The Kotel and Me

Awhile ago, my mother gave me a box.  In the past years, she had been going through our closets and such, and brought me my stuff from our childhood.  In the past I have received boxes.  There have been  boxes of papers and books.  Boxes of old notebooks from college.  And a box of bar and bat mitzvah memorabilia (more bar than bat in those days) including kippot and invitations that I had saved.  Once I received an album of pictures from my childhood.  I assumed that my brothers received similar boxes.

This box included cards received at my birth, many from long passed aunts and uncles. And birthday cards for single digit birthdays, the kind of cards that have a digit on them. It also included a stack of Playbills that I had saved.  And it included letters.  Letters that I had sent from camp.  Letters that I had sent from college.  And letters that I had sent from my year in Israel from 1997-1998.

I was  at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus prior to studying at JTS for my masters. The computer that I used that year fried and many of my writings went with it.  So I was pleased to see that I had sent my parents two pieces that I wrote during that year.  The first was after an experience I had davening with a Masorti (Conservative) group at the Kotel on Tisha B’Av and the next was one davening with the Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh Elul.  (I had arrived in late June, so these were within my first few months in Israel.)  With the Kotel in the news lately, and our beginning a new path in our Biblical journey with the beginning of the book of Exodus this week, it seems like a good time to repost these writings.

Before I do, I should say that I have always been conflicted about the Kotel. This is evident in my writing. During my first trip to Israel in 1986, it was the last thing I saw.  I remember feeling afraid that I wouldn’t feel anything.  And my fears were realized.  On my most recent trip, I went with friends and stayed only a few minutes to take pictures.  The Kotel holds no connection for me other than a historical place.  And my experiences there of being unwelcome have done nothing to change this.

Tisha B’Av, Jerusalem, 8/11/97


At least that is what Conservative Jews were told tonight!

As planned, the group gathered just inside the Dung Gate.  Although the group was comprised of mostly adults, there were a few kids, along with several teens who were on the Camp Ramah summer in Israel program.  The extent of the media coverage was staggering. Film and photos going constantly.  People being interviewed.

There was an address from the police which was interpreted for me.  We were told that it was against the rules for men and women to pray together at the wall.  It was not minhag hamakom (the custom of the place) but we would be led into the plaza, to a place specially set aside for us.  The police did say that if there was a problem, there was no guarantee of protection.

We were led in by at least 50 policemen to a spot maybe 20 feet inside the revolving doors.  There were police barriers, with police in front of them.  We first sat down and sang while the crowd was organized.  At that point, there were probably close to 200 people.  We then stood to daven Maariv, led by a woman.  The photographers started clicking right away.  We were able to daven through most of the Shema, much of which we all read aloud, when the trouble started.

I could see the Haredim off to the side.  A loud speaker was sounded announcing that according to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, we would not be allowed to continue our prayers and would have to leave or be arrested.  I immediately saw a man  pushed by the police.  When he tried to turn around, they continued to drag and push him.  Continuing with our service, someone started saying kaddish and the police started pushing. They linked arms and pushed.  They put hand on our shoulders and pushed. The Haredim did not actually get near us.  They didn’t need too.  The police did their job for them.  As we were being pushed backwards through the gates of the Kotel entrance I had this strange flash of the Jews being pushed through gates to gas chambers.

When we were outside the entrance, people started davening the Amidah. People began to read the entire prayer aloud. Again, the police started to link arms and move us forcibly.  (If the papers say we left willingly, it is not true.  As I said to someone upon hearing this. “Yeah, about as willingly as a women submits to rape with a gun pointed to her head!”)  There were individuals incidents of people being pushed and shoved brutally by the police.  One or two were knocked to the ground.

I saw a man facing the gates with his teenage daughter nestled under his arm.  She was crying louding as he planted himself firmly and recited the Amidah.  As we were pushed almost to the Dung Gate, Rabbi Andy Sacks stood on a rock and shouted, “Where does the Kotel end?”

Mostly, I kept a safe distance, being a bit overwhelmed by the events.  At one point, the police line moved at us fairly quickly and I saw a smile on a policeman’s face.  I said, “You’re smiling. Are you having a good time?”  The smile was quickly erased.  But, they continued to push. And with the flash of cameras and the push of the crowd, it was frightening.

We were pushed out of the Dung Gate and proceeded to walk down steps to the right of the gate, to an area outside the walls. There we sat and read Eicha…As we were singing A-li Zion, I began to notice the number of Haredim building on the platforms around us. I could only think, this is why you don’t settle in valleys where your enemies can be above you.  (I know, it is a horrible thing to think of other Jews as the enemy.)

We stood to recite Aleiynu and to close with Hatikvah.  As we were singing the national anthem the hissing started.  We started to sing louder.  Then Oseh Shalom and Kol Ha-olam Kulo.  The Haredim started to hiss and boo.  They booed songs about peace.  They booed the national anthem.  We were safely able to disperse and it appeared that no one was physically hurt.   But I heard one woman say, “It makes you want to leave the country.”

I have had very mixed feelings about going to the Kotel.  I had been there once in my first month in Israel.  I hadn’t planned to go again, and now I even feel more certain about that.  I had expected trouble to come from the Haredim. In fact one man did jump at us as we were standing outside the gates. But we could defend ourselves against one man.  What we could not defend against was the special police being stationed at the Kotel to prevent disturbances between the Orthodox and Conservative and Reform Jews.  What I didn’t expect was that the police would be the ones to cause harm.

I have been a staunch supporter of Israel Bonds and UJA, leading fundraising drives.  But I am beginning to feel that it is imperative that we shift our “Israel” money over to organizations that will directly support the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel.

I’ve heard many times about the destruction of the Temple.  The baseless hatred by one Jew for another that led to the Temple’s collapse.  I saw the hatred tonight.  I never want to see it again!

The last line of Eicha reads:

And let us come back;

Renew our days of old!

For truly, You have rejected us.

Bitterly raged against us.

And when it happens, we have to say: God hasn’t rejected us. We’ve rejected one another.


Rosh Hodesh Elul Jerusalem 9/5/97

The Women of the Wall

I had been looking forward to participating in the Rosh Hodesh gathering of the Women of the Wall.  This is a small group of women who daven together at the Kotel. They do not consider themselves a minyan and do not do minyan-only brachot such as Kaddish or Barchu. (I wonder if this has changed?)

About 20 women, mostly American, gathered at the Kotel for Sharcharit and Hallel.  The singing was wonderful and as we sang the last psalm in Pseukai DeZimra, and sang the words Bi-teka Shofar, we heard shofarot go off from the men’s side of the mechitza.

We then went to a nearby site to read Torah and recite Musaf, we blew the shofar, which turned a lot of heads.  I did Hagbah which was an awesome experience.  Hagbah in the Old City!

There were points in the service where I was lifted by the music and the words really reached me.  I felt as if I was part of something greater.  After Tisha B’Av it was good to return to the Kotel for a positive experience.

I have found the timing of events curious in itself.  Just as the shofar blew when we said the words in the psalm, the following time we sang “Halleluyah,” a woman yelled loudly for us to SHUT UP.  This reminded me of Tisha B’Av when the ultra-Orthodox began to boo us as we sang Hatikvah and Kol HaOlam Kulo…, the national anthem and a song about bridging gaps!

The only other interruption was from another woman who repeatedly told us to be quiet. I asked her politely to not interrupt my davening and she told me that I was allowing the men to commit and aveyrah, a sin, by allowing them to hear my voice.  Even when I told her they couldn’t hear us, she was not appeased.  Someone from our group had actually stood by the mechitza and was unable to hear us.  Not only was this upsetting to me because my davening was not of relevance to her; she interrupted at a time that I was lost in the liturgy.

Before we began, we were given a warning to keep the davening low key.  As one of the women came into the plaza with a duffle containing a Torah scroll, she was questioned as to where we were going to read Torah and a few haredi men had already harassed her.  As much as I want to experience these kind of events, and support these kinds of causes, I am torn by the idea of feeling like I am going into battle each time I try to daven in a certain way or with a certain group. (I was once told by a woman that it reminded her of doing clinic defense work.)

The other issue is the Kotel itself.  In discussion after Tisha B’Av, I heard a lot of “it was only a political action” and “why didn’t you go to the south side where there would have not been a problem.”  Why did we have to go to the Western Wall where everyone else was? And what do I think of the Temple and I do want to see it rebuilt? (NO!)

Last Shabbat I spoke with Rabi Einat Ramon, the first Israeli-born female to be ordained.  She told me that for the first time, Israelis were really moved by the plight of Conservative Judaism when were were thrown out of the Kotel plaza.  She said that for Israelis, the Kotel has nothing to do with the Temple.  It has to do with 1967, coming into the Old City, and recapturing the Wall.

That I understood! It was all about the famous photograph of the soldier looking up at the Wall in awe after it was recaptured. (You can see it on the WOW website.)  I have never had a great personal affinity for the Kotel.  I do not run there as soon as I get off the plane.  But rather than seeing it as the remains of the Temple, I see it as a symbol of the reunification of Jerusalem and Israel.  Rather than a symbol of destruction, it is a symbol of hope.

NOTE:  Even if you cannot understand Hebrew, please check out the video in this post.  It’s pretty clear what is happening.

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
This entry was posted in God, Israel, Spirituality, Tefillah (prayer) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Kotel and Me

  1. galityomtov says:

    Shabbat Shalom Gail,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m giving my talk tonight about WOW.

  2. Thanks you for sharing your personal experiences, Gail. I share a lot with you. The Kotel is really not where I have my spiritual connection in Israel. I’ve found it interesting to ask people where they connect, and often, it is NOT haKotel. However, the Kotel as the symbol of the reunification of Jerusalem is powerful and meaningful, “Rather than a symbol of destruction, it is a symbol of hope”. Thasnk for sharing. Shabbat shalom.

  3. Kris miccio says:

    I was so moved by this writing. So very moved. Thank you for your bravery and your gracious soul.

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