JERUSALEM — A showing of support for women praying at the Western Wall while wearing religious garb has only recently started to gain traction in the D.C. area.
The local Women of the Wall group, whose members mostly come from D.C. and Montgomery County, along with a similar group in San Francisco, were the first two groups in America.
Meanwhile, the Women of the Wall organization in Israel is currently celebrating its 25th year.
Each Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new Hebrew month), women have headed to the wall to pray. “We were there rain or shine, war or peacetime, for 25 years,” said Shira Pruce, director of public relations for Women of the Wall.
Now, “all over the United States, it has been taking form, much in the way D.C. has,” said the New Jersey native who made Israel her home 10 years ago.
It’s all about pluralism, she said. Those coming together to pray vary in their level of adherence to Judaism. Through Women of the Wall, they are learning, singing and praying “together as a community. It’s a really unique way for Jews to pray,” she said.
“The Wall doesn’t just belong to the Orthodox or even just Israelis. The Wall belongs to everyone,” Pruce said. “This issue should be important to world Jewry.”
She praised the involvement of some American Jewish communities and said communities in Europe are starting to join as well.
“It’s extremely important for the feeling of solidarity,” she said. “Our partners in America are no less strategically important than are members of the Knesset,” she said.
When Women of the Wall first started, about 25 to 30 women prayed at the Wall on Rosh Chodesh. In the past two months, there have been between 350 and 400 people, she said.
In the early days, while women were never completely welcome, “we had a status quo with the police. We had an understanding with the police that really we were there, and we were not going anywhere,” Pruce said.
Then the police “or whoever was calling the shots,” started making it harder and harder for the women.
There have been about 50 arrests over the past two years, with some of the women being arrested more than once, she said.
Mostly, it’s “more what I would call harassment than anything else,” she said, noting that the women are constantly videotaped as they try and pray. “They watch us very closely, checking our bags as if we are criminals.”
Egalitarian prayer takes place at Robinson’s Arch, which is at the southern part of the Wall in a secluded location two stories below the main area.
Legally, as of April, the women have the right to wear tallitot while praying in the women’s section of the Wall.
But since 2010, the rabbi in charge of the Wall has forbidden anyone entering the women’s area to carry a Torah. There are Torahs that can be used by the men on their side of the Wall, but none for women, Pruce said.
“Women do not have access. We do not have permission to access these Torahs. It’s like a Catch 22,” she said. “So where does that leave us, without a Torah to pray with.”
Meanwhile, Natan Sharkansky, who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, has presented a plan to try to reach a compromise. Sharansky’s plan calls for the existing egalitarian section of the wall at Robinson’s Arch to be legalized and expanded. Last Pruce heard, “it’s still in the works” being transferred from committee to committee.
“It’s the 10th committee in 20 years,” she noted.
There is no membership list for Women of the Wall. Instead it uses Facebook, Twitter and listserves to get the word out.
More than 30,000 people have liked or shared Women of the Wall information, Pruce said. “It’s very exciting. It’s really a sisterhood. Social networking has allowed us to share so much.”
Their fight will go on, she promised, noting, “We’ve been struggling for so long for such a simple right in our democracy.”
I am one of the leaders of Washington Friends of Women of the Wall. If this article has given you the desire to be part of struggle, please join us at Ring House, 1801 E Jefferson St, Rockville, MD 20852, at 4:00 pm on Tuesday, August 6. We will give updates, sing Songs of Hallel (one of the highlights of the service at the Kotel – Wall), and share in a Tallit Solidarity Ceremony (our way of supporting the right of women to wear a tallit when praying at the Kotel). For more information, contact me at [email protected].