Reflecting on the Kotel
By Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber
Shabbat shalom. Thank you to Rabbi Hirsch for the opportunity to share Shabbat with you.
I had a sudden awareness when I was in Israel this summer—it was 45 years since my first trip to Israel. 45 years of visits and discussions. 45 years of my love-hate relationship with the Kotel and other aspects of Israeli society and government policies. Today, my constantly evolving understanding of Israel makes this love-hate relationship seem more like a roller coaster ride than a merry-go-round.
So let me take you back in time. I grew up in a classical Reform family with a Zionist father, who grew up Conserv-odox. My father was attached to Israel before she became a state. He believed that Israel’s survival was necessary for the survival of the Jewish people. My father dreamed of traveling to Israel but never had the opportunity and I was determined to fulfill his dream.
A few years after my father’s death, I traveled to Israel for the first time on a NFTY in Israel tour. Seven intense weeks traveling with my peers and learning the history and culture of the young nation –Israel was only 25 years old. I kept a journal and wrote letters detailing the experience. There were many moments that still stand out from that summer: climbing Masada, picking pears on a kibbutz, camping in the Sinai.
But it was my visit to the Kotel, which left a mark on my soul. In 1973, the area around the Kotel was more compact than it is today. The area outside of the mechitza was narrower. The women’s section was slightly smaller than the men’s section. As I approached the Kotel, I was overwhelmed by the size of the WALL—the size of the stones. Had this wall really been built in the time of King Solomon or Herod? How had it survived the destruction of the Temple and the building of the mosques above? The Kotel itself was a historical wonder.
Then I got closer and the tears started to flow. I can only describe it as a spiritual moment. I placed a note in the Kotel. I felt safe and at peace. I knew deep down that my father was smiling. The intense feeling stayed with me.
The next time I visited the Kotel, I was starting my Rabbinic studies year in Israel as part of my Hebrew Union College experience. Again, I found the Kotel awe-inspiring and the tears flowed. I was at a loss for words. It was a deeply private moment surrounded by others having their own moments.
A few weeks later, I was back at the Kotel with some classmates on Tisha B’Av. The experienced had the opposite affect from my previous visits. We sat on the ground on the far side of the plaza in a circle, reading Lamentations, talking quietly about the significance of the Temple to Reform Jews. Suddenly, we were being harassed and told to leave. We were a mixed group and women’s voices were offensive to the Orthodox men who wanted the Kotel to themselves. My attachment to the Kotel was weakening but I still found myself drawn to it. Throughout the year, I visited the Kotel and found moments of peace and joy including watching from the women’s section as my cousin became Bar Mitzvah.
Time passed and I returned to Israel after a 19-year absence. When I went to the Kotel, I wasn’t sure what I would find. The plaza was larger as was the men’s section. The women’s section felt small and crowded. As I made my way to the Kotel, I felt like I had entered another world. The women were dressed modestly with their heads covered. They pushed each other to get closer to the wall itself and definitely were not interested in welcoming the strangers. In order to get close I found myself elbowing others to make room. I tried to pray, I tried to connect to my surroundings, I tried to recreate my sense of awe. To borrow a line from A Chorus Line, I felt nothing. The Kotel no longer connected to my spiritual side.
While I was Director of Adult Learning for the URJ, I was privileged to lead yearly groups to Israel for study Kallot. The first year, I went into the women’s section and I was accosted for tzedakkah and never reached the Kotel. I realized that the Kotel was historically and biblically significant, but it was no longer ritually and spiritually significant for me. I no longer felt the pull of the stones. I was content to enable others to find their spiritual moments. On future visits, I found a spot to sit while my participants made their pilgrimages and I helped them to process their experiences.
This year, I am a participant in the Qushiyot Fellowship, sponsored by the Jewish Education Project, which is an educational fellowship focusing on how we educate about Israel in our religious schools and our adult programming. A trip to Israel this summer was a significant part of the Fellowship.
When I saw our itinerary, I realized that we would be in Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh Av and wondered why Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh service was not on the schedule. Robbie Gringras, the lead educator on the Fellowship, simply said: The Women of the Wall and their fight for egalitarian prayer space is IRRELEVANT to Israelis. It is known to be the issue of North American and Western European liberal Jews, but if you want to go to Rosh Hodesh, be back in time for our morning session.
Internally, I debated whether or not to attend. I have always supported and followed the activities of Women of the Wall but had not been in Israel on Rosh Hodesh to participate. Given my relationship to the Kotel, I was not sure why I even felt the need to go. My debate was settled when one of my colleagues said she would go with me.
Security was tight at the Kotel and there was a photographer taking pictures of the women entering the Kotel security booth. My tallit bag was examined and returned to me. Once on the plaza, I noticed large groups of men, milling around, watching the women who were gathering. The police were watching too but at that point from a distance, though I’m sure there were undercover officers too. For the first time, I felt unsafe in the area of the Kotel. When Anat Hoffman and the other regulars arrived we moved in the women’s section and prayerbooks were handed out. The small Torah, which had been smuggled in, was brought into the center of the group and the service began.
Our group slowly grew in numbers and our voices were raised in prayer and joy. There were new melodies to learn and familiar friends to greet. I was beginning to feel more comfortable after the intense scrutiny of the plaza, until some Orthodox women began to push and whistle and yell. They were rude and disruptive. Yet we persevered and continued to raise our voices in prayer. The men on the plaza threw diapers at us and yelled trying to drown us out.
As we began to sing Oseh Shalom, we, the Women of the Wall, put our arms around each other and prayed for peace with all our strength. I was with my people, each of us believing that women have the right to pray and be heard. I began to feel that the Kotel was mine again and the tears began to flow.
But then the voices of the Orthodox men and women grew louder and the safety I had felt a moment earlier slipped away. The police stood by and watched as the group of men grew more aggressive. Later that morning, they burned a copy of the Women of the Wall siddur. As we left to return to our program, I looked at the group of men—they had pushed young boys to the front and told them to yell. Little boys yelling ugly words at other Jews.
For a fleeting moment, I found my spiritual center and then it was gone. I wondered, if I could have returned the next day, would I have gone into the women’s section? Would I have felt the warmth of my community? Or would the Kotel have become just a wall again?
In the 45 years since my first visit to Israel and the Kotel, my journey has led me on many paths-from congregational rabbi to rabbi educator to specialist in adult Jewish Learning. My understanding and feelings about Israel have changed and deepened as I’ve confronted my love-hate relationship with the realities of modern Israel. My teaching and my learning are often focused on my relationship with Israel, the land and the state, the people and the policies of the government and the Kotel. As my educational and professional journey continues, I search for ways to bring others into conversations over Jewish texts and historical realities, to create settings which are safe havens for expressing opinions and asking the difficult questions, to build communities of adult Jews who yearn for knowledge and shared educational experiences.
I invite you to join me on the journey this September for the Derekh retreat here at Hevreh. Our theme is Harvesting Jewish Wisdom and together we will explore texts, discuss the challenges facing Israel, pray together and learn from our diverse faculty, including Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Rabbi David Teutsch, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, master educator and story teller Marilyn Price, Rabbi Hirsch, Rabbi Gordon and me. Rabbi Zecher will present our closing program filled with song and stories.
May we each discover opportunities to expand of understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the Jewish people, the land and state of Israel through the exploration of our sacred texts and our encounters with each other.