Written by Kalsman Camper Sarah R. after her week in Israel with NFTY celebrating Women of the Wall’s 25th Anniversary.
The week I spent in Israel as part of a delegation team for NFTY going in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Women of the Wall seems almost impossible to describe in a way that will do it justice. However, after much thought, I realized that what impacted me the most while I was there were little moments that can be described as both powerful and conflicting. One moment was during Rosh Chodesh t’filah at the Western Wall. I was standing among hundreds of women, all singing together in unity, making a statement for equality through prayer. I heard yet another uproar of protest from the orthodox men on their side of the Wall, which I had previously ignored, but this time I let my curiosity get the best of me. I stood up on my tip-toes to try and understand what was happening, and what I saw can be described by one of my original words… powerful. Orthodox men were trying to push their way closer to the Mechitza (the dividing wall between the two sides of the Kotel), but there were other men (mainly reform and conservative) forming a barrier to stop them. In that moment, I realized that it was not just women who were fighting for equality, but it was so much more than that. Seeing the men standing on chairs and praying along with us gave me a whole new perspective of the Wall, for I realized this issue resonated with more people than just the women around me, and that others wanted to see change as well.
Later in the service, my feelings started to change and, even though I still cannot pinpoint exactly what I was feeling, the closest I can get would be “sympathetic”. This emotion was brought about when I took a minute to look at the orthodox girls, who were originally called in to fill up the women’s section, so the people supporting Women of the Wall could not get in. When I concentrated on what they were doing, I noticed that they were praying silently at the Wall, as they always do. When I realized this, I started to feel bad, and question exactly what I was doing. As Americans who only come to the Kotel once or twice a year (if we are lucky), who are we to protest the “authentic” way of prayer that Orthodox women were so accustomed to? From there, even more questions came about… who determines what “authentic” prayer is? Can prayer be authentic for all denominations of all Judaism, just in different ways? Exploring answers to these questions brought about my second word… conflicting.
Of course I agreed with what Women of the Wall was fighting for; growing up in a Reform community, I have always prayed with both genders together, and I would love to see that as an option at the Kotel. But there was part of me that was sympathetic to the people who had the exact opposite viewpoint as me… people who had grown up praying silently to themselves, with their own gender, and did not know anything different from that. Why should either side have to get their way? Why can’t a compromise be made? I’ve come to understand that my answers to these questions will always be changing. I was conflicted when I was in Israel, I still am today, and I probably always will be.
I guess that is just part of getting to experience something as complex at this; it comes with confliction. But confliction starts conversations, which is exactly what is needed right now. Without conversations, people really only know one perspective… their own. I believe that in order to assemble the truth about something, all different perspectives must be taken into account. When I was in Israel, I began to think about the conflicts we were learning about through the lens of other denominations, and only after doing that did I realize how uninformed some people are. Yes, equality is important, but our viewpoint on what should be done to establish equality at the wall is only one viewpoint… one of many. Having conversations can help others to understand this, and maybe a solution can be found where everyone is able to have a prayer experience at the Kotel that they feel is right for them.
This trip has taught me so much, and I am very hopeful for not only the future of the Kotel, but of the land and people of all of Israel. I hope one day I can return and see that solutions have been found to the conflicts we experienced firsthand. But change cannot be made overnight. It takes one step at a time, and I’ve learned that the first step I can take is to bring what I experienced back to North America and start discussions with the people in my community. I know I am just one person, but if I educate five other people on the issues and perspectives I saw in Israel to a point where they can go and educate five other people, I will feel like I contributed to solving the conflicts, for more perspectives can be discovered. And I intend to do exactly that.