By Leanne Gale, October 2013
I still remember the first time I prayed with Women of the Wall. I wasn't particularly afraid to go: after all, I was simply returning to a place I had been countless times before, to offer prayers I had memorized for as long as I could remember. As a young American Jew studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I was excited to wake up early in the morning in time to make it to the Kotel and celebrate Rosh Hodesh with a friendly group of inspiring women.
But that morning was scarier than I thought. As we prayed, donning prayer shawls and harmonizing our melodies, police snapped pictures of us from up close. More than once, a particularly aggressive officer approached our shlichat tzibbur (the woman leading services)and demanded that she remove her tallit. Other women, opposed to our prayers, screamed in our direction and spat on our shoes. In the end, four women were detained, and we all finished our Rosh Hodesh "celebration" outside of a local prison.
It wasn't until I arrived home that I realized the enormity of my experience. On my first Shabbat back at Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, I rejoined my beloved Reform Jewish community for Kabbalat Shabbat. My dear friend, Rachel donned a prayer-shawl as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and effortlessly rose before the mixed gender congregation to lead us in song. But as I looked around me, my mind flashed to the image of the Israeli police officer reaching out to touch the woman who had led us in prayer at the Western Wall. To the screaming. To the prison. I slowly leaned back in my seat, feeling relieved to back in Philadelphia rather than Jerusalem. I felt safe and loved in the American Jewish community.
Before Women of the Wall, I had never realized how vulnerable women can be to the patriarchal practices of many religious authorities. The experience jolted me to examine the religious experiences of other women, Jewish and otherwise, and to more deeply explore the implications of feminist thinking for all of our immediate lives. Today, despite the rapid changes that have taken place, I still feel unsafe as a Reform Jewish woman at the Kotel. I sincerely hope that I can live out my Judaism in Israel just as intentionally and fully as I can in the United States. But even more importantly, I hope that more of us can open our eyes to the patriarchal legacies that remain alive and well today in our tradition. We must all work towards a future in which a woman need never fear a strange man touching her body as she attempts to offer her prayers to God.
Leanne Gale is currently living in Jerusalem as a NIF-SHATIL Social Justice Fellow.