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.”
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.
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