Words from the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Iyar
Today marks Rosh Chodesh Iyar, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Iyar. Rosh Chodesh, which literally means “head of the month,” is the holiday that marks the beginning of each month in the Jewish calendar.
Throughout the year, we have been covering the events surrounding the Women of the Wall (WOW), a progressive prayer group that meets at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem to pray together each month on Rosh Chodesh. In late 2009 Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl, or tallit, while praying at the Wall, and in January 2010, Anat Hoffman, who serves as director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, was interrogated and fingerprinted due to the actions of this group.
Yesterday, the Women of the Wall celebrated the new month of Iyar at the Kotel. Iyar is the month of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which falls next Tuesday. The Women of the Wall gathered in prayer, singing melodies that reflect Israel’s struggle for independence. A record 150 women and men participated in today’s service.
I had a chance to speak with both Anat and Michelle Handelman, the Public Relations coordinator for Women of the Wall, about their experiences at Rosh Chodesh services yesterday. Read on for their stories, successes, and more photos from this month! Below, a man and woman pray on either side of the mechitzah at the Women of the Wall services for Rosh Chodesh Iyar yesterday. (AP)
In the past, the Women of the Wall were hassled by police officers at the entrance to the Kotel when they tried to bring a Torah scroll with them to pray. As Anat and Michelle explained, this month, the police did not allow WOW to bring its Torah scroll into the women’s section; instead, one of WOW’s supporters, Matan Glazer, brought a Torah scroll in a duffel bag into the plaza area behind the women’s section. According to Glazer, a border police officer informed him that their orders were that women could not hold the Torah during the services at the Western Wall. Further, the police officer told him that if he gave the Torah to a woman, the officer would put him in jail.
At previous meetings of the Women of the Wall, those gathering in prayer have faced insults and harassment from ultra-Orthodox men who do not believe that women should be allowed to wear tallitot, or prayer shawls, or read from the Torah while at the Kotel. When WOW held services during the middle of Passover a few weeks ago, several men shouted insults and threw chairs over the mechitzah, or dividing wall, that separates the men’s and women’s sections of the Kotel.
This month, services progressed smoothly until the Sh’ma, at which point an ultra-Orthodox rabbi on the men’s side began shouting, “You are not Jewish! You have come from abroad to destroy pure Judaism.” The Women of the Wall responded by focusing on their prayers.
While many participants in WOW services have made aliyah or are students at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Movement’s seminary, Anat emphasized the importance of the groundswell of support from progressive Jews around the world, including many of our URJ congregations.
Anat went to speak with the Chief of Police of the Kotel, Raphael Malichi, about the man who shouted at them. Malichi told her that the individual was a paratrooper who had participated in liberating the Western Wall during the reunification of Jerusalem, so he was able to do “whatever he wanted.” As Anat aptly commented to me today, “he liberated the Wall, and now we [the Women of the Wall] are trying to liberate the wall from him!”
In a new development Malichi did permit the thirty women in tallitot to wear them, but instructed them to conceal the tzitzit, or the fringes of the tallit. Further, Malichi explained that the women were permitted to wear tallitot as long as they “were not black and white…if they were colorful and looked like scarves” then the women were permitted to wear them.
Overall, Anat believes “we are making advances on the ground,” both for religious freedom for the Women of the Wall and more broadly for religious pluralism in Israel. Anat is especially encouraged that 30 women were able to wear tallitot and more than 20 male supporters joined the Women of the Wall this month. Anat was also proud to share with me that six women were called for their first every aliyah to the Torah during the Torah service, which she described as a “very moving moment.” (Photo courtesy of Michelle Handelman)
As a final note, Anat emphasized that “it is of extreme importance that we continue our guard of the Wall. [Not all] people think that the Wall is a place we should focus on, but I believe that it is.” Although only one of many battlegrounds in the fight for religious freedom in Israel, the actions of the Women of the Wall and their supporters are a quintessential example of the advances made by progressive Judaism. This month, as we celebrate Israel’s Independence, we also celebrate and work toward greater freedom of religion for all Jews.
Are you holding your own Rosh Chodesh Iyar event in solidarity with Women of the Wall? If so, email a description and photos to me and firstname.lastname@example.org! You can also follow the Women of the Wall on Facebook or Twitter (@womenofthewall) for more information and photos. Finally, the URJ maintains a clearinghouse webpage for news, educational resources, and blog posts about the Women of the Wall at http://urj.org/israel/wow/. Chodesh Tov!