A personal reflection on Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av with the Women of the Wall
July 8th, 2013 (Published at the website of "Rabbis for Women of the Wall")
Rabbi Zelazo serves in the Circle of Honor of Rabbis for Women of the Wall
I was taught that when we treat a physical site as holy we create a sacred place. I learned that when we are in such a space, our intention to connect with the divine and our respectful behavior and love through prayer and contemplation build up a sacred energy. I lived my life believing that the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem is a holy and sacred place. But, on this last Rosh Chodesh Av, at the Kotel, I was emotionally paralyzed and could not feel the holiness that I was anticipating. On the morning of July 8, 2013, I entered this holy site with fear and overwhelming emotions in reaction to the haredim's unholy behavior. I painfully witnessed Jews contaminating the holy site of the Kotel and depriving me and 350 others from connecting to the divine in a way that we wished to.
Just three months ago the Women of the Wall achieved a victory in court in which the court ruled that women may pray at the Kotel with prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll. The government also provided police protection to the Women of the Wall. The gathering on that morning demonstrated, however, that one can never know what to expect on each Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel. While the abusive behavior of the haredim with their inappropriate conduct has continued each Rosh Hodesh since this victory, we faced still other issues.
At about 6:30 am I joined the Women of the Wall as we were bussed from Gan Hapa'amon to the Kotel. We were escorted by police to a fenced in area right beyond the entrance to the Plaza area. We felt safe up to this point. It was in this area that we ended up praying.
At about 7:00 am the women's section was packed with young haredi women and girls. When I say packed I mean they were standing right besides each other, creating a "wall to wall" carpet of bodies. Reports say there were about 7,000 of them. These women were summoned there by their rabbis to prevent the Women of the Wall from praying in the women's section.
On the other side, the men's section and the remaining space surrounding the Kotel were nearly empty. Yet, we were not allowed to get closer. There was enough space for us, but the police did not let us through!
The Kotel was not even in sight. Instead, we were facing a wall of people -- the police and (behind the iron barricades) the haredi men and teens. So we prayed in a space next to the public bathrooms, usually used by Police as a parking area.
The biggest disgrace was yet to come. We were facing haredi men protesters with signs, blowing whistles, throwing eggs and yelling "Natziot (Natzis) go home." The police were watching and did nothing. The police allowed these men to behave in such a way, even when a female journalist was physically attacked by a haredi man and woman. The haredi women stood on the side. They were calling us names and made faces at us. One called me "retarded." But then, there were the whistles. The constant loud and annoying whistles, which at times exceeded the singing of Women of the Wall. I will not forget the face of the woman who did not stop! I can still hear the echo of this ear bursting sound! And the police did nothing to stop her!!
One male rabbi shared with me that he experienced the most spiritual prayer service ever. I kept wondering where was the sense of kedushah -- holiness that he felt. I kept asking myself whether I was really praying while all of this was going on around me, being aware how hard I tried to stay focused. But all of a sudden I got it!! It was not what was happening around us, but what was happening among us. I realized that kedushah was created with each prayer, song, chant and intention that our voices uttered as we filled the air with energy; "Ozi V'Zimrat Yah, Vayehi li liyshuah" -- Yah is my strength and song has become my rescue." Yes! I too felt holiness because we established it with our presence and perseverance. By being there and not giving up on a vision of religious pluralism we made it a sacred mission. By bringing the young girl to mitzvoth and having her Bat Mitzvahed right there, there was holiness as we showed the way to the next generation. We created a sacred place right there at the Plaza next to the bathrooms.
So, I stood with my fellow men and women in front of these human barricades with awe; shaking and holding my tears, having a meaningful experience with emotions. I remember, as we sang the prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel and Hatikvah: "To be a free nation in our country" -- it was so special too, as it meant more to me than ever before.
I was thinking how my friends perceived me as a brave woman -- being there at the "front Line," but really, there is no bravery here -- I was there only because I wanted to be part of a dream for Israel and for my right to pray the way I want at the Kotel. I wanted to send a message to the Israeli government that the key to the Kotel has been given to us as well.
Rosh Hodesh Elul is coming soon and I am back in the States now. I will certainly be at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall in spirit -- May they go from strength to strength.