Will the Women of the Wall Stop Fighting for Tolerance?

The Robinson's Arch compromise has divided Women of the Wall. And the Kotel itself will remain out of reach for liberal Jews to pray together.

When images of Women of the Wall flash on screen, I may be the only person in the world who looks first at the women’s hands. Are they holding the siddur? Praying from it? Waving it in the air?

Way back in 1983, my family spent the summer in Israel, and we watched helplessly every Shabbat, as American Reform Jews entered the only progressive synagogue in Jerusalem, looking to connect with their religion in the holy city. The congregation’s siddur was entirely in Hebrew, the native language of the country, after all, but not much use to people whose Hebrew was spotty at best. They went from interested visitors to dismayed outsiders.

By our next trip, I just had to work toward a solution: a prayer book like the ones we have in the United States, with Hebrew and English on opposite pages. The English Companion to Ha-Avodah Shebalev was born, and along with it, a new calling for me.

Slowly, a hobby grew into my full-time profession, creating siddurim to make all the guests at a bar or bat mitzvah celebration feel comfortable and welcome through the religious service that is at its heart. Most Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated families have friends and relatives who can use a little help. It’s all about making it easy to keep everyone literally on the same page, with Hebrew, translations into English, transliteration of songs, explanations, and even the Torah portion – all in one small book.

We are all strangers at first in someone else’s home, in someone else’s synagogue, in someone else’s country. With a warm welcome, that alienation subsides. After a dozen trips to Israel, I could move around easily; there were so many places where I felt I belonged. The Kotel was not one of them. No matter how many times I went to the ancient site, drawn by the longing of 100 generations of my people, I couldn’t get past the awareness of being judged. Of all the public places I went to, this one alone didn’t even offer a grudging acceptance. Praying there as I do back home, in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, with kippa, and tallit, was unthinkable.

Then, I started reading about Women of the Wall, who were actually doing something about it. Every month, there were Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women praying together and getting arrested for defending MY rights. I couldn’t wait to join them.

So on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the date in the Hebrew calendar that corresponded with June 2010, there I was, standing in the very back corner of the women’s section of the Kotel, trying to imagine praying while the “fashion police” – male officers (!) on the women’s side of the mechitzah, or partition – insisted that I wrap my tallit around my neck like a scarf. They were clearly not there to spare my feelings – their job was to protect the feelings of those who might be offended by the sight of the fringes on the corners of my tallit. The loudest sounds during the service were abusive shouts from the men’s side.

I had forgotten to bring a siddur with me, and I was too intimidated to push through the line of police between me and the bookcases, so I wound up sharing with the kind woman next to me. Why was I surprised by the email less than a year later, asking me to create a custom siddur for Women of the Wall?

Jews have created special siddurim for every possible holiday and for every linguistic context (I have a family heirloom copy of a Sukkot machzor in Italian) but this would be the first ever prayerbook just for Rosh Hodesh. Working with these fabulous leaders, I got to use my skills and tools to design a book dedicated to diversity and mutual respect. It contains the traditional Shacharit morning service, including Hallel and other Rosh Hodesh additions, with Conservative English translations, some transliterations, and a few alternative readings.

And the Women of the Wall have written special prayers about their devotion for each other and their commitment to supporting each other’s needs:“As the verse reads, we lovingly enable each other to praise the Creator, each according to her belief.”

This theme is repeated again and again in the siddur, a tangible symbol of the shared dream of a world where our differences are celebrated and nurtured.

Meanwhile, when I can get to a bar or bat mitzvah service in the heart of Jerusalem, near the Kotel, I’m stuck in one of three places: In the women’s section of the Kotel, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the bar mitzvah boy by climbing on chairs to peek over the mechitzah with all the other mothers, grandmothers and friends; perching on the extremely inaccessible stairs along the southern wall; or in the archeological site at Robinson’s Arch. I love the plan to build a beautiful extension of the Kotel plaza all the way to Robinson’s Arch, where men and women will be free to pray together as liberal Jews in the rest of the world do.

But that plan doesn’t affect the situation at the Kotel. There is still a strident, hostile group that claims the main plaza as its own synagogue, and imposes its norms on all visitors at all times.

Giving any one group control over any part of the Kotel is simply wrong. This place is a treasure that belongs to the entire Jewish people. It is not a synagogue of any denomination. If the Israeli government won’t enforce civility and open access, the obvious conclusion is that if you make it unpleasant enough for everyone else, you can get what you want. This is true on buses and on city streets, too.

Whether or not the Robinson’s Arch area is developed, those particular stones will always sing to me of ongoing struggle and huge sacrifice. I like to think that those who prayed and fought – and died – for this place did it for me. To get close to those stones, I am prepared to separate from my husband and sons and grandsons, to be sensitive to the needs of others. For me, that is already a compromise.

Of course, I can hope that during however many years it takes to complete the Robinson’s Arch area to the standards of the WoW demands, the continuing presence of women in tallitot and tefillin and reading Torah in the women’s section will become routine. However, when construction is finished, will the old animosity resurface, with the Haredim more certain of their entitlement?

Watching the division within WoW is like watching the divorce of close friends. I admire the courage of the WoW Board to engage directly with Israeli leaders, and I am very excited by their vision for the Robinson’s Arch development. But I also deeply admire the dissenting women, who worked for 25 years in the cause of diversity and tolerance for everyone. If the “compromise” abandons that goal in favor of separation (which we know is never equal), we will all have lost. 

Vivian Singer is president of CustomSiddur and designed the Women of the Wall prayerbook. Together with the CCAR and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, she edited the English Companion to Ha-Avodah Shebalev used widely in Israeli Progressive synagogues. Living in Chesterland, Ohio, Singer is a former Assistant Regional Director for the Northeast Lakes Council of the Union for Reform Judaism.