Women divided over prayer at the Western Wall

JERUSALEM — They were there to see the last remains left of the Second Temple, the most venerated site in Judaism, and enter God’s presence. Men prayed on one side of a tall divider and women on the other. Some worshipers wrote their prayers on small pieces of paper and stuck them into the crevices of the wall.

I watched from the stairs while the sound of weeping filled the air. I was surprised to feel the urge to cry with them. For a second, I felt like I belonged to this group of strangers who, at least, shared one desire: cry out to God at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel.


(Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

This is a land of so many divisions. Arab and Jew. Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Men and women. Thirty years ago, an organization was founded to address the gender divisions in Judaism. It was called Women of the Wall and it sought to give women equal rights to pray at the Western Wall. In recent years, however, Women of the Wall itself divided. There is now Women of the Wall and its offspring, the Original Women of the Wall.

The split occurred several years ago when Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of the Women of the Wall, recommended that the organization accept an offer from the government to join an alternate prayer site where men and women could pray together. The majority of the board members voted in favor of Hoffman’s decision, but a significant number of participants wanted to keep the focus of the organization on its original goal of empowering women in the women’s section, adjacent to the men’s section.


 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

One of the leaders of the opposition group, which took the name the Original Women of the Wall, is Cheryl Birkner Mack, an American Jew from Detroit who moved to Israel 11 years ago and started attending the monthly meetings of Women of the Wall. The organization, founded in 1988, has fought for women’s rights to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah scrolls collectively and out loud at the Western Wall. Birkner’s group wants to continue to fight for those rights at the existing women’s section rather than go to the alternate egalitarian prayer site nearby.

“It is not just the holiness,” Birkner said. “But it is also the history and the fact that my grandparents and great grandparents all wanted to be at this site, and for most of them it was impossible to be here.” An alternate site would not have the same spiritual power for her.


 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

Birkner believes that her breakaway group embodies the core principles of the organization, even if it has a new name. “We couldn’t take that name because they are using it,” Birkner said of Women of the Wall. “We just added ‘Original’ Women of the Wall, which exactly describes what we are. The original goals and most of the original women.”

The agreement between Hoffman and the government was reached in 2013, but it has yet to be fully implemented. When it is completed, there will be an egalitarian prayer section at another location along the retaining wall of the Temple that will also include a special women’s section for those modern Orthodox women who want to pray among women only.

Elizabeth Kirshner, 24, is a modern Orthodox woman from Detroit and director of communications at Women of the Wall. She said that the egalitarian section, which will be at a part of the Kotel known as Robinson’s Arch, would have a divider called the mechitza, beyond which only women can pray.

“It would still be a women’s prayer group,” Kirshner said. “It would adhere to traditional Orthodox needs or practice of Jewish law, Halakha, and it would be fully inclusive in that sense.”

Orthodox Jews believe that a mechitza is necessary to avoid sexual distractions between men and women during prayer time. Modern Orthodox Jews believe that men and women have to sit separately and only men can lead the prayers. In spite of that, there are forms to achieve gender separation in a more progressive way, like taking down the mechitza when someone is speaking and it is not prayer time.


 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

Birkner just recently heard about the eventual women’s section at the egalitarian section and she does not understand how this would be feasible. For her, the Robinson’s Arch section is out of site and mind, and praying there as a women-only prayer group is not the same as praying at the Kotel.

The Kotel and Robinson’s Arch are part of the remnant of the Western Wall and stand at the base of the Temple Mount. Although, they do not differ in terms of religious holiness, praying at the Kotel has a traditional and historical significance for observant Jews.

Birkner said that a main reason why Original Women of the Wall did not accept praying at the egalitarian section was because the women in the organization support their modern Orthodox sisters who cannot pray at the egalitarian section and the organization is not willing to move without them.

Still, both – Women of the Wall and Original Women of the Wall – have the participation of modern Orthodox women. So, what is the difference between the modern Orthodox women of each organization? Is the modern Orthodox world splitting?


 (Godland News/ By Galie Darwich)

The split within Women of the Wall addresses controversial topics within modern Orthodoxy, such as gender roles, modernism and traditionalism.

Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, 68, who also is a practicing attorney from New York City, moved to Jerusalem 25 years ago. He said that inherent to modern Orthodoxy is a contradiction. On the one hand, there is a modern call for gender equality, while, on the other hand, there is the obligation to follow tradition.

“There is a building tension between wanting, on one hand, to accommodate modern sensibilities and on the other hand to remain traditional,” Shapiro said.

While the Women of the Wall would pray at this alternate site, Original Women of the Wall hopes to continue to pray at the historic location. They plan to continue to press for the right to gather as a minyan, or quorum of 10, and read from the Torah scroll, and wear the tallit, or prayer shawl, just as the men do.

According to traditional Jewish law, women are exempt from many religious obligations that have to be done at particular times. As an example, women do not count towards the 10 needed to form a minyan, since they do not bear the obligation to be there. The primary reason given for this is women’s role of motherhood.

Shapiro said that women do not form a minyan in the same sense that men do. He added that women having their own minyan may be seen by the Orthodox society as an attempt for women to be like men.

Yet, for Birkner, a minyan is 10 Jews praying together. She said that some people specify 10 men, but others refer to 10 women or 10 people (men and women).

“Once the question of gender is decided all minyanim (plural) function in the same way,” Birkner said.

For change in tradition to work, it needs to take place slowly and gradually. “It could be that 50 years from now people would look back and say they cannot believe that some of the innovations of the modern Orthodox were unacceptable,” Shapiro said.

Birkner said that there are a lot of things that she does that her grandmother and mother did not do because of the ways society has evolved.

“Maybe there will be things that my daughter and granddaughter will do that I never thought about either,” Birkner said.




Light and dark: An Orthodox Jewish congregation celebrates a Sabbath ritual

NEW YORK — The lights were turned off, except for two round ones on each side of the bimah, a reading table near the center of the synagogue. The mechitzah was taken down, and about 20 worshippers at the Congregation Ramath Orah on 550 W. 110th St. on Manhattan's Upper West Side walked towards the center and stood side by side surrounding the bimah. Facing the entrance, men stood on the right side and women on the left. A Kiddush cup, a lit braided candle and small spice bags were on top of the bimah.

Anna Baron, a 23-year-old law student, arrived at the shul with her fiancé, Ross Boltyanskiy, a 30-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a few minutes before the Havdalah service started at 5:51 p.m. on a recent Saturday. Baron grabbed a prayer book from the bookshelf located on the right side of the entrance and sat in the last pew of the women’s side, near the aisle next to the mechitzah that separates the men’s section from the women’s.

The Fourth Commandment, Exodus 20:8-11, says to keep the Sabbath as a holy day for the Lord, and as God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested, the people of God will rest on the seventh day as well. To mark the separation of the Sabbath and the new week, Jews participate in a ritual called Havdalah.

A few minutes into the Havdalah service, Baron was one of the first people to rush towards the bimah. Rabbi Moshe Grussgott gave her the braided candle. She held it with her left hand as the congregation surrounded her. Rabbi Grussgott recited the blessings in Hebrew for each ceremonial item in the Havdalah service. First, he gave the blessing over the wine. Then the worshipers passed around small spice bags, which each person sniffed for sweetness and strength in the upcoming week. After that, Baron held high the candle while everyone placed their hands towards its light. Each person held their hands in front of them and turned them upside down while bending their fingers.

Baron and Boltyanskiy have been attending this modern Orthodox synagogue for about a year and a half. Both of their families live in New York City. Weekly, they rotate where they spend Sabbath between Manhattan, with Boltyanskiy’s family in Brooklyn or Baron’s family in Queens. Six months ago, Rabbi Grussgott asked Baron to hold the candle during Saturday night Havdalah services.

For Baron, the experience of holding the braided candle is a big honor. Rabbi Grussgott randomly asked her, she said, because there are not that many women who come to the synagogue towards the end of the Sabbath.

“I feel like it is a big honor, a big responsibility,” Baron said. “It is very special to do Havdalah all together as a community.”

Baron believes that this simple act of seeing the reflection of the light in their fingernails could be related to reflection and growth.

“Nails are constantly growing,” Baron said. “We kind of go through the week looking at something that is constantly growing, so that we can constantly grow in the upcoming week.”

Boltyanskiy is still learning about the significance of specific ceremonies, but he said that he has heard of a mystical interpretation for this ritual.

“Adam was sort of covered in the material that is like our fingernails,” Boltyanskiy said.

Why do the Havdalah candles have to be braided? Boltyanskiy explains that the candles represent the intertwining between the Sabbath and the rest of the week.

“On the Sabbath, we are working on ourselves, we stay at home,” Boltyanskiy said. “It’s meant to be more like self-work and the rest of the week is really outside. That is why we go out and we work and integrate and communicate with everybody else.”

Gila Lipton, 78, has been a member of Congregation Ramath Orah for seven years, and explains the significance of the worshipers putting up their hands towards the light of the candle and turning them upside down while curving their fingers, which generates a shadow.

“That shows the difference between light and darkness,” Lipton said. “And again, asking God to bless us.” She added that everybody asks God together to give them the blessings of light all through the week.

Rabbi Grussgott poured the wine onto the fire of the braided candle that Baron was still holding, marking the end of the Sabbath. Everyone said to each other Shavua Tov, which means have a good week.