Women of the Wall: More Harm Than Good?

By | Jul 10, 2013

My alarm clock rang at 3am. Time to head to the Kotel for the crack of dawn vatikin minyan. My friend had told me that every Rosh Chodesh, two yeshivas come together to form one big minyan. She promised me lots of singing and ruchaniyut, or spirituality. I was hesitant to agree to go; I’d have to wake up so early, and worried I’d be too tired to focus. What if I wasn’t “feeling” the spirituality? I’d have missed out on precious minutes of sleep, which I could never seem to get enough of. My friend reassured me that it was worth going. So that morning, I rolled out of bed at 3 in the morning, grabbed a sweatshirt and shuffled downstairs to wait for my friend.

It was dark and chilly as we passed through the Jewish quarter and  security. There were only a handful of other ladies praying in the women’s section. We stood in the back, close to the mechitza, so we could hear the minyan on the men’s side as loudly as possible. As I mumbled my way through the praying, I wondered when we’d start praying aloud. My bed, kilometers away, was calling my name. I shot my friend a questioning look. She put her hand up in a gesture that said, “hold your horses” and went back to praying, head bent over siddur, shuckling. Sure enough, the singing started at Hallel. Finally! This is what I had woken up so early for! At this point, the sky had brightened and it was warming up. About halfway through the Hallel, the minyan disappeared. I had been in my own world, focused on the words in the siddur, when I snapped back to reality. Where did the men go? Why did the singing stop? I saw looks of confusion on the faces of women around me. Along with many other women, I attempted to peek over the men’s side to see what was happening.

The minyan was indeed gone, replaced by Israeli soldiers putting up barriers a couple feet away from the mechitza. I asked an older lady next to me why they were putting up the blockade. It was so that the haredi men wouldn’t throw chairs over the mechitza at the women. I was horrified. Why would men throw chairs at us? I thought to myself. And then, seconds later, chaos erupted. Charging through the entrance of the women’s side were the Women of the Wall.  Made up of a surprisingly large group of women, the women were all clad in decorated tallitot. They were surrounded by a swarm of media. Cameramen and reporters pushed their way to the center of the group, trying to get a good shot of the women, a good quote for their newspaper. Aside from the men standing in the women’s section, there were haredi women who went over screaming. Were the shouts directed at the media or the women? I couldn’t quite tell, though there clearly was a standoff between one religious woman and a member of the Women of the Wall. Both were screaming, yet no one was listening. It was quite a spectacle—two women, screaming at each other, with no intention of listening to what the other was saying. And of course, there were plenty of cameras there to capture it all.

Momentarily peeling my eyes away from the swarm of people, I glanced around at the other women who were praying. With the exception of the few people who were the closest to the Kotel, with their hands grasping onto the wall, their heads bent over their siddurim, the majority of the women had ceased to pray and were staring at the scene as well. Talk about rubbernecking! Most of the women had disgusted looks on their faces, whispering to each other. I could only imagine what they were saying. My friend who brought me to the Kotel came over to tell me the minyan had moved to the back. Due to the barrier, they were forced to relocate, and we would have to exit the women’s section to hear them. So we left, with many other ladies, and stood outside the men’s section in the plaza. Craning our ears to hear the minyan over the loud voices of the haredi men who were trying to drown out the voices of the Women of the Wall, we had trouble following the hazan. My praying experience was ruined. My friend and I left before the service was completely over, because we had had enough of the drama.

Walking back, I found that I was angry with these women. It surprised me. Was I one of these religious women who just wanted to get rid of this group? I grew up in an environment where respect for other’s opinions, religions and traditions trumped everything else. Although I might not necessarily agree with the objective of these women, to wear tallitot, read from the Torah and pray aloud, I wasn’t flabbergasted, as others were. These women were trying to bring a type of Reform movement to the Kotel–though it seems to be outrageous in Israel, it’s nothing new to America. It was the manner in which they conducted themselves that disturbed me.

The Women of the Wall had deliberately caused brouhaha. It was all for show. Once they came into the women’s section flanked by cameramen and reporters, some of the women spoke to the reporters, while the rest of the women sang Hallel in a chorus. They sounded beautiful praying together as a group. But they were singing so loudly that no one else could focus on their own prayers. Even more so, religious men were trying to block out the sound of their voices, since halachically men are prohibited from listening to women sing. I can’t speak for the intentions of the women, but it seemed that they were singing to prove a point to those at the Kotel, rather than praying to God. I left while they were still protesting because I found their actions disrespectful to both the holy nature of the Kotel and to the people who were trying to focus on their prayers.

My friend had promised me a memorable praying experience. And she was right, it was memorable. But ultimately for a very different reason.



14 thoughts on “Women of the Wall: More Harm Than Good?

  1. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    Well-written and a poignant point: If the real goal is prayer, why quibble over how it happens? Can you imagine if Moslem women tried this in Mecca, or Catholics at St. Peters? Why should only Jews be forced to accomodate the newly-inspired minority?
    With 20 years of attempts, WOW brings a few dozen, while the Charedim bring many thousands with two days notice. Doesn’t that big a majority speak to the democracy issue here?
    Nobody would object if they built their own synagogue and did this there. It’s the attempt to force acceptance that galls the religious and those that believe in democracy.

    1. Dan the Man says:

      The primary goal of WOW is not prayer per se, it’s allowing all those to worship God in their own way, and to open the Kotel to all Jews regardless of religiousity. This is far more important than simply reciting a prayer by rote.

      What you’re saying is that integrating a diner in the South was really about eating lunch.

  2. hag says:

    Why always compare to others … IF they are ‘wrong er ‘ than us so be it… let us be the best ……. the only place that I would not go with my wife and daughter is the WC..

  3. ANon says:

    You know, before you sit there and roundly condemn the WoW for being loud media-hoggers (and too bad they ruined your spirituality-time, by the way), where is the blame for the ultra-right? Yes, the whole thing is for show. Duh. The whole point is that ONE DAY, women will be able to quietly come and do their thing without anyone “minding” – as in, Haredi men throwing chairs and flipping out as if the entire order of the universe has just been upended. So yes, as of now, the entire thing is a PR fight in the public sphere between a patriarchal orthodoxy and the new gender consciousness that refuses to let a bunch of old conservative men be the sole interpreters and mediators of culture and religion.

    Judaism is not the sole religion challenging its established religious authorities for the right to interpret the religion on behalf of modernity – contrary to what GInzberg wrote, Catholic women are also having their WoW moment, albeit in a slower-moving and less action-packed arena, not given to flashpoints of juicy media action (e.g. chair-throwing and heedless shouting). Their rift with the Vatican home base is more or less the same in essence as the chief reasoning behind the WoW movement. And one could see echoes of this in some of the aspirations expressed by Arab Spring youth – though of course gender rights took a very distant back seat to populism and regional politics, and the status of women in Islamic societies remains lamentably second-class to that of men (to the point where I would condone any assault and hostile takeover of third-world countries solely on the basis of how they treat their women). But still! Down with conservatism and patriarchies. Down with stodgy old men dictating who gets to love whom, and how we pray. Anyone fighting this fight is on the right side of history, and the future eagerly awaits their triumph.

    1. Sarah says:

      >>”The whole point is that ONE DAY, women will be able to quietly come and do their thing without anyone “minding”<< Fine, when WoW come quietly I'll be happy to accomodate them…but in the 7 years I've lived in Jerusalem it's never been "quietly" but always loud, intrusive and deliberately provocative.

      1. Jon Baker says:

        Only because the Haredim choose to pick a fight. I saw the WotW on a Friday morning 24 years ago, when they were just getting started. Quiet davening, in the back of the women’s section, some singing, but as I said, in the back so they wouldn’t disturb the old women in the front. That’s what it was mostly at the beginning, that’s what it should be, if certain elements insistent on influencing the government didn’t use WotW to grab the media spotlight, by picking fights on women. Big strong men, to pick fights on women.

        The soldiers and police are there to protect the women from the black-suited provocateurs.

  4. Shira says:

    Why do you blame Women of the Wall for the hilul hashem of the violent haredi protesters that morning? Why would a woman bring that kind of violence and abuse upon herself? We have been praying on rosh hodesh morning for nearly 25 years. we do get up early each month and we have a beautiful tefila. you are welcome to join next time before you judge this beautiful group of religious women.

  5. “So yes, as of now, the entire thing is a PR fight in the public sphere between a patriarchal orthodoxy and the new gender consciousness that refuses to let a bunch of old conservative men be the sole interpreters and mediators of culture and religion.”
    Thank you for admitting that this is, at least for now, a pure provocation.
    As you may have noticed the last three month the presence of traditional women has increased due to the activity of Women FOR The Wall. We are secular, traditional, religious and ultra Orthodox women who are feminist yet have a great respect for tradition and are appalled at the use of The Kotel by WoW for political gain and provocation. We are changing the picture and giving a voice to women who do not want change at The Kotel and precisely because everyone keeps making this into a fight of Haredi men vs liberal feminist women, and its not, its about Klal Israel wanting to keep this place for tefila (prayer and introspection), achdut (unity) and ahavat Israel (love). The place for their fight is at the Knesset and not at our holy site.

  6. Dan the Man says:

    I guess the cops had to put up high barricades for the same reason zookeepers put up high fences; to protect the public from the animals. In this case, the Haredi idiots who were throwing chairs and other far more loathsome items at WOW were the animals, except:

    Our dog doesn’t behave like that.
    Our cats don’t behave like that.

    Chimps, on the other hand, DO behave like that. Thus, the haredim (including that miserable harridan who blew her whistle at WOW in order to stifle their praying) are no better than the lower primates.

    Your article is rubbish.

  7. Hanna Sara Zeif says:

    I practically could have written this post myself. Those guys are awesome, and I make an effort to daven with them every month, but it’s been getting harder. I’m curious about what month you went, because I’ve seen it play out different ways. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan (before there was any such thing as Women for the Wall, by the way) they moved the guys at the end of hallel, and a few of us went around to the back, but I had to call down to some guy who happened to be standing at the back of the men’s section, trying to figure out why these boys who were not doing anything wrong were being pushed around, and beg him to ask the minyan to come to the back so we could hear. Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, when the barrier on the men’s side was already up at 5am, my friend and I went and davened behind the guys from the beginning, but the other girls who came didn’t want to leave the women’s section because they wanted to dance, and, though we had a good spot, my friend and I wound up surrounded by “haredi” boys who came to gawk. Honestly, I’m no WoW supporter, especially after I’ve seen what both sides had to say for themselves, but I will tell you that a year ago, when nobody much cared, they came, sang loudly for an hour, and left. Big whoop. Didn’t particularly bother us, and from what I’ve heard, members of WoW rather liked the singing coming from the men’s side.
    These guys give me a major boost of spiritual inspiration every month, despite the circus that often surrounds them. On Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, they were joined in their dancing by both haredim and WoW supporters – even, for a brief moment, both at once. Their only response to the fighting has been to sing acheinu. For a better experience, though, I recommend davening with them in a month with two days of rosh chodesh, when they usually don’t come the same day as WoW.

  8. Dan Feigelson says:

    Your article, and Hanna Zief’s comment, point to a real problem (as opposed to the WOW’s “problem”) that isn’t being addressed, namely the fact that the way the kotel plaza is currently arranged doesn’t allow women to be in close proximity to a minyan of men, even on the other side of a mehitza. Under the current set-up, mothers can’t watch their sons put in tefillin or read from the Torah for the first time; women like yourself can’t hear, let alone participate, in the singing of Hallel with a minyan. Rather than have a single men’s section and a single women’s section, the powers-that-be would do well to make multiple side-by-side men’s and women’s areas, with mehitzot designed in a such a way that the women can see what’s going on. An alternative solution would be a series of bridges or platforms for women above the current plaza area, that would facilitate both sound and sight.

  9. Leiah Elbaum says:

    The situation you describe in your piece is recent. Summer 2012 I too was at the Kotel very early one Rosh Hodesh morning for a family bar mitzvah. As I was arriving at the Kotel a woman wearing a tallit was being dragged away by two police officers. There was no media, no cameras, save for tourists and a police woman standing nose to nose with the remaining WOW women who were davening in a small group at the very back of the women’s section. Aside from the police treating them like public enemy number one no one was paying them any attention, not the bevy of Hareidi women davening quietly and undisturbed, not the elderly Hassidish ladies hunched over right by the Kotel itself not the several Rosh Hodesh minyanim going on in the men’s section and not our bar mitzvah party. Soon our bar mitzvah minyan got started too, the women gathered in a large group by the mehitzah, the men close to the mehitzah on their side, nobody noticing that there was a small group of women at the back of the plaza singing Hallel. I noticed only because I happened to arrive just as one of them was being arrested!

    It is the decision of Women for the Kotel and other Hareidi groups to protest loudly and violently that has created this media circus around WOW. Not even the police harassment of them drew as much media attention – witness the woman I saw being arrested in complete silence with all those around apparently oblivious to what was happening. Without the Hareidi protests the WOW group would have their modest little prayer group at the back of the Ezrat Nashim, everyone else would do their thing undisturbed and oblivious, veshalom al Yisrael.

  10. here we go again, more comments about the patriarchal orthodoxy and rights of women. Hello!!! Women do not have an obligation to pray in a minyan. WOW goes to a place where men meet in minyans and they disturb the men who DO have a religious obligation. And they do it at the Kotel, so they disturb hundreds, when women don’t even have the obligation to be there.

    1. michelle says:

      Right, in your eyes, women only have an obligation to let their husbands have a concubine or to be the concubine. How are those two kids of yours by another woman’s husband????

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