Nashot HaKotel:  On the 25th Anniversary of the Women of the Wall – November 1, 2013 Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz. In the foyer you can see some old photos, taken in the early 20th century, showing many men and women praying at the Kotel HaMaaravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Men and women….no mechitza, no separating structure delineating that one gender was to pray in that specific site and the other gender was to pray in another specific site.  While it seems that men gravitated to bunching themselves with men and women gravitated to being with women, there were no chairs, no fences, no enforcements of separation. And that was the way it was all—that was the status quo that was maintained—until 1948, when, as a result of the War for Independence, the Kotel was part of the partition of Jerusalem which was under Jordanian rule.  Although the Jordanians had signed an armistice agreement in 1949, guaranteeing Jews the right to visit the Wall, not one Israeli Jew was ever permitted to do so during the 19 year occupation.

The refrain of an Israeli song written in the late 60’s goes:  “יש אנשים עם לב של אבן; ויש אבנים עם לב אדם

There are people with hearts of stone, and stones with hearts of people.”

Perhaps this best epitomizes the mystical qualities and challenges of the Kotel. Before 1967, you need to understand, there was no plaza in front of the Western Wall; in fact there wasn’t anything but a 12-foot wide alleyway running along approximately 92 feet of the Wall.  After the 1967 Reunification of Jerusalem and the euphoria of the return of the Wall to Israeli hands, renovations began, exposing the West Wall of the Temple mount and expanding the space nearly doubling the exposed wall space to 181 feet in length, and, by removing much of the old Moroccan Quarters buildings, the plaza was expanded into the configuration that can hold many thousands and sees millions of visitors annually.  The administration of the Wall, however, was not given to a governmental authority, such as the Bureau of Tourism, but to Rabbi Yehudah Meir Getz (z”l) (an imposing figure, in his white shtreimel (fur hat), white beard, and white coat) and taken over in 2005 by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz.  These Rabbis of the Kotel brought in the mechitzah partition, and chairs, and, what had been for centuries a unifying symbol for the Jewish people became a source of controversy.

Traditionally the Torah is read in the morning on Shabbat, on Mondays, on Thursdays and on Rosh Chodesh and Chagim, the first of the Jewish Month and on Holidays.  On a Thursday morning during the Hebrew month of Kislev in 1988, a multi-denominational group of approximately seventy women entered the women’s section at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, with a Torah scroll and conducted a halakhic (according to Jewish law) women’s prayer service with some women wearing prayer shawls.

Sadly, many women in the women’s section, and many men on the other side of the mechitzah (barrier separating men and women during prayer), began screaming, cursing and threatening the seventy women as they prayed. Despite the harassment, the women completed their worship and Torah reading. The then Kotel Administrator, Rabbi Getz, allowed the women to continue their service stating that they were “not violating Halakhah” (Jewish law).

Since that day, the Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall meet monthly at the Kotel to try to pray with Tallit and Torah, but they have often been subjected to vocal opposition, name-calling, bull-horns drowning their voices out, to being spat upon, and even being the victims of thrown objects, including chairs.  Yet they continued to come, growing in numbers, in hopes that some day women might pray in safety and in sacred space at the Kotel in full voice, wearing prayer shawls and reading from a Torah Scroll.

We, here at Congregation P’nai Tikvah, remember being visited by Anat Hoffman, the spearhead of the Women of the Wall, last year in November.  We remember her story of being arrested at the Wall, imprisoned, and left shivering in the jail cell, with only the Tallit she was wearing to keep her warm.

I recently heard another story about one of the times Anat and several other women were imprisoned for trying to pray aloud with Tallit and Torah in the women’s section.  On that occasion two Charedi beggars were also in the jail.  When they heard Anat calling her lawyer, they asked if she could help them as well?  She asked them, “Do you know who we are?”  (–knowing full well, how the Charedim oppose the very existence of the Women of the Wall.)  The two imprisoned ultra-orthodox beggars, acknowledged that they knew, but then added:  “Kulanu Y’hudim.”  We are all Jews.

Well that’s precisely the point that the Women have been trying to make for the past 25 years.  We are all Jews, and, as proven by the photographs you may have seen in the foyer and are invited to view again during the Oneg, the Status Quo that we have seen since 1968 was not the Status Quo earlier, and, if the Wall is to truly be returned to all the Jewish People should not be the Status Quo of the future…and indeed things are changing.

In April 2013.  Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that a woman may wear the tallit and read from a Torah scroll at the Kotel. Since then, Women of the Wall have received police protect each month as they pray with prayer shawls and tefillin (phylacteries). Unfortunately, however, due to a local regulation not addressed in Judge Sobel’s ruling, they still are barred from bringing a Torah scroll to the Kotel Plaza.

The area around Robinson’s Arch, another, less easily accessible area around the Wall, was designated as a place for Women’s services or even egalitarian services (in a nod to pressure from the American Jewish community).  Yet, until recently Robinson’s Arch had neither the accessibility, status, space, amenities or budget as the Prayer Plaza.  It was separate, but not equal.

This fact was recognized by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky by Judge Sobel and by Israel’s Supreme Court. Many changes need to be made in terms of structure and infrastructure in order to make this space an equal, fully integrated prayer space at the Wall, and, indeed, some of those changes are already being made.   The offer made by  Natan Sharansky and Naftali Bennett, a Trade Minister, has been applauded by many liberal Jews around the world.  It was met with mixed reviews by the Women of the Wall.

However, this week, Anat Hoffman, issued the following statement:  “On Rosh Chodesh Kislev Nov 4, 2013, we will pray in the women’s section of the Kotel with hundreds of our sisters, commemorating the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Women of the Wall, and the establishment of our vision for full prayer rights for women at the Kotel. We continue to pray at the women’s section, as is our right, and we will continue to stand for the voice of women’s rights and religious empowerment at the Western Wall. However, we cannot in good conscience lobby Israeli society and the government to listen to our voices for 25 years and then refuse an invitation to speak directly to the government when it is offered to us.

“In furtherance of its responsibility to pursue all significant opportunities to realize WOW’s mission, the WOW board decided last week to compile a list of demands for the Prime Minister – the necessary requirements for a third, pluralistic and equal section of the Wall. Equal to the women’s and men’s section in size, budget and topography, the new section would allow for egalitarian prayer but it would also have partitions available to allow for those who seek women’s only prayers. Unlike the current men and women’s sections, this section would not be administered by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. The pluralistic section would be governed under the auspices of a group of leaders from all of the Jewish denominations, with 50% women and Women of the Wall representatives.”

The fact that Israel’s most iconic national monument is still being overseen by Chareidim is still a sticking point for many people.   (In truth, this is more of a sore-spot for Western Jews than for most Israelis, who simply aren’t interested.)

The new expanded platform rising above the archeological dig area near Robinson’s Arch is slated to be pluralistic, allowing for egalitarian prayer.   The WOW do not want it to be governed by Rabbi Rabinowitz but by a council made up of 50% men/50% women.  They want the space to be equal in size to the existing plaza, open 24 hours a day, and at no charge….like the existing plaza.  They’ve made some other demands, but I suspect some of them (like raising the platform to the same height as the existing plaza) may be negotiable.

Much has been accomplished in the past 25 years, yet the Nashot HaKotel will continue to stand strong in prayer in the women’s section of the Kotel and look forward to the future when the third section will enable women will be able to pray in security and in full equality.

Happy 25th Anniversary.  Blessings for safety and security and may the voices of these brave and determined women be heard in the heavens.  The times they are a-changing.  Baruch HaShem.


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

1 November 2013