’s section.

Still, he said, he has been inspired by the issues that surround this situation to “do an environmental scan,” taking note of what else is happening at the Kotel. The rabbi lamented the “commercialization” of the site, noting that the Israel government has provided some $16 million to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation over the past seven years. Bemoaning what he called the “deification” of the site, he also said that there is an overemphasis on its holiness.

Administrators have managed “to alienate the public from the symbolic site of unity,” he said. “It speaks to former Jewish sovereignty. It resonates because it is a piece of architecture and a locale that brings us back” to the days of Jewish rule.

“It’s not just a religious place,” he said. “They care because it brings them to an association with a better time” for the Jewish people.

The rabbi noted that mixed-gender services do occur at the Kotel on occasion, such as for Birkat Kohanim, which takes place during chol hamoed Sukkot and Pesach.

Kotel administrators “pick certain battles,” he said. “They’ve made [Women of the Wall] a symbolic issue about the honor of the community.”

Jewish life is “constantly evolving,” he said. “The more you empower people through education, the more you will find a desire for them to express themselves in a differentiated way. [Women] are looking for a way to express themselves in a liturgical context.”

The rabbi said he would have liked to have seen more men attend the screening.

“It’s important for men to understand what’s happening in women’s lives,” he said, adding that he champions a “holistic understanding of Jewish life.”

Since men still hold sway in the religious community, their help is needed to bring about change, he said. “Men must be willing to open doors.”

Schlesinger – who holds a pulpit at Kehilat Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood – hails from Englewood and is serving as rabbi of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom. He recently completed two terms as president of the Israeli branch of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Unlike Ellenson, Schlesinger, who organizes mixed-gender prayer services for the Masorti (Conservative) movement at Robinson’s Arch, said he accepts that he must pray in that area. However, he expects the Israeli government to provide equal resources.

“I want to promote maximum kavanah,” intention, “with minimum conflict,” he said, but he calls upon the government to “give us equal space and equal treatment.”

In a 2010 article in the Jerusalem Post entitled “Don’t Be Right, Be Smart,” the rabbi argued that the Israeli government “must serve Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, whether they like it or not.”

He suggests a three-tiered plan of action.

First, the Western Wall Plaza should be under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality and not subject to gender segregation or the halachic rulings of the rabbi of the Wall; second, the northern section of the Western Wall should continue to serve those who feel that a separation between women and men is required; and third, the southern section of the Western Wall should be opened to all Jewish men and women who wish to pray together without separation.

He also asks that the Ministry of Religious Affairs provide worshippers at the southern section with the religious articles required for public prayer: arks, tables, Torahs, prayer books, and Bibles

Kimelman said he was gratified by the diversity of opinion displayed among panelists.

“The JCC is involved in the clarifying of Jewish issues,” he said. “It’s not our job to advocate for them” but rather to provide a platform for representative opinions.

The film screening and discussion were co-sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section; Temple Sinai of Bergen County; the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey; and the Community Relations Committee of UJC of MetroWest New Jersey.

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