Letter from the Rabbi Emerita:
by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, April Kol Kiruv 2019
We Came to Pray
“Ivdu et HaShem b’simcha”/serve G-d with joy is how we are taught to focus our prayers. On Friday morning, March 8th, approximately 250 women came to the Western Wall to gather for Rosh Chodesh prayers. It was Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet, in and of itself a time for joy, as it is said “Mi Sheh-Nichnas Adar, Marbin b’Simcha”/when one enters Adar, one’s joy increases. We came to pray…but this Rosh Chodesh, it turned out to be anything but joyful.
It was also the 30th anniversary of the “Women of the Wall,” an activist organization advocating full access for women to pray at the Kotel/Western Wall. I was there, as part of a small contingent of women and men from California and Nevada, co-led by my colleagues Rabbi Pam Frydman, Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias, and I. Over the years, I’ve been at the Wall several times with the Women of the Wall, and each time had gotten successively more challenging, as the Kotel, one of the holiest sites in the world for all Jews, has become more and more unwelcome to those who do not accept the ultra-Orthodox ways of the Charedim who, under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Head Rabbi of the Kotel, has determined what is “normali” for the site. And his followers do not believe that it is normali for women to lift their voices in prayer, wear Tallit and Tefillin/phylacteries if they choose, and chant from the Torah, as has been accepted by the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and some of the modern Orthodox as well, throughout the world. The Chareidim consider anyone not following their customs as Reformim (using the term as a perjorative)—no matter what their affiliation is, and, to them, Reformi is not normali.
On this particular Rosh Chodesh, we arrived at the normal time, 6:45 a.m. in anticipation of starting our service at 7:00 a.m., but the plaza and the women’s section was unusually crowded already. Thousands of men filled the plaza and men’s section and the women’s section was already almost full. Busloads of students had been brought to the Wall, not to pray, but specifically to take measures to make it difficult for us to hold our prayer service. The sheer crush of the crowds began to make it difficult to navigate. Our few men looked on helplessly from the men’s section and witnessed Charedi men yelling and throwing things, photographers clicking away, and police ignoring the growing melee.
Meanwhile, in the women’s section, the catcalls, taunts, epithets, whistling, and screaming made it hard to hear one another, let alone pray. The jeering, jostling, and pushing became compounded with individuals—many of them—spitting, throwing things, shooting water at us. It became hard to move, we were definitely overwhelmed by the sheer crush of the crowd…and the police simply let it happen.
As our small group was inching its way towards our prayer leaders, one of our women was pushed down. Those of us around her had already linked our arms and we encircled her so she wouldn’t get trampled. At that point, several of the group had turned pale and looked as if they were terrified. Rabbi Pam Frydman and I decided one of us should take out those who wished to get out of the mob. Since she was to lead Hallel, I volunteered; but the trip out was as harrowing as the trip in…and the police were of little help.
But, as we wriggled our way to the plaza area, two American men—one a rabbi who said he would be our linebacker from the Bears (and indeed, he was built like the “Refrigerator”), and one man from New York who kept saying “not all Orthodox are like this”—these two gentlemen helped us make our way towards the exit. At one point the crowd surged and I saw that it was pushing us towards a glass barrier that would have been a possible dangerous dead-end, so we resisted and steered the group towards what turned out to be the exit…and safety. Rabbi Frydman remained inside and worked her way back to the remaining Women of the Wall.
We were a minion…and, in fact, the Orthodox man who had helped us, joined us as we regrouped outside the entrance, very shaken, but safe, in the shade of an ancient tree. Although we were no longer at the wall, we were close enough to hear the noise that filled the air, so I did what we had come to do: I led our small group, in solidarity with those who were still inside, in the Rosh Chodesh Shacharit prayers; and, when it came to Hallel, it was probably the most meaningful Hallel I have ever davened.
The remaining Women of the Wall who had bravely stayed within the teeming mob, withstood the assault until the Torah service, and then, with the help of some female police who had been called in to help by one of the long-time leaders of the Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, opted to move to Robinson’s Arch to do the Torah service and complete the service. By this time, many of the women were bruised by the karate-chops being afflicted upon them by the screaming adolescent girls, the Torah yad had been stolen, and the Rosh Chodesh klaf had been stolen. The Torah, however, was not touched…as it had been brought in, hidden beneath the coat of a brave woman around whose body it had been wound. Baruch HaShem.
It is estimated that there were 10,000 Charedim who had come to obstruct, while, at the most, we were 250, mostly women, who had simply come to pray…and we did. But the experience was not the joy-filled inspirational service it could have been. In fact, many of us have since recited the Birkat HaGomeil prayer one recites in gratitude for surviving a life-threatening experience…and, sadly, that is exactly what it was. It is nothing short of a miracle that no one was killed.
The look of hate in the eyes of the Charedim who had come, or who had been bused in, not to pray but to obstruct, will stay with me for a long time. But it was hate, masking fear, I believe. Fear of change, fear of allowing the possibility that Judaism has many traditions, fear of acknowledging that women have a right to pray with Tallit and Tefillin, can chant from the Torah, and can have full access to pray at the holy site of the Kotel. What happened on Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet was a shandeh/disgrace and a booshah/embarrassment.
Six of the many individuals running for Prime Minister in the upcoming Israeli elections condemned the stranglehold of the Western Wall by Rabbi Rabinovitch and the ultra-Orthodox. There were articles of varying veracity in papers throughout Israel and the rest of the world…the New York Times, Washington Post, etc., not, evidently, not in Las Vegas. One has to wonder why. More pertinent questions, however, are: How could this have been allowed to happen? Who controlled the police and gave them orders to not safeguard those who came to pray? Who financed the busloads of students? Who authorized them to be taken out of their Yeshivot for the purpose of obstructing the prayers at the Wall? Who gave them instructions to behave so un-Jewishly?
The worst thing about the entire experience was what we witnessed the young people doing. What were they being taught? Where was the Chessed/lovingkindness that is the foundation of Judaism?
I cannot end this piece without one more comment related by those who had endured the experience from within: There were a few teen-aged girls who, realizing how wrong the assault was, broke into tears and expressed to our women, over and over, “Slicha! Slicha!” Forgive us! Forgive us!
May the One who hears our prayers forgive them all, the instigators and the perpetrators…and may the day come soon, bi-m’heira b’yameinu, when women’s voices will be welcomed at the Kotel, when women will be able to leyn Torah in peace and safety, and when women, whose practice it is to wear Tallit and Tefillin, will be free to do so. Ken y’hi ratzon.
Rabbi Yocheved Mintz
Blessing for the Month of Nissan
The scent of spring in the air, the irises standing so regally and the blossoms filling the trees with hues of pinks and lavenders, make us aware of the new life emerging in nature. May they remind us to pay heed to our own emerging renewed energies, as well, and may we put them to increasingly good use. Amein.