As a teenager, on my first trip to Israel, our guide kept talking about the Kotel. After a week in Israel, our trip finally made its way up to Jerusalem. We walked through the Old City and made our way to the Kotel. Our guide read us the poem, “The Paratroopers are Crying” by Haim Hefer, which beautifully describes Judaism’s 2,000-year relationship with the Wall. The poem begins:
This wall has heard many prayers
This wall has seen the fall of many other walls
This wall has felt the touch of mourning women
This wall has felt petitions lodged between its stones.
We sat on the benches at the back of the plaza for 10 minutes just observing the people. At the time, the prayer space of the Kotel was divided into two equal parts, separating men and women. I sat there, watching people pray. I saw all sorts of people that day – some were wearing Chassidic clothing, others were wearing IDF uniforms. Our guide then gathered us together and said, “This is your wall … Each of you must make it your own. Find a single stone that you will remember, spend some time there. Then when you come back to Israel, you will come back to YOUR Wall, to YOUR stone. I have been back to Israel 15 times. Each time, I reclaim my ownership of the Wall.
Sadly, not all my experiences at the Wall have been positive. As a rabbinic student, my classmates and I wanted to pray together at the Kotel. We were shouted at, pushed and finally forced to leave the Kotel area. Two years ago, I brought my eldest daughter to Israel for her first visit. I could not pray with her at the Wall. We had to separate. I longed to stand with her, as she experienced this incredible moment for the first time.
My friend and colleague, Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, an equal rights advocacy group, has spent decades fighting for the rights of women to be able to pray at the Kotel. To pray out loud, with voices raised in praise, reading from our sacred Torah scroll. She has been arrested, spat on and pushed. Profanities have been screamed at her. She has been accused of destroying Judaism – all because she would like to pray.
The Kotel has become a battle ground for religious pluralism and tolerance. After years and years of ignoring the issues, the Israeli government has finally addressed the issue and has recently voted to officially recognize non-Orthodox prayer. Construction will soon begin on a renovation of the Kotel Plaza that will provide for a prayer space not under the auspices of the Orthodox Rabbinate. It will be open to anyone who wishes to pray together with men and women, or in a manner. It has been a long time coming! But then, THIS Wall has seen so many things.
I am looking forward to being at the Wall and praying together with my children. I may need to adopt a new stone in this part of the Kotel. This Wall was built for you and me!