On Rosh Chodesh, the new moon of the Jewish month of Av, I found myself in Jerusalem, in the plaza near the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple) surrounded by hundreds of people—and barricades.
I almost didn’t find myself there. When I first arrived at the Plaza, I was enveloped by a throng of curious Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) girls who tried to see what was happening as they approached the Kotel for their morning prayers. Still looking for a way in, I rounded the corner of the barricades and encountered a large, angry group of Haredi men, whose jeers rose louder and louder. But the sound of women praying in song rose above their taunts, and soon an Israeli soldier parted the barricades so that I could go inside.
As I closed my eyes, new melodies to familiar prayers and the beautiful sound of Israeli women davening (praying) lifted me. But when we reached the Shema and quietly recited its second line, the angry crowd began to shout unspeakable insults. Next came the eggs, hitting a pregnant rabbi and friend. After the Israeli soldiers quieted the crowd, there was a beautiful—but slightly strange—sight. A thirteen year old girl stood up on a chair and chanted Torah with a strong and graceful voice as she became Bat Mitzvah. Yet instead of chanting from a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), she chanted from a book.
And here is the heart of the issue. Only since May 2013, have women been able—legally—to pray out loud, to wear tallitot and tefillin at the Kotel. However, women are still not able to bring in and read from Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls).
Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, explains that there is only one Kotel and it has become a Haredi synagogue. She said: “The problem is that the state took the keys of the holiest place for all Jews and gave them to the Haredim [a relatively small slice of the entire population of Jews].”
I remember sensing this the first time I went to the Kotel when I was in college in the early 90s. I still recall my shock of the size of the women’s section (12 meters) relative to the men’s (48 meters). I felt awkward approaching the Wall in the shmata provided to me by the women strictly policing the “modesty” of the women approaching the Wall. I so wanted to feel Clal Yisrael (the oneness of the Jewish people) at the Kotel. Instead, I felt like I didn’t belong.
So many of us want our daughters—and sons—to feel they belong at sacred places in the Jewish landscape, whether here at Temple Sholom, at Hillels on college campuses and certainly at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Therefore, we at Temple Sholom have joined with other congregations around the world in solidarity with the Women of the Wall. On November 3rd at 9:45 am, we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Kislev with a service led by members of our Sisterhood and me. During that very musical service, we will read from Torah and celebrate the beginning of a month that commemorates great victories in our people’s history. May we have another victory to celebrate next Kislev—that women will be able to read from the Torah not just at Temple Sholom, but at the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago and recent recipient of the Hartman Fellowship