For the first time since its inception 25 years ago, Women of the Wall, the organization behind the battle to wrest control of Judaism’s holiest site from the Orthodox establishment, will hold a special prayer service at the Western Wall that is not connected to its regular monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering.
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The women’s prayer group has announced that it will hold a special Selichot service at the Western Wall on Sept. 1. Selichot are the penitential prayers and liturgy recited each night starting in the Jewish month of Elul and up until the High Holy Days.
A spokeswoman for Women of the Wall said the decision to hold this nighttime gathering at the Western Wall was a response to popular demand. “Our core group has grown in recent months from about 50 participants to 200,” said Shira Pruce, the organization’s director for public relations. “The women love being involved and meeting at the Kotel, so they’ve asked to start meeting more.”
The gathering on Sept. 1 will take place at 10 P.M. The Western Wall typically draws crowds of tens of thousands of people who come to recite the Selichot prayers in the nights leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Pruce noted that Women of the Wall does not hold a monthly service on Rosh Hashanah, which also falls on the first day of the Jewish month, and therefore, it would have been almost two months before its members and supporters had met again, had they adhered to their usual schedule.
“Selichot prayers are the last opportunity we will have to meet together as a group at the Kotel to look back on the year that has passed and look forward and pray for the future,” she said. “This past year has been a very significant one in our struggle and the struggle against the exclusion of women in the public sphere. Of course we could pray Selichot in private, but for us, the group prayer experience empowers and heightens our individual prayer, as does our presence at the Kotel.”
She said, though, that this should not be interpreted as a sign that Women of the Wall intends to increase the frequency of its services at the holy site.
Pruce said she was aware that opponents of the group would be quick to dismiss the Selichot event as a publicity stunt. “Like with everything else we do, there will be those who will assign alternative motives to this,” she said.
For the past two months, citing safety precautions, police have prevented participants in the monthly Women of the Wall gatherings from entering the women’s prayer section on Rosh Chodesh. Responding to calls from their rabbinical leaders, thousands of young seminary girls have shown up at the wall early in the morning, filling up the space. As a result, members of Women of the Wall have been forced to hold services in an area far from the wall.