These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Kotel

Posted on October 31, 2011 by Laura H.

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My relationship with the Kotel is in constant flux. To be honest, I struggle with connecting to the Kotel a lot, and have done so ever since I first came to Israel when I was 13 years old. Despite this struggle, every time I come to Israel, I make a point of visiting the Kotel. Two weeks after I arrived to spend the year in Jerusalem, I went to the Kotel on erev Tisha Ba’av. Walking through the Old City with hundreds of other Jews on my way there, I was excited. I felt like with every step I was taking, I was walking on the foundation of my history. And then I arrived at the Kotel. That feeling disappeared. I wandered around the Kotel plaza for over an hour, sitting in different spots (some closer to the Kotel, some further away), watching different people and I felt no feeling of connection. I was very much observing my fellow Jews and their relationship to our holiest site.

This past week, on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan (the celebration of the new month of Cheshvan), I decided to go to the Kotel to participate in the Women of the Wall’s monthly gathering. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, I mostly went to support a group who I believe has a right to pray at the Kotel without harassment. As I approached the Kotel with my male roommate, I said to him (half-jokingly) that this is the first time ever that he will be behind the mehitza. The Women of the Wall gather to pray in the back corner of the women’s section at the Kotel and the men who participate stand behind the partition at the back of the section. Participating in this service was the first time that I can remember having a positive spiritual experience at the Kotel. Even though I am sure that I would have some ideological differences with other people who were there, this was the first time that I had been at the Kotel with a like-minded community. We were all there promoting the same values. For me, it brought kavanah into the space.

It was a particularly interesting experience because we were the only group of women who were praying aloud and the police were filming the entire service. Apparently, they have been doing so since Anat Hoffman (Chairwoman of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center) was arrested last year. Aside from the police filming, there were other people taking pictures and footage as well. I felt a tension between a deeply personal prayer experience and in a sense putting myself on display at the same time.

Prayer is not something that comes easily to me, and it is not often that I have a deeply meaningful prayer experience. I particularly struggle with breaks in the service. Every time I am having a meaningful experience and there is a break (for whatever reason), the meaning in my prayer disappears. At the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh service, just before the Torah service, the group moves to Robinson’s Arch located around the corner, out of sight and earshot of the Kotel. This is because under the current Kotel administration, it is forbidden for women to have a Torah scroll at the Wall. Even though I was still with the same group of people, having to move completely destroyed all of the kavanah that I had been building during the service. It was then that all of the issues of the administration of the Kotel became a lot more personal; I felt robbed of the rest of my prayer experience. I previously understood these issues theoretically and had experienced them personally in a limited way, but in the course of an hour and a half, while participating in Women of the Wall, I felt this issues come to light in a deeply personal manner.

Like with many experiences in Israel, a country full of strong, often polarizing, emotions, my deeply positive experience was also deeply troubling. Why, as a strongly connected Jew, is my connection to the Kotel dictated by another group of strongly connected Jews? Is there no way that we can come to a compromise so that we can both feel comfortable and also have access to the same holy site? This experience is now sketched in my mind forever. On the one hand, it will always be the first time in my recent consciousness (if not ever) that I felt meaning at the holiest Jewish site. And on the other hand, it will always be the time that the way in which the Kotel is administered brought this meaningful experience to an abrupt end.