Women of the Wall prays monthly to protest religious restrictions on women at the Western Wall.
By Claire Butwinick
On her first trip to Israel in May, Casey Robinson, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, visited the sacred Western Wall in Jerusalem expecting to be moved by the connection to her Jewish heritage. Yet when she arrived at the wall, she was more taken aback by a mother leaning over a fence trying to capture a photo of her son’s bar mitzvah from afar.
The mother was unable to join her family not because she wasn’t Israeli, nor because she didn’t speak Hebrew, but because she was a woman.
The Israeli authorities enforce Biblical ultra-Orthodox laws that separate men and women in places of worship, and prohibits women from speaking, reading religious texts and wearing sacred prayer shawls.
Women of the Wall is a feminist prayer organization that is trying to change these rules that prevent women from worshipping freely at the Western Wall.
Women of the Wall believes that these restrictions from ultra-Orthodox authorities are an infringement on human rights and silence women from religious expression. Since 1988, Women of the Wall has used prayer as an act of protest by gathering at the Western Wall on the first of every month to read from sacred scrolls, wear prayer shawls and sing loudly in retaliation against the status quo.
And their voices have not gone unheard.
Women of the Wall has support from members of the Jewish community who value feminism and equal rights, but the organization has gained the most momentum from Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States.
According to Rabbi Dana Benson, a Reform rabbi of Hillel at the University of Washington, this is because American culture has a broad sense of living “Jewishly” and respects progress in religious customs.
In contrast, Women of the Wall has been unable to attract many secular Israelis because of the distinct divide between religious (Orthodox) and secular Jews who do not practice religious customs, but embrace Jewish culture. Many secular Israelis do not live in Jerusalem or visit the Western Wall because the locations are deemed as Orthodox.
However, young secular Israeli girls have begun to protest with Women of the Wall as they discover their connection with Jewish tradition.
While Women of the Wall have received endorsements from Jews across all denominations, they have also faced backlash from the Israeli authorities and the Orthodox community.
Many peaceful protests have turned hostile and Women of the Wall have been yelled at, spit on and harassed by opponents in the Orthodox community. Guards at the Western Wall used to support the women during their protests, but as of February 2017 they have stopped protecting them and have even engaged in harassment.
Women of the Wall’s acts of defiance have even led to arrests by the Israeli police. Since 2009, 33 Women of the Wall protesters have been arrested by the Israeli authorities. Executive Director of Women of the Wall, Lesley Sachs, has been arrested eight times.
Sachs’ arrests have not discouraged her from joining the fight, but rather they have empowered her support her fellow feminists in prayer and song.
“We try to keep it an uplifting, empowering service, and many women who join us don’t talk about the fear or the unpleasantness. They talk about the fact that this was a ‘wow’ experience for them,” says Sachs.
As a result of the growing tensions between Women of the Wall and the Orthodox community, security systems and barricades have been added to protect visitors, but also to keep Women of the Wall at bay.
Despite these restrictions from the Israeli authorities, Women of the Wall manage to smuggle in prayer scrolls and religious shawls to the wall in unique ways each month.
In fact, Women of the Wall have designed their own prayer shawls in solidarity.
In response to Women of the Wall, the Orthodox community has established Women for the Wall, an organization that strives to protect religious restrictions and respect ancient tradition. Many Orthodox Jews disagree with Women of the Wall’s acts of disobedience, and argue that they should not dismantle old customs in order achieve a feminist agenda.
Julie Sherman, a member of the Orthodox community, says that women don’t have to go to the Western Wall to feel a connection to Judaism.
“Judaism seeps into everything,” says Sherman. “ I don’t have to wait, it is everyday for me.”
Within the bounds of Orthodox law, women have found spiritual connection by engaging in customs that are dedicated to women. Lighting candles at the sabbath and celebrating with lunar services on the first of every month are traditions that are woven into the female Orthodox experience.
Since 1967, the Western Wall has been divided into sections for men and women, but in 2013 the Southern Plaza of the wall was established for mix-gendered prayer.
While the Southern Plaza is pluralistic in nature, religious scrolls and prayer shawls for women are not allowed. Also, the Southern Plaza is viewed as an archeological site and is clearly separated from the sacred Orthodox section.
Women of the Wall have petitioned since September 2016 to make the Southern Plaza a true egalitarian space with religious texts and prayer shawls for all, but have not received an answer from the Israeli government. Earlier this month, on June 4, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to decide to fund the Southern plaza at the risk of losing a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox authorities.
If the petition passes, the wall that Casey Robinson visited will begin to look very different. But for now, she hopes for equality.
“I would either want the male side and female side to be completely equal, or for there to be no division at all.”
Claire Butwinick is a contributing writer for The Riveter. She recently moved out West to study journalism at The University of Washington – Seattle. Claire loves singing loudly, funky sunglasses, and all things iridescent. Check out what she’s up to on Instagram.