I just returned from the Kotel. After dropping my 3-year-old son off at pre-school, I got on my bicycle and pedaled to the Old City. I was told the egalitarian tefila for Rosh Chodesh was going to start at 8:30 at Ezrat Yisrael, the section of the Western Wall that is designated for egalitarian prayer. However, soon I saw some friends who said that the plan had changed – the egalitarian prayer was taking place in the general Western Wall Plaza. I took a deep breath, mentally bracing myself for the shouting, the shoving, and the overall words of hate of ultra-Orthodox by-standers.
I went up close to the center of the prayer so that I could hear the prayer leader and join in. I am here to pray in the place that is the heart of the Jewish people with others who share my joy in prayer, a number of whom I know personally from my neighborhood in Jerusalem, liberal Jewish circles around Israel, and visiting colleagues from abroad. I put on my talit. I smiled seeing men and women holding Torah scrolls. I happily took a picture of a friend and his mother, she holding the Torah scroll. I felt semblances of a spiritual experience.
When I came to the egalitarian prayer-protests at the Western Wall plaza over the past summer, it was very hard for me. I stood there and I cried. Tears ran down my face. I felt tremendous pain as I experienced the shouting, the fists, the degrading expressions.
Near me, as I prayed, there were little boys running around, about nine or ten years old, shouting degrading things. I suddenly knew what I had to do. I knew what we need to do, all Jews. I turned to them and I said “shhh” very gently. I smiled at them.
On our way out, they were standing in a line, shouting. A friend asked, “How can they say such things at such a young age?” I answered, “They don’t know what they are saying.” As I passed them, I reached out my hand to pat them on the shoulder, just as I would do to my own son who is the same age. I smiled at them. I said, “May you find goodness, happiness and blessing in your lives. May all your ways be ways of derech eretz. (being a good, nice person)” They hesitated for a moment. An Orthodox woman stood behind them, watching quietly the interaction.
I will not be a part of hatred. I will disagree, I will speak my mind, I will practice Judaism the way that I believe – the way that perhaps G-d has inspired me to do.
Indeed, the Western Wall struggle has become symbolic of a larger issue. It is not just about prayer. It is about legitimacy, acceptance, and how we make it work as the Jewish people when we have complete sovereignty over ourselves. It is about making Judaism once again about study, family, meaning, and spirituality for all the people, and not as a tool for political power and financial gain for a pushy narrow-agenda minority. It is about reminding everyone that the Jewish tradition is a tradition of geographic and ideological diversity.
For me, it is about the families who are found around the world, like the families in my community. The young mother who, in a meeting of other parents who want to provide liberal Jewish education for their children, in reaction to another parent who expresses the possibility that other parents will oppose the presence of a woman rabbi (which goes against tradition) or of a rabbi at all (the symbol of religious coercion), says, “That’s exactly why we need this. I don’t want my children growing up afraid. I want them to have this education exactly so that when they grow up, they will know how to live in a pluralistic society, that they will have a strong, positive Jewish identity.”
I will return to the Western Wall plaza for egalitarian prayer when I am called and am able to join. Along with my talit and my siddur, I will come armed with a smile, a warm touch, and words of love for all of my fellow Jews.