I admit it. I was excited to hear that Paula Abdul was coming to Israel and planning a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall. Younger Arie was excited to welcome the singer from the “Opposites Attract” video (lest anyone misunderstand, I was six years old when it came out and was more into the cartoon than Abdul’s sex appeal). Adult Arie, of course, loves the idea of a North American Jew choosing to celebrate her relationship with Judaism, doing so, no less, by the site of Judaism’s holiest place.
The announcement reminded me of my two important experiences at the Western Wall. The first was when I became Bar Mitzvah at age 13, with my aliyah (blessing for the Torah) at the Wall serving as the centerpiece of a three-week trip that planted the seeds for my aliyah (immigrating to Israel) nine years later. The second was my grandfather’s 83rd birthday celebration, when we marked this incredible milestone with him at the Wall in a way that left an indelible impression in my relationship to Jerusalem and the special role it plays in the hearts of Jews around the world.
Abdul ultimately chose not to celebrate her own Jewish coming of age at the Western Wall but at theInternational Center for Tzfat Kabbalah. One can only speculate as to the reasons behind the change, but if she indeed made it out of her own desire, I am glad that she took ownership over her own Judaism, as I hope every Jew does.
Still, I think about what might have been. As Allison Kaplan Sommer points out, Chabad is not known for egalitarian Bat Mitzvah services, and Abdul would not have been able to touch a Torah scroll nor wear a tallit had she celebrated her ceremony at the women's section of the Western Wall plaza. But she would have been able to do so at the southern end of the Wall, where many Jewish women before her have been fortunate enough to lead egalitarian Bat Mitzvah services; leading prayers, wearing tallitot and reading from the Torah.
When I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah - not so long ago - it was nearly unheard of for a young woman to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah at the Wall. Because women cannot read Torah or lead public services there, the same families who would celebrate their sons’ B’nei Mitvzah at the Wall would have to use Masada as an alternative site in Israel to celebrate for their daughters.
But this all changed when the Masorti (Conservative) Movement made the controversial decision to accept the area by Robinson’s Arch for mixed and egalitarian prayer (which are forbidden at the Wall’s main plaza) and its efforts to manage religious services at the site, providing Torah scrolls and prayer books for those who wish to pray there. Since then, thousands of young women have had the opportunity to read from the Torah in the presence of the Wall and the Temple Mount, as their brothers can do just meters away, in services led by Masorti or Reform rabbis.
Of course, the services held at the southern end of the Western Wall are not limited to Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and thousands of young men have celebrated there, too, not to mention the many groups not celebrating any particular occasion at all but choosing to pray there simply to hold a mixed prayer-service at the Wall. I have had the opportunity to celebrate with quite a few young men and women, in the presence of their mothers and their fathers, their brothers and their sisters, and I am frankly jealous that I did not have this option at age 13.
With the development of the new "Azarat Yisrael," an acknowledgment by the Israeli government that they have a responsibility to provide an equitable prayer space for the myriad of Jews whose typical prayer is banned at the main plaza, there is a new opportunity for more and more Jews to celebrate their milestones or just engage in daily public prayer outside of the dictatorship of the Wall’s rabbinic authority.
Since 1967, millions of Israelis and Jews throughout the world have approached the stones of the Western Wall, feeling a sense of awe and holiness. However, when it comes to public worship and celebrating the beginning of Jewish adulthood, that holiness has been largely limited to young men.
Paula Abdul made a public statement by not having her Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall. Whether she meant to or not, her avoidance of the Wall reminded Jews worldwide that its main plaza, celebrated as a site that welcomes all Jews, only welcomes women who want to celebrate in a particularly strictly Orthodox fashion. Had she chosen to celebrate at the southern end, she would have sent a strong message to Jewish girls and women around the world that they can have the same ceremony at the same Wall as their brothers and fathers, in accordance with the style of Judaism that they see fit.
Arie Hasit, a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.