Reflections from the Western Wall on International Women’s Day

Tonight on the eve of Purim, I will gather 10 beloved women around me and recite Birkat HaGomeil (a prayer said in gratitude after one has overcome a dangerous or life-threatening event). In this blessing, I will hold close to me the hundreds of other women who were with me last Friday on Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall (the Kotel). Women from across the religious (and secular) spectrum – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox – flooded the Kotel, each driven by her own motivations and stances.

The plaza overflowed; security forces did not limit entrance to capacity, and more women continued to stream in. Hundreds were pushed into each other, shoved amidst waves of pressure, suffocation, and sweat.

I will recite Birkat HaGomeil because I left with “only” a broken camera lens and a smattering of blue bruises on my knees – from a 15-year-old who, for 15 minutes, continuously kicked at my legs saying, “I’m a minor, what are you going to do to me, you Reformer?!” And no police response.

I will recite Birkat HaGomeil thankful that no woman was trampled to death in the midst of waves of pushing and taunting – which is nothing short of a miracle.

I will recite Birkat HaGomeil because for 50 minutes I wanted to get out of there and had no way out.

I will recite Birkat HaGomeil because in the field of thousands of girls’ hate, it is lucky that no small “spark” caused a bigger “explosion.”

I will recite Birkat HaGomeil for the Women of the Wall (WOW) prayer books and the hidden Torah scroll, none of which were damaged.

I will recite Birkat HaGomeil because two girls hit and pulled the hair of a 75-year-old woman who could have been their grandmother – and because our house is still not completely destroyed. There is time to heal.


Women struggling at the Kotel – the Western Wall

When I returned home on that Friday, nearly two weeks ago, I tended to my injured knees, drank some water, and took a pain reliever. I sat with my computer to edit photos. While I waited for the photos to copy over, I opened the news, and the headline that greeted me said: “The Police: ‘WOW caused provocation’” I thought a better headline might have been this: “Serious failures in security arrangements and police protection of Kotel visitors.”

Had I not witnessed the scene with my own eyes, I likely would have continued to think that these women are indeed a group of “provocateurs,” because that way I would not have to deal with the deep and disturbing facts on the ground.

In the meantime, a few other points of commentary.

This is a war in which those who claim to stand for Jewish values send thousands of minors to fight educated adults. They, the opposition, do not have the decency – or perhaps the ability – to gather educated, independent-thinking adult women and men willing to leave their homes at 5:30 a.m. once a month for 30 years.

Halachah (Jewish Law), in whose name the protestors are supposedly going to battle, is violated repeatedly by those who claim to be protecting it. As for modesty – male photographers and security personnel are sent by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch to peer over the women’s section as if it were a theatrical performance. When it comes to violence, it is perpetrated by young girls encouraged by ecstatic women. There are countless examples of Rabinovitch’s disregard for the sanctity of the place, too, including allowing Ferraris to park in the plaza, and convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland to visit the site.

Despite the physical, verbal, and emotional violence Women of the Wall participants experience, I have never seen them respond with this same aggression or lose their wits – or their hope for a changed reality.

Say what you want, we are succeeding. Just a few years ago, laying tefillin, wrapping in tallitot, reciting the Sh’ma out loud, lighting Hanukkah candles, and reading the M’gillah aloud in the women’s section all were criminal offenses that could result in detention and filing of transgression reports. Today these are permitted acts – all to the credit of all the group’s past efforts.

Time after time, Kotel attendants and security personnel disregard the High Court decisions; despite the written ruling that free access to the Wall’s stones must be allowed, the security group builds an enclosure far from the wall for WOW, distancing them completely from the wall. And when the women refuse to use it, they are told their safety will not be ensured.

For me, a non-Orthodox citizen, being at the Kotel is a disturbing, borderline degrading, experience. Countless times I have been handed skirts, scarves, candles, red strings, and omens. Men have shouted “shiksa” and worse; it’s the prevailing norm.

My heart hurts and bleeds. For the mountains of hate, for a State that does not educate toward love, communication, or building bridges.

Each month, just before I board the shuttle that returns me to my car, I pause to sing this prayer:

May the one who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, all Israel and all who inhabit the earth. Amen

Photo by Hila Shiloni Rosner