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Home Again: After the Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

I am home again, missing Israel.

In the time since I returned from the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission, I have been asked a number of times – ‘did it go well?’ and ‘was the trip effective?’ Yes, and yes.

Why did I go? As I have noted in earlier posts, the Women of the Wall have been meeting for 25 years to engage in prayer in honor of the new moon. Yet, month after month, they have been met with catcalls and violence. The reason? Many of the women are wearing a tallit and/or tefillin and are praying out loud. These practices – though normative among female Jews in many parts of the world – offend the ultra-orthodox, who seem to believe that they have the last word when it comes to Jewish practice.

Recently, the Women of the Wall won an important court victory that allows them to pray at the Wall. This victory is why our prayer service was so peaceful this month. We were surrounded by a ring of female soldiers and given protection on our way out of the plaza.

Even more important than the court decision, however, is the fact that the Women of the Wall have been invited to the table to negotiate an arrangement with the Israeli government to bring peace to this holy site.

RabbiTulingOn the table: a proposal to move them an area adjacent to the Western Wall plaza, an area that is larger. Also on the table: a demand that this plaza be visible from the security entrance, a demand that it be given equal treatment in everything from signage to budgeting, and a demand that it be fully accessible 24/7, even to those in need of a wheelchair.

Some of the original members of the organization have objected, on the grounds that they have been fighting for the right to pray at the Western Wall in the manner that they are accustomed.  From their point of view, this arrangement is a capitulation rather than a compromise.

But I think that the board of the Women of the Wall are taking the right steps toward realizing their dream. I back them 100%, for the following reasons:

  1. They are not moving until satisfied, so nothing changes right away.
  2. The end result would let visitors see both prayer options (ultra-orthodox and egalitarian) in one view after clearing security. So for the first time, Israelis would have the opportunity to see both options and make a choice.
  3. Mixed-gender bar/bat mitzvahs will be possible there.
  4. The WoW could continue to pray as a women-only group in the egalitarian section using a moveable mechitzah.

Our pressure from abroad has been highly effective, for it has helped enormously in bringing us to this watershed moment. Therefore, we should continue to let the government of Israel know that the eyes of the world’s Jews are watching. Our message: help bring us closer to Israel by creating a place where our modes of prayer are welcome.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.

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