By Ally Karpel, NFTY Delegate to Women of the Wall 25th Anniversary in Israel
“I want you each to write a blog about this trip,” Beth begins as we are saying our final goodbyes in the international terminal at JFK Airport early Thursday morning. “and I want it to be this week while your memories are still fresh in your mind and your desire to share everything you have just experienced isn’t lessened by the craziness of your hectic day to day life back at home.”
I hope I never lose that desire. After an incredible week in Jerusalem in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall with NFTY associate director Beth Rodin and four other NFTYites from across the country, I am not only motivated to further the discussions we began during our six day stay, but inspired and empowered by the dedication that our youth movement has for the future of the Reform movement and for Israel.
The original purpose of the trip, as I mentioned above, was in honor of Women of the Wall’s momentous anniversary. We quickly learned however, that the examination of issues surrounding the Kotel are only the beginnings of a much larger, deeper conversation about the “walls” that surround us constantly as Jews. Our week was filled with discussions regarding this complex and multi-dimensional topic, and though we are nowhere close to coming up with a solution to the human, gender, and religious rights issues that are present in Jerusalem, our time studying these “walls” (both literal and metaphorical) provided us with an awareness that the study of said topics are not as black and white as we often write them off to be.
During the Rosh Chodesh services Monday morning, I found my eyes wandering about the space. I took in the hundreds of women in my section, singing and clapping together with a sense of joy that cannot be captured in words. I took in our supporting men–who showed their allegiance and dedication to our cause by forming a physical barrier between the Orthodox men and the WOW participants with their bodies, and I took in the Orthodox women in our section as well. These Orthodox women and girls were not threatening us. They weren’t screaming, or spitting, or throwing eggs or rocks. Instead, they were showing their opposition to our being there by doing what they always do; praying silently. Though my Western upbringing has taught me that I should always speak up for what I believe in, it began to dawn on me that these women were simply doing what their upbringing has taught them. Suddenly, I began to question whether I was doing the right thing. Who was I to decide that my way was the right way? I have grown up praying with people of both genders, but does that mean it’s the only acceptable way to pray? Absolutely not. We cannot decide what “authentic Judaism” is before we gather everyone’s perspectives. Just as we can never assemble the truth without hearing multiple sides of an argument, authenticity is not something that can be defined solely based on one person’s viewpoint.
Conversations like these led to some conflicting thoughts and uneasy feelings regarding where I should stand when it comes to these topics, but ultimately I have come to realize that it is acceptable to be unsure of where I stand. It’s overwhelming to ponder, and the reality is that we cannot “fix” the problems in Israel overnight. Oftentimes the sense of helplessness we feel when we cannot fix an issue leads to inaction, and that is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. A phrase from Pirkei Avot comes to mind when reflecting on the desire to patch up the world in one swift motion. “Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’habateil mimenah…” This loosely translates to “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it…” It is not our duty to find a perfect, end-all solution to the issues present in our world, but at the same time it is our obligation to initiate these tough conversations, and it is our obligation to find what is “broken” and start to seek out a way to make a change. The question we should be asking ourselves is not “How can we fix it?” but rather “What should our next step be?” It is only when we challenge ourselves to look ahead that we can really begin the process of tikkun olam–and isn’t that what we’re all about?