It was a Friday morning at 7:00 AM in the Old City of Jerusalem. The winding alleyways were slowly beginning to stir as the shopkeepers prepared for the last few hours of business before Shabbat arrived. Outside the walls surrounding the ancient city center, downtown Jerusalem was just starting to wake up.
The Western Wall Plaza, however, was wide awake.
Members of Women of the Wall, joined by students from URJ Heller High, had come together for their monthly Rosh Hodesh service. Founded in 1988, this multi-denominational group’s mission is “to attain social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear shawls, pray, and read from the Torah, collectively and aloud, at the Western Wall.” On the first day of each month in the Hebrew calendar, they assemble at the Kotel for a spirited service. This gathering is not without conflict, however, as our students soon learned firsthand.
“During the security line [to enter the Plaza] we had our first encounter with the other side,” wrote Heller High student Hannah. “Not everyone at the Kotel was a supporter of Women of the Wall. As we were waiting in the security line an Orthodox Jewish woman approached us. As I recall, this woman told us that we were ruining Judaism and causing hatred.”
As the students continued into the Plaza, they began to notice other things that differentiated this morning from a typical day at the Kotel.
“The women’s side of the wall was divided; supporters of Women of the Wall in the center and non-supporters on the right side.” explained Hannah.
On the women’s side, the leaders of Women of the Wall led the group in a Torah service. Non-supporters attempted to drown out their prayers with screaming, clapping, and whistling. Men hurled insults toward them. “One Ultra-Orthodox man yelled in Hebrew ‘Reform is not a religion,” shares another Heller High student. But the group was not deterred, she explained. “As young girls screamed and clapped in hope of covering up our voices, we only sang louder…we didn’t let them stop us from praying.”
“It was amazing to see all these women coming together to pray,” wrote Hannah.
After the service ended, the processing and reflecting began.
“It stunned me how many women were against their own rights,” shared Dahlia, a Heller High student from Brooklyn, NY. “Did they not want to have the same connection with God as their male counterparts? How could they accept the reality that they couldn’t chant the Torah they swore by?”
Reckoning with the experience was initially difficult for some. “It was really hard to see those of my own religion think so low of me and not respect me as an equal,” wrote a student. “However, what I will remember most is when Israeli boys and girls and our group came together and sang and danced, ignoring the protesters behind us.”
The experience sparked a lively conversation among the students of the group which continued long after they had departed from the Old City. Many left with more questions than answers about the reality of religious pluralism in Israel and what true progress will look like. Some admitted that they were struggling to grapple with the topic. Others debated about what a real solution at the Wall could be. But in the end, all of them walked away having had an experience truly unlike anything else. “Although I still haven’t fully processed the event,” reflects Dahlia “I was immediately grateful that Heller High had taken us on such an important and memorable trip.”
Since 1961, thousands of teenagers have spent a semester in Israel on URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE), the Reform Movement’s most intense and powerful Jewish living and learning experience. We are now accepting applications for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.