Sunday, May 12, 2013

Women of the Wall: The Next Chapter

Kotel. 7:00am. Friday May 10, 2013. Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5773.

The events of the morning were simultaneously amazing, crazy, scary and unbelievable.

The first clue that this Woman of the Wall service would be different from others I attended was the huge numbers of orthodox teenage girls who passed as we descended from the Jaffa gate toward the Kotel. We knew that there were several rabbis who had put a call out to the girls' yeshivot in order to get huge numbers of Haredim to come out to protest the ruling in favor of Women of the Wall, but that knowledge did not prepare us for what we were about to experience.

There were thousands upon thousands of people at the wall and its adjacent plaza. The massive numbers of people meant that the Women of the Wall could not meet at its usual spot on the women's side, rather, we met on the plaza that morning. The added bonus was that men and women were able to pray together. As soon as we found the group, we pulled out our tallitot, now totally legal, and we joined in the service. We were encircled by police.

But, who could pray? We sang and participated, yet, it is hard to concentrate when just steps away are police officers linked arm and arm to prevent people who might hurt you from getting too close. Because we were on the side of the plaza closest to the women's section, we were surrounded mostly by the yeshiva girls. Many of them had their prayerbooks out and were trying to go through the morning service. They were crowding in, giving curious or sometimes strange looks. Some engaged in critical conversation, but it wasn't until we were toward the end of the service that we had some spit balls and then a water bottle thrown our way. On the men's side, the incitement started much earlier, with people throwing coffee grounds and at one point, someone threw a chair.

My dad and me. First time we prayed at the Kotel together.

As the service wore on, the crowd made us more and more nervous. At one point, the police had pushed the teens way back, but then a crowd of men in black hats came rushing forward. Cheers from the crowds that had gathered on the balconies of nearby buildings hinted that the protesters were giving police a hard time. By the end of the service, it was clear to everyone that the only safe way we were leaving was in a pack.

People gathered on balconies and on top of buildings to watch.

Anat Hoffman reminded us to stay as close together as possible. The police made two lines to hold back the protesters and then more officers walked alongside us as we left the old city through the Dung Gate. People shouted at us, people threw water bottles and hard candy. And the scariest part was that they kept coming. Once we were through security, I thought we would be past the danger, but protesters were lined up through the exit and all along the street outside. A public bus pulled up and we boarded. As we drove away, the spitting started, and then people started to hit the side of the bus with their hands. Once we gained speed, they started throwing rocks.

Police insisting protesters stay behind the barricade.
I snapped this picture right after the man in the middle spit at the bus.
As the bus picked up speed, several protesters ran alongside hitting the bus and throwing rocks.

It was amazing to feel the protection of the police. It was amazing to be there with the men and women who support Jewish pluralism in Israel. It was amazing to know that after twenty five years, the State of Israel is beginning to recognize the rights of women and of progressive Jews.

It was crazy to see the number of people gathered to protest the presence of Jews in prayer. And even crazier to know that they themselves were all Jews.

It was scary to be witness to a mob scene. It was scary to see the disgust on people's faces. It is scary to know the power that the leadership of any group has to incite violence and hate.

The whole experience and the whole situation is just unbelievable.

In the past few days, I've heard a lot of talk about what happened and how people feel about it. Some are still very critical about the Women of the Wall and the way they have taken up this fight. Some have said that they should keep to the courts; that their splashy tactics to attract the media cheapen the message. Others complain that it is just an American movement and Israelis don't really care. Others say that they should leave the Wall alone and concentrate on more pressing issues like non-Orthodox weddings and divorces.

Yet, the strategy of Women of the Wall necessarily helped to get the entire Jewish world involved with the issue of women's rights and the rights of progressive Jews in Israel. Being able to pray at the Wall in the way in which you are accustomed to praying may not seem like a big deal to most people, but the inequality is symbolic of other ways in which women's rights are being subverted.

Segregation between men and women in Israel began only in 1999. Now, it happens on streets and on buses. There have been segregated health clinics and water fountains. On certain Israeli radio stations, women's voices are not allowed. When Kenesset sessions are aired, the voices of female ministers are bleeped out. There are communities where women are made to wear clothing akin to the burkas under the Taliban. There are signs in front of synagogues that tell women that they have to hide behind cars if they are waiting for their husbands so as not to disrupt the study of Torah through their very presence. The Israeli ReligiousAction Center (IRAC) has been successful in combating segregation in many of these areas, and they are winning new cases all the time. However, even in areas where segregation has been deemed illegal, social pressures have women seemingly volunteering to sit at the back of the bus, quite literally.

On Jerusalem bus #56, a bus that starts in an Ultra-Orthodox community, goes through an Ultra-Orthodox community and then ends in an Ultra-Orthodox community, the buses continue to be gender segregated. IRAC has started a “Freedom Ride” wherein a group of people get on the bus at the first stop and all the women sit in the front bus with an empty seat beside them. This enables the Orthodox women to sit in the front next to another woman. They can take advantage of the situation and not be scorned for sitting next to a man or stealing a seat from a man. Sue Bojdak and I participated last week during the WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism) convention last week.

It was a very interesting experience. I sat in the very front. Many of the women who came on the bus walked straight past me without a second look. But, I got many surprised glances from men as the bus slowly filled. At one point, an Ultra-Orthodox man put the two bags he was carrying on the seat next to me and then balanced on the armrest. When he got off the bus, a secular man smiled at me, sat down and said, “Ani lo dati" (I'm not religious). Another member of our party overheard a young girl saying, “Uch! Are they here again?” There was nothing subtle about the situation. We were disrupting the usual practice of men up front and women in the back of the bus. A practice that serves to emphasize the restriction of women's freedom and rights in some parts of the Ultra-Orthodox world.

My mom and me in our tallitot. Glasses broke prior to event.
So, this is not just about whether or not women can pray at the wall wearing a tallit. It is a small piece of a much larger issue of extremism within Judaism, where the basic rights of women are being violated. Why such virulence? In general, it is an extreme reaction to the threat they feel from the outside world. It looks like Haredim will begin to be drafted into the military. There are no Ultra-Orthodox parties in Natenyahu's government. The money usually earmarked for Haredi yeshivot is being reallocated. While the Ultra-Orthodox are still very powerful in Israel, that power is waning. And, when people begin to lose their power, they clamp down on whatever and whoever is still under their control. Because of the way that literal Jewish tradition is set up, women are most susceptible. 

As you might imagine, however, the influence of the contemporary world has the potential to better the situation of the women. Haredi girls learn the national curriculum that includes math and science. They are the ones who learn how to pay mortgages and open bank accounts. They are the ones who find work to support the family. A minimum wage job earns more that a stipend for studying in the yeshiva. It sets up a system wherein the men have to rely on the women in their lives. Thus, the threat is not only from the outside, but it is also coming from inside their communities as well. The women are thus in the perfect position to be the victims of the attacks brought on by fear.

So, yes, the Women of the Wall are about the freedom of prayer. And they are about protecting the rights of progressive Jews who are not equal in the State of Israel. And they are about protecting women, whether they agree with the ideology and strategy of Women of the Wall or not. And they are absolutely about breaking down the stronghold of power and authority that allows for a few individuals to subjugate and control others. This is what Jews have always struggled against; those who would mistake themselves for God and thus design the world according to their will and benefit. It is a struggle incumbent upon all Jews, through time, space, and denomination. Even when it is with each other that we must battle.

For a short video with highlights of the morning, check out The Times of Israel. And for additional photos, go to this site.

Taking part in the monthly Rosh Chodesh services has been a real highlight of my time in Israel. Even with all the varied emotions, I am grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of positive change in the Jewish State.


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