WAITSFIELD, Vt. – I did not know what to expect when I walked down to the Old City of Jerusalem in time for the 7 a.m. Rosh Hodesh (new moon/new month) service on May 10. I had no trouble finding my way through the Old City as I was surrounded by hundreds of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schoolgirls in uniforms heading to the same destination. With different goals in mind, we walked side-by-side.
While visiting Israel through the Gift of Israel program this past May, I had the chance to join the Women of the Wall group for their Rosh Hodesh service. Women of the Wall, an advocacy group fighting for equal prayer rights at the Kotel, works toward a goal of allowing women to be able to pray openly, wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and chant Torah. They hold monthly Rosh Hodesh services to publicize their mission and build support. Until the Jerusalem District Court ruling on April 25, women were arrested for wearing tallitot at the Kotel.
The Rosh Hodesh service on May 10 was the first opportunity following the ruling where Women of the Wall members and supporters could legally wear tallitot at the Wall.
The sheer volume of people in attendance on such an early, bright morning was staggering. Other news coverage has reported that close to 10,000 people showed up for this event. I was one of only 300 who came to pray. The prayer circle was positioned on the women’s side of the Wall, about 75 feet back from the actual wall due to an overcrowding of Orthodox schoolgirls. A set of police officers held up metal gates protecting the prayer group from the outside onlookers and opponents. I pushed my way beyond the gates and joined the egalitarian service – men and women chanting together, some wearing tallitot, others not.
There was a stark contrast between the behaviors of the participants inside versus those outside the gated prayer circle. Inside the gates, the singing and smiling was contagious. The service included many beautiful and traditional songs including “Oseh Shalom,” “Kol Ha’olam Kullo,” and my all-time favorite, “Ozi v’Zimrat Yah.” As our group sang serenely in unison, I felt proud to participate in this nonviolent quest toward equality.
Meanwhile, thousands of ha men banded together outside the gates in an effort to disrupt the service and vocalize their opposition to women praying in such a manner at the Wall. They shouted, stomped, whistled and threw objects within our bounds. One man even climbed the gate and stuck his tongue out at our group until he was physically removed by one of the guards. Detached from the surrounding rudeness, we continued to sing and mark this monumental step in the fight for women’s rights in Israel.
To me, these contrasting behaviors exemplified the disconnected views of this issue. It felt like a regurgitation of the classic debate between ancient tradition and modern views of the world; a dilemma that continues to appear again and again in my own evolution as a Jewish adult. However you feel about women partaking in religious rituals at the Kotel, when I observed the spiritual connection and positivity around me, as opposed to the violent and abrasive actions of the opposition, I felt very proud to represent this side of the struggle.
RACHEL SALLOWAY (firstname.lastname@example.org), who was raised in Barrington, is working on an organic farm in Vermont. She will begin a nurse practitioner graduate program at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions in the fall.