This Wall is Mine, Too

In my first blog post of the year, I reflected on my inaugural Rosh Chodesh prayer experience with Women of the Wall and my hopes for identifying with their mission. Moved, proud, and excited, I wrote:

“The point is to make a space for US, not to try to change THEM. It was empowering to reclaim a space that hadn’t felt like mine for a long time, and to pray there the way I know how.” 

View of the Kotel during last month’s calmer Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh Davenning

This morning, I went back to Women of the Wall (my third time this year) and had a very different and disturbing experience:

I arrived at the Kotel (Western Wall) about 15 minutes late, so I went right in to the women’s section, put on my tallit (prayer shawl), and quickly caught up on the service. At least half of the women present were also wearing tallitot. Right as I had gathered my tzitzit (corner fringes) together in preparation for the Shema prayer, a police officer approached me (and a couple of others) asking us to change the way we were wearing our tallitot. Apparently, it is illegal for a woman to wear a tallit at the Kotel, and the way of getting around that is to wear them like scarves. I promptly pulled my tallit down so that it was draped on my body, rather than folded over my shoulders in the customary way. She asked me to further make it look scarf-like, and I, stumbling in Hebrew, told her that I would as soon as this prayer was over, but that with my tzitzit wrapped around my fingers, that would be challenging. Without waiting to hear the end of my explanation, she called over to her fellow officer who was holding a video camera, and said in Hebrew “She doesn’t want to. Film her.” The second I released my tzitzit at the end of the Shema, I pulled the bottom of my tallit up and wore it like a shawl (the way I saw most of the other women wearing theirs), and wore it that way for the duration of the service at the Kotel.

In the moment, I was pretty frustrated: frustrated that the officer had interrupted my davenning (praying) at a crucial moment in the service when I try to have the most focus and intention. Frustrated that I could not articulate myself well to her. Frustrated that in what I thought was a public space, I could not wear my beloved garment (that covered most of my body, by the way) the way that I wanted. Frustrated that my tallit was too big to wear as a scarf and was therefore uncomfortable on my body. Frustrated that the people whom I thought were present to protect our group made me feel like I was the threat.

I pushed through, though, and sang loudly for the rest of the service to help our group of women and allies hear each other over the loud celebratory service happening just on the other side of the mechitza (barrier separating the men’s and women’s sections). We gathered at the end of the Hallel service to head to the archaeological park  at Robinson’s Arch (and extension of the Western Wall), because women are not permitted to read Torah publicly in the Kotel plaza. As we headed through security on the way out, an officer pointed me out, along with fellow JTS student Sarit Horwitz and Ziegler rabbinical student Erica Miller and pulled us aside. We were asked for our passports (none of us had them so we gave our drivers’ licenses), and were asked for our contact information as well. We were then told that we would be contacted for further inquiry and possible legal recourse, though at no point were we told specifically what the problem was. (I found out later that the expectation was that we should never have worn our tallitot as we did. Though we all complied when approached, we were apparently past the warning stage.) Throughout this ordeal, we were surrounded by all of the women and allies present who never stopped singing songs, rubbing our backs, squeezing our shoulders, and letting us know that we were not alone.

I was overwhelmed with emotion. My initial reaction was that of fear. I had complied with the officer’s request, and was certain that my thirty-second delay to finish the Shema had done me in. My half-midwestern blood makes me avoid most confrontations, and I’ve always hated getting in trouble. (My most traumatic childhood memories are of those few times when I was disciplined by teachers.) Additionally, coming from the US, I’ve always seen police officers as people in a helper role. I trust them. Today, police officers made me feel intimidated and unsafe.

My multi-faceted frustration from earlier was magnified by the realization that the Kotel, a supposedly universal Jewish prayer space, did not belong to me. My only positive Kotel prayer experiences this year have been with Women of the Wall, and today, that too was taken away from me.

I was (and continue to be) sad that our Jewish community is so fragmented that there is no space for multiple forms of religious expression, especially in a space that has captured Jewish hearts across denominations as a powerful symbol of Jewish unity.

I was in disbelief that an act of devotion that I perform every morning (on other days made “even worse” by wearing tefillin) was suddenly considered a criminal act.

I was grateful for the love and support I felt and continue to feel, reminding me that my Judaism is legitimate, meaningful, and important.

Now, a few hours later, my fears have abated slightly, but my sadness, frustration, disbelief, and gratitude remain, and these have led me to feel yet another emotion: empowerment. While I regret that this incident had to happen in the first place, I do not regret that it happened to me. And despite my aversion to confrontation, I am now drawn into this fight. I want my voice and my story heard, because the religious welfare of the State of Israel is too important for me to remain silent.

I don’t know what will happen next. I may be called in for further questioning, but have no legal obligation to show up, and do not yet know what I will do. My rabbinical school year in Israel ends in just 2.5 weeks. I worry that this incident might leave a stain on my year, but am hopeful that I can transform it into an opportunity to leave a different kind of mark: a positive, lasting impression on this place that I’ve called my home for 8 months and my homeland for nearly 26 years.

Wish me luck.

For more coverage, check out the following:

Jerusalem Post article

WoW Facebook page (including a video interview with the three of us)

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16 thoughts on “This Wall is Mine, Too

  1. Ariel Schwartz

    Beautifully written, Ariella. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. It really resonates with material I’ve been teaching at Northwestern – I’m sending it along to my students for our section Thursday. B’hatzlacha with the rest of your studies, and perhaps our paths will cross again at some point!

    Reply
  2. Your Friend in Talpiyyot

    Absurd, is it not, that Israel legislated gender roles in Jewish prayer in public places, right down to how you wear a particular garment? Please keep in mind that this is not the popular will, not an expression of how the majority of Israelis want you to be treated.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Women of the Wall | Jewschool

  4. Danielle Klapper

    Its very difficult here. You hold a different view than Israel, its government, its ministers, and its law. You believe you are a Jew. But according to them, you are not. You are a woman. 10 Jews can make a minyan, 10 women cannot. A Jew can read torah in public, you cannot. A Jew can wear a tallit and practice freely in the Jewish state. You cannot. This is not our state. I am convinced by each one of these stories that the Jewish State is for Jews, and if women want to practice Judaism in any meaningful way, well they should go to the one place in the world (that matters) that allows you that freedom. USA.

    Reply
  5. Diane Rothstein

    Ariella, as a friend of your family as well as a jew, and having watched you grow up: I am exceedingly proud of you for standing up and willing to be heard. Diane R.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: This Wall is Mine Too | You Shall Pursue

  7. Victor.

    It is my opinion that the western wall belongs to “litolatrists” (stone-worshipers) of either sex or judaic stream. Religious and national chauvinism -movements alien to judaism-concentrate there.
    Judaism doesn’t have any consensual belief and internicine struggle is endemic in judaism; in fact the very essence of judaism is this struggle; for myself I want to state my firm conviction that stone worshiping is a disgrace for judaism. Victor.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Ginger Takes Israel

  9. David Bennet

    Maybe one day, you will live in Israel, fight in the Army, put your life in danger! Or perhaps you will live in America, enjoy the good life, and complain about Dati Jews

    Reply
  10. shirley wachtel

    Ariella, I just read of your experience at the Kotel. How frightening it had to be and how terribly frustating. It is your generation of young Conservative rabbis and women who will bear the burden for eventual change, G=D willing. My generation could not be Bat Mitzvahed. So, I say to you may you be blessed with the courage and will to bring this to fruition. We love bing Jewish women, but are saddened by this divide. Your family and you Beth El family are very proud of you. Those of us who can hobble, will willingly hobble with you. With tears in my eyes and love in my heart. Shirley Wachtel

    Reply
  11. robertaindia

    Arielle- you are following in the footsteps of Rav Gandhi- Be the change you want to see in the world. When we put our bodies on the line, we indeed risk our safety and security and this is how change happens. Courage!

    Reply
  12. Fran Gordon

    Arielle,
    What was hinted at Rosh Chodesh Iyar came to be Rosh Chodesh Sivan. You, Sarit and Erica are the next “geborot” in this social change movement. Your ability to express yourself, describing the experience and your emotions, bodes well for the Masorti movement. This is exactly the type of voice we need to hear. Kol haKavod!!

    Reply
  13. ravhiorlow

    Keep fighting the good fight- Much Mazel And Many Brachot- Avi
    p.s. You were missed at Cornerstone.

    Reply
  14. rabbiadar

    One of my sharpest memories from my Year in Israel is a morning at the Kotel with WoW. Thank you for going, and thank you for writing about it. B’chatzlecha with your rabbinical studies!

    Reply
  15. Pingback: Becoming Nobody: My Last Time (?) With Women of the Wall « facemagazinee

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