Tag Archives: women

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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A Student of Jerusalem

“There are places in Jerusalem that I recognize and know so well, but when I do chance upon one of them it’s as if I’d never seen the place before. While on the other hand there are places in Jerusalem that I’ve never been to in my entire life, but when I go to one of them, it’s as if I’m able to immediately recognize them and have always known them. The result, however, of these many meanderings of mine through the streets of Jerusalem both day and night has been that I never really found the time to learn a trade in life.  And what’s worse is that I neglected the study of Torah. When a Jew doesn’t engage in the study of Torah, his conscience constantly reproves him saying: So what will you answer on Judgment Day when they ask you “Did you occupy yourself in the study of Torah during your lifetime?” What indeed will I answer them?- I will proudly respond: “I was occupied with Jerusalem” and I’m sure they’ll commend me saying “Well done!” – Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, Within the City Walls, page 9.

We studied these words, American and Israeli rabbinical students, sitting right above the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza on one of our weekly class tours. While the duration of the conversation was devoted to ancient texts related to the destroyed Temple, the Kotel, and the Shekhina (the Godly presence) that is said to dwell there constantly, I was fixated on these modern words, written by one of Israel’s most famous and influential authors. I found so many truths in his statements- I too have walked the streets of Jerusalem, discovered something entirely new and nearly unrecognizable on a street I traverse daily, I have been to sites for the first time, certain that I must have spent significant time there in the past. Much of my experience here is occupying myself with Jerusalem: my home, my capital, my Beit Midrash (house of study), and a constant source of conflicting emotions, all underlied with love.My parents, teachers, and administrators will breathe a sigh of relief when I say that this preoccupation with Jerusalem has not prevented me from studying Torah- don’t worry, Gramma, I am doing my homework and studying for exams- but this Torah study would be incomplete if I valued the classrooms in the Mechon Schechter building above the limestone-dotted, hilly classroom that surrounds me constantly.

Thankfully, we’ve had many organized opportunities to learn about our surroundings. We have gone to a different holy site each week on our class on Jerusalem as Home to the Three Monotheistic Faiths. Through our experiential program we have met with Muslim students in nearby Abu Ghosh, various Christian leaders in the Old City, and other political, social, and religious leaders. By paying attention to posters and Facebook posts, I have encountered events protesting discrimination against women, Ethiopians, Arabs, and the list goes on. Jerusalem is in many ways a microcosm for the rest of Israel and the Jewish experience at large, and in many ways feels like another planet. It seems that every idea, cause, issue, and conflict that happens anywhere in the country comes to a head here. Or maybe, I just need to get out more- thank goodness we have semester break coming up next month!

Israeli singer Achinoam Nini at a concert to protest the silencing of women. The poster behind her reads "Sing for Equality: They Won't Silence Us"

Probably the most significant experiences I have had in the greater Jerusalem area over the last few weeks deal with a different sense of the word “occupation.” Just outside of Jerusalem (and most would argue within the city as well) is a vast area of land that represents many different things to many different people. I am of course talking about the West Bank (an area with many names according to each of these different people). I consider myself incredibly lucky to have participated in two trips to the West Bank on two consecutive Thursdays.

The first was a tour lead by a American Olah (immigrant) who is now a resident of the large settlement of Efrat. We started the day at Herodion, Herod’s man-made fortress which is now a fascinating archaeological park, and continued on to an illegal outpost to hear from a settler there, to a bakery in the largely Americanized settlement of Neve Daniel, to Kfar Etzion to learn about the massacre there in 1948, to the “pinah chamah” (literally “warm corner”) to deliver baked goods to soldiers relaxing off-duty, and finally to lunch and an overlook in Efrat.

View from Herodion of various Jewish and Palestinian homes

The second trip was run by Encounter, and involved two days of traveling in the Bethlehem area, meeting and hearing from Palestinians. We met peacemakers, businessmen, farmers, teachers, parents, and students and heard their stories. We walked along the separation barrier and all of the international graffiti messages drawn on it. We ate in a restaurant, met in hotels, and stayed over in people’s homes. My host family was a wonderful three-generation Palestinian Christian family in one multi-story house who opened up their beautiful home to four of us, providing tea, an excellent breakfast spread, and an openness to sharing their experiences and beliefs. At the end of the trip, on our way back into Jerusalem we walked through a checkpoint.

It took me several days to sort through all of the impressions, thoughts, and issues that these trips raised (and I’m still not done). It was fascinating to be in the same area twice and have it look so different on each trip. While I’m not sure I can definitively express my political views on what should happen in this region, especially as they shift slightly with each new story or piece of information that I hear or see, I can say that these two trips grounded the conflict here for me. I gained a sense of just how intense and deep the emotions are on all sides when it comes to this land, and the various peoples who feel inextricably tied to it. I feet despair and hopelessness that this conflict will never be resolved, and simultaneous joy and optimism at the incredible work that those committed to resolution and peace are doing. Even more, I returned from these trips with a renewed passion for and commitment to Israel as my homeland and as a place where I want to work to see dreams realized and potential actualized.

Artists from all over the world have come to try to beautify the walls of this conflict:

At the cement wall surrounding the "Pinah Chama"

The Separation Barrier surrounding Bethlehem

I now understand that saying “it’s complicated here” is more than just an excuse to avoid delving into deeper conversation- it’s simply the truth. As people on all sides work to strip away these layers of complexity (even while others try to add more), I’ll do my part and just keep sharing the stories:

Of Omar, a farmer in Al Walaje village, for whom the IDF is building a tunnel so that he can access the rest of his village that will soon be on the other side of the separation barrier.

Of the fighters of Kfar Etzion, who weathered massacres and ambushes as they defended the road into Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence.

Of  Ali Abu Awad, a former militant activist who was active in both Intifadas, and after losing his brother in this war and is now fighting for peace

Of the Jewish mothers who keep the “pina chama” fully stocked with fresh baked goods for soldiers to relax on duty, treating them as their own children.

Of the people on all sides who care deeply for their land and their fellow human beings, find justification for their their decisions through their faiths and traditions, and are just ready for  peace, in however many states it will take.

Omar's Tunnel

I’m grateful that I’ve heard all of these stories and more, and hope to add to my collection throughout the rest of this year. Stories are meant to be heard and stories and meant to be told and retold.

As you can tell, being occupied with Jerusalem and its environs can be exhausting, and I’m just a simple rabbinical student who can escape from it when I want. And escape I do. The last few weeks have been filled with many friends visiting from the states. Shout-outs to all of my friends from home, college, camp, JTS, and other facets of my life who came and had dinner, stayed with me, shared Shabbat with me, did laundry, and otherwise helped convert my apartment into a hostel. And a special shout-out to Becky for putting up with it.

The next few weeks will have a different, less-fun sort of escape- finals. Though I definitely do not look forward to the paper-writing and studying for exams, I do think it will be satisfying to reflect on what I’ve learned this year and how my Hebrew abilities have grown. Thankfully, we are allowed to write our papers in English. After exams, we have a few weeks off before beginning our Spring Semester at the end of February.

How Sarit and I "occupied" ourselves one day waiting for class to start

So it’s time to get back to studying: from books, from notes, from people, from landscapes, from maps, from the food I eat, and from the air I breathe. And once I am done occupying myself with passing my classes, I will go back to occupying myself with this fascinating city in this equally fascinating country.

Kama Tov Shebata Habayta- How Wonderful it is that You Came Home

*The title of a song by Arik Einstein that has been played on the radio constantly since the news that Gilad Shalit would be returning home, as well as the slogan on the banners welcoming him home (See photo below).

Welcome to a glimpse into my second year of Rabbinical School in Israel! I’ve now been here just over three weeks and am starting to feel like I actually live in Jerusalem.

To kick things off, I thought I’d share some thoughts on this year. Last week, I was privileged to attend a dinner with members of UJA-Federation of New York  (at an amazing restaurant called “Agas VeTapuach.”) Federation is generously funding a year’s worth of programming for us JTS students combined with students from the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, and Hebrew Union College. I shared the following words with them (modified here and there):

Rabbi Matt Berkowitz (who runs our experiential program here in Israel) asked me to share my hopes and expectations for my year of study in Israel. Before going into that, here’s some background.

I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. My father is a rabbi, my mother is a Jewish educator, so I’ve been involved with the Conservative Movement for a long time. As such, a lot of people saw me on the path to the rabbinate long before I did myself. The last time I was in Israel for the year was my junior year at Hebrew University, during which I spent the year as a typical student abroad, running all over the country, going wherever I wanted to eat, explore, and pray, and periodically doing my homework. With the primary goal being “fun” I didn’t want to take the time to figure out my place as a Conservative Jew in Israel. The truth is, though, over the course of that year, I really missed my community, my identity, and realized how painful it was to be in my people’s homeland and not feel able to practice my Judaism. It was at that point that I started to think about the rabbinate seriously- I didn’t want people to feel as closed off to their own religious experience as I did that year.

So, a few years later, I weathered the “I told you so’s” and applied to rabbinical school. Now, being back in this same city five years later as a rabbinical student, I cannot step away from navigating this disconnect, nor do I want to.

So what do I expect and hope to experience this year as a JTS rabbinical student in Israel? I was speaking with a classmate recently about how I had no pre-formed expectations for my year in Israel. Between finishing CPE, preparing for the high holidays, and my sister’s wedding, I just didn’t think too much about it. Right before Sukkot I realized, “Hey! I’m going to Israel in less than a week!” and then panicked about packing, but I did not prepare myself mentally for my transition (and let me tell you, I do NOT like transitions). All of a sudden, I woke up on Tuesday morning of Chol Hamoed Sukkot in Jerusalem, totally overwhelmed but ready to tackle the year.

I am now grateful that I didn’t take the time to think out my expectations, because it allows me to use these experiences of my first few weeks here to shape what I want this year to be about. I’d like to share with you some of these earliest formative experiences, and what I hope to gain from them.

1. I mentioned before that I woke up on Tuesday morning of Chol Hamoed Sukkot in Jerusalem, my first day in Israel. That also happens to be the day that kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was returned home. What an incredible day to be in Israel! People were out on the streets celebrating. I walked by the Prime Minister’s home where a vigil tent had been set up for the past 2 years, and instead of sitting somberly, people were watching the news, dancing, hugging, and singing. Many Israelis, much like many North American Jews, were very torn about the deal in which he was released for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but that Tuesday in the middle of the holiday in which we are supposed to be “ach sameah,” completely, utterly, happy, people radiated that joy. On that day, Gilad Shalit was everyone’s child, and it was impossible, even as a visitor to Israel, not to feel a part of that greater family. My first day in Israel I was invited to join a family, and I can only hope to feel the same connectedness with the people around me as the year progresses.

 

Signs Welcoming Gilad Shalit Home

 

People Celebrating at the Tents Set Up Outside the Prime Minister's House

2. For my first Shabbat in Israel, we (the JTS and Ziegler students) went on a tiyul (trip) to Northern Israel. We met with a successful Masorti Rabbi, Elisha Wolfin, at his congregation in Zichron Yaakov, and then spent Shabbat at Kibbutz Hannaton, a kibbutz that is affiliated with the Masorti movement in Israel (and therefore also with the Conservative movement in the States). It was inspiring to see a community that practiced a committed Jewish lifestyle together while still making room for the different backgrounds and opinions of its constituents. What this Shabbaton really did for us, though, was to allow all of us from JTS and Ziegler to connect with each other and get to know each other. This year, we are becoming friends, so that in the future we can be colleagues and allies as rabbis.

Plus, we went on a challenging, stunning hike down through the Golan Heights to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). True, they told us it was going to be a “leisurly walk, mostly downhill,” and I’ve since learned not to trust Israeli assessments of things like that. (Similar to directions giving- “yashar, yashar, yemina ad hasof- go straight, straight, then a right until the end.” Turn right where?? The end of what??) Still, the hike was definitely a bonding experience filled with beautiful views and a very rewarding dip in the Kinneret at the end.

Our "Leisurely Walk. Mostly Downhill"

 

The Kinneret: So Close and Yet So Far

 

JTS Crew on the Hike. Photo Courtesy of Rabbi Matt Berkowitz

 

3. A couple of weeks ago, to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, I joined about 40 women and a dozen male allies at the Women of the Wall. WoW (Nashot HaKotel) started as a group of women who wanted to reclaim the Kotel, the Western Wall, as a space where everyone, particularly women, could pray and praise God publicly. Women’s voices are often silenced at the Kotel due to the strong Haredi presence and opposition to women engaging in communal prayer. Members of WoW have been arrested in the past for attempting to read from the Torah at the Kotel. Currently, the group davens the service through Hallel at the Kotel (many women wearing Tallitot and kippot), and then moves to Robinson’s Arch, an area designated for egalitarian prayer, for the Torah reading.

Though I originally felt uncomfortable with the idea of going to a space and provoking people whom I didn’t really believe would ever really change their minds, I realized that that was not the point of WoW. 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. The best moment for me came during Hallel- we were singing loudly at this point, and a couple of women had tried to shush us, while men on the other side of the mechitza were trying to drown our voices out by singing even more loudly. I looked forward, and saw some Haredi women, probably a grandmother, her daughters, and granddaughters watching us, but not with the curious or disgusted looks that we had seen previously. Then, they started to clap and sing along. By being there, we not only created a space for ourselves to praise God, but for others as well, who might not have had the opportunity.

Check out the WoW website. There is a great video taken during Hallel as well as a link to photos from that morning.

These three experiences are just a few of my notable encounters of the past few weeks. All I can say is, “Keep ’em coming!” By the end of the year, I hope that all of these events, stories, and experiences will combine to make this Israel year as formative as it has the potential to be.

It’s about time to wrap it up now since Shabbat pretty much starts at noon this time of year, but I’ll be back soon with more to report. Preview of posts to come: daily life at Machon Schechter, snapshots from Jerusalem explorations, and some “only in Israel”-isms (think the “Really?!” segment from Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live).

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

-Ariella