The first time I saw the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, was when I went to Israel through Taglit-Birthright in January. My trip leaders wanted to make our first viewing of this holy site special and memorable, so they had us all walk blindfolded to an overlook that would afford us a panorama view of the Wall. When we removed the scarves over our eyes, I was in awe. The only coherent thought I could think was this is my Wall, this is MY Wall.
I spent the last six weeks on a summer program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, so I took full advantage of my proximity to the Kotel. Because it is the last remaining part of the holy Temple, tradition holds that prayers recited there are particularly potent, so I find it particularly powerful. I never went a week without going to the Wall at least once, and there were days where I went for each of the three daily prayer services, just because I could. Even when the US State Department recommended staying away from the Kotel because of the threat of anti-Jewish violence, I went anyway. I wouldn’t let terrorism keep me from my Wall or rob me of my chance to pray.
Normally I would go to the Kotel on my own or with a friend or two, in order to spend time on self-reflection and quiet prayer. However, this past Rosh Hodesh, I opted to join Women of the Wall (WoW)’s monthly prayer service. WoW is an all-women prayer group that meets in the women’s section of the Kotel, reciting prayers that are usually reserved for a quorum of ten men and wearing traditionally masculine ritual garments like tefillin, kippot, and tallitot. As the Kotel is maintained by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is run by an Orthodox rabbi in a manner that adheres to normative Orthodox halakha (law), WoW’s practices have led to a lot of controversy since their genesis in 1988.
Although I am Orthodox and I follow halakha in the same way as the Heritage Foundation does, I do not believe in imposing my religious beliefs on others. Consequently, I believe that the Kotel should be run in a manner that respects Jews from every denomination, so it can be a place where Jews are allowed and encouraged to connect to their Creator in whatever way feels right. Israel is a Jewish state, not an Orthodox one, and the prayers that are said at its holiest site should reflect that.
And so I joined WoW while I was in Jerusalem. It was a truly meaningful experience for me, helping me unlock even more holiness from the Kotel. The sound of one hundred women’s voices rising together was exceptionally powerful. The sense of sisterhood I felt among us – native Israelis, Ethiopian immigrants, American tourists, mothers and daughters praying under the same tallit, Orthodox women in long sleeves and mid-calf skirts – was incredibly strong. Despite our religious and political differences, we all stood beside each other in solidarity, speaking to the same God, affirming each other’s right to pray in the way she feels most comfortable.
I got to the Wall a few minutes after WoW began the service, so I stood at the back and sang along quietly. Barely two minutes later, a woman in a kippah and tallit came over to me. “Come towards the front,” she said, and pulled me into the middle of the group. “We want people like you.” I knew that “people like you” meant “people who are conspicuously Orthodox,” as my mode of dress and choice of prayerbook outed me. But putting the political motivations aside, her desire to include me in the group was incredibly affirming. It was refreshing to know that my presence mattered to her; nobody has ever before gone out of his or her way to make me feel like I belong in any prayer space.
Perhaps this feeling of otherness is the reason why I have always had a hard time speaking up within religious spaces. Whenever I recited the mourners’ prayer, Kaddish, for my father, I chose to say it under my breath as a man said it aloud. I was never comfortable enough to say it too loudly, and certainly not on my own. Praying with WoW showed me that women can speak up within religious spaces, and that’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s good. It’s desirable. Praying with WoW helped me claim the Wall, and by extension all spaces of prayer, as my own.
One time when I was sitting at the Wall reciting Psalms, I placed my thumb in a depression in the rock. I spread the rest of my hand out onto the Wall, and I realized that all my fingers fit perfectly into other depressions in the stone. It was awing to realize that my foremothers have been sitting in this same spot for thousands of years, pressing their hands into the Wall’s face, praying to the same God that I still pray to today. I had never felt so connected to my history before.
And I am 100% positive that WoW is a continuation of that tradition.