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.

   

 

 


Welcoming Shabbat with those who left: Israel's ex-Orthodox

HOLON, Israel — At first it wasn’t clear what the man with the shaggy ponytail was doing at the dinner party. With his bushy beard and crocheted hoodie, he looked like he belonged 20 minutes up the road, in one of Tel Aviv’s hipster pubs – not at this intimate gathering of Jews who had fallen away from ultra-Orthodoxy.

But when he untied his ponytail after scanning the room, it collapsed into long, brown payot – locks of hair that Orthodox Jewish men grow out because the Bible forbids shaving the corners of the head. “This is the magic,” said one of the hosts as she welcomed the latecomer in. “You have seen the magic right now.”

If not quite magical, there was something deeply eerie about the evening’s proceedings. Outside, the town of Holon was sleepy and peaceful: Even as the streets were dotted with secular insignia like stores selling pets and lingerie, they had emptied in deference to Shabbat. Inside this modest apartment, meanwhile, the group of former ultra-Orthodox Jews who had gathered for dinner was none so compliant. Opining on the foibles of organized religion and reflecting bitterly on their past lives, they had convened as much to spite Shabbat as share it.

The number of ultra-Orthodox in Israel, known as Haredim, recently topped 1 million, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. Their population continues to grow, but so does the number of Haredim who leave the fold: In 1997, just 10 people sought help from Hillel, an organization founded in 1991 to aid ex-Haredim as they transitioned into mainstream Israeli life. By 2006 the number had increased substantially to 50, but that doesn’t compare to last year’s 230. And those are only Hillel’s numbers, which don’t account for the majority of yotzim – “those who leave” – whom the organization never encounters.

The reasons for this growth are various and clear. Some Haredi communities have embraced the internet and social media while others use those tools illicitly, but their proliferation has enticed many Haredim to leave their world behind: “Porn sites are not scary,” said Sarah, one of my dinner hosts. “Wikipedia is scary,” and knowledge of what lies beyond communal boundaries can compel many Haredim to seek it. Each departure, moreover, is an act of exponential influence that sets a precedent for others, further normalizing and facilitating the fraught undertaking. Indeed, leaving has never been easier: There are now three Israeli organizations devoted to yotzim, of which Hillel was the first to arrive less than 30 years ago. There are whole communities now waiting to embrace them, whereas not long ago they may have encountered overwhelming disconnect and loneliness. The phenomenon’s expansion is such that, according to Hillel volunteer Beni Naveh, some Haredi leaders are now encouraging families to maintain connections with their yotzim – in hopes that they will feel welcome to return.

Friday night dinners, like the one in Holon, are an effort by some ex-Haredim to reconnect with one another – if not with their roots. I was invited to attend the dinner when I was visiting Israel in March, on condition that I not reveal the names of those present. Some of them, like the man with the ponytail, are only “out” in secret and living dual lives; exposure could mean never seeing their children again.

With their identities concealed, they laid their feelings bare. Sarah made clear that as she sees it, Haredi life is nothing but a theater of the absurd. She wants to write Harry Potter fan fiction as a parable: In her scenario, all magical spells have ceased working but the characters go on reciting them, hoping their powers will one day be restored. These wayward wizards and witches, she said, are like Haredi Jews who live ascetic, rigid, and parochial lives of devotion to an absent God. “I believe Freud would just love watching it,” she added.

As far as the evening’s commentary went, the Harry Potter story was diplomatic. Sparks flew, unfiltered: When a baby boy is circumcised, said Sarah, his family delusionally believes that “a big shiny bitcoin falls” from heaven and they can “level up,” as if playing a game. Though she does not “believe there’s any God who cares what we do,” Sarah resents what strikes her as the highly transactional devotion of the Haredim. “This is what Jesus Christ didn’t like about us,” she added for unlikely emphasis.

Naveh estimates that, like Sarah, about half of Israeli yotzim renounce their faith entirely upon transitioning into secular life. Leaving the Haredi world – what Americans commonly call going “off the derech” (path) – is for this half not a matter of moderation, but of absolution. The meal’s main course was sushi with shrimp – rolled by hand and lovingly arranged in the shape of the Union Jack – prepared by a double-living chef who would later return to the Haredi enclave of Bnei Brak. The shrimp was good, but the choice was clearly polemical: “I had a bacon cheeseburger on Yom Kippur,” said the other host, David, with an audible lilt of pride. Judaism, in his view, is not just outdated, but obsolete. Along with all other religions, he said, it is an institution built on lies, manipulation and self-effacement. He conceded comfort with, even attraction to, casual cultural traditions – but maintained that one cannot be too wary of applying deeper meaning to them. So, though David made a quick kiddush, the evening was not about Shabbat. It was about solidarity among those who had seen through it all and knew better.

“Yotzim culture is really its own thing,” he said. Too often, no matter how secular one becomes, bridging the gap between yotzim and other Israelis proves impossible. Even secular Israelis, said David to affirmative nods, take offense when someone like him identifies as an “atheist” who will not buy into the civic Judaism so central to Israeli identity. And then there is the army – perhaps the fulcrum of Israeli civic Judaism. Serving, said Naveh, is key to fitting into mainstream Israeli life, and to shaking the stigma associated with Haredim who take from the state but give nothing back. Still, not everyone opts in.

Their distinct culture, David added, has really crystallized over the last few years, as the yotzim population has grown and became more organized. Naveh, who is not himself ex-Haredi, agrees with some displeasure. One disadvantage of the community’s recent expansion, he said, is that many yotzim no longer even try to socialize with “the general society. They find it easier,” said Naveh, to be with “people like them who understand them.”

So no one but me batted an eye when, after hours of passionate blaspheming, one guest started gently singing “L’chah Dodi,” a Friday night staple about welcoming Shabbat’s arrival. On the contrary, the rest of the table joined in. In synagogues, “L’chah Dodi” is often festive and upbeat, a celebration of the holy hour. The yotzim, however, sang it in the style of the rabbi and composer Shlomo Carlebach; the melody lilted and yearned towards an almost mournful pall. No one followed the brief liturgical excursion with a hint of snark. For the first time all night, silence prevailed, and something like a proper Shabbat meditation settled over the few remaining shrimp rolls. Proving Naveh right, only I seemed confused.

“We’re emotionally connected,” said David, when I asked him why this prayer was part of his otherwise gleefully trayf Friday night. It’s “nostalgia,” he said – for a way of life that filled him with disdain.

It was after midnight when I left the apartment, and Holon seemed almost frozen. Shabbat had long since been welcomed, but “L’chah Dodi” still rang sweetly, sadly, dissonantly in my ears as I searched for a cab in the silence.


Virtual tourism: The next best thing to being there

NEW YORK & JERUSALEM — “You’re standing at the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Israel,” you hear a tour guide say. As that voice explains the significance of the place to people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, you can see the golden roof glistening in the sunlight. You imagine it’s a warm day in the Holy Land, but you can’t feel the sun on your skin. Perhaps Muslims are entering the Dome of the Rock, or the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, to visit the site and pray, but you can’t see or hear them. You can move around the site in all directions, not by turning your head, but by using a computer mouse.

This is the virtual pilgrimage experience.

“For every person who goes to Israel physically, there are hundreds of people who can’t,” said Gary Crossland, the founder of the Octagon Project, a non-profit that produces live-action, virtual tours of Israel and posts them online.

The cost of travel, lack of mobility, and family obligations are just a few factors that might keep people from making the trip, said Crossland, a Texas native, who has traveled to Israel 30 times.

Gary Crossland preparing video for virtual tours at the Judean Desert in Israel. (The Octagon Project)

Virtual tourism is nothing new. Pilgrims have always brought back “holy water,” a chunk of earth or a relic to hold on to and share the experience of the journey. Once photography was perfected, tourists brought back pictures of the holy places they’d visited. The embrace of video cameras, gadgets and social media to help people feel closer to the Holy Land is more recent. For years, there has been a 24-hour stagnant live feed of The Western Wall, one of the most religious sites for Jewish people. A few sites accept prayers via tweet to place in the cracks of that wall, an old tradition. On YouTube, there are thousands of traditional video tours, some with photo montages and some narrated.

But with more high-tech devices comes a more immersive experience. Organizations like the Octagon Project use virtual reality to offer that, along with a free, all-access digital pass to Israel. With the help of 360-degree cameras, online tourists can “visit” churches, historical locations, and get a glimpse into the country without a passport, luggage or a plane ticket.

Twenty years ago, Terry Modica, who is Catholic, actually made the 15-plus hour journey from her home in Florida to Israel for a pilgrimage. She saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most sacred places of the Christian faith, the Nativity site, where Jesus is said to have been born, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

With a few clicks, you can experience Modica’s journey, too. Back then, she did not have the devices to create a high-tech experience like the Octagon Project, but the 1990s-era photos she collected during the trip are now on her website, Good News Ministries, in the form of a virtual tour. To see the inside of the church, click on the doors and after the webpage loads, you’re inside. Or click for a closer look at the loaves and fish mosaic at the Church of Multiplication, where Christians believe Jesus multiplied enough food to feed a large crowd of followers.

“People once looked at my low-resolution photos and thought ‘oh wow,’” Modica, 63, said. “Now I look at them and say ‘Oh crap.’”

Modica saves the notes from people who still appreciate the virtual journey.

“Although I am a born Catholic,” one virtual pilgrim wrote, “my knowledge of the places where all the miraculous and painful events took place were only imaginary…until now.”

Modica wants to return to the Holy Land to capture the trip for those behind a computer screen. This time, using virtual reality for a more immersive experience.

But some say a virtual trip to Israel won’t do.

“For me, I had to come back,” said Bonnie Bergman, a Boca Raton, Florida native who is Jewish.

On a warm Sunday in Jerusalem, she was back in the Holy Land for the first time in 40 years to meet long lost family members. Bergman stood on the outskirts of the Western Wall in awe.

"It’s emotional,” said Bergman, who is a retired teacher.

That type of meeting is something that can’t be done online. That, and walking into the crowds in the women’s section of the Western Wall to touch what’s believed to be the remains of the retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

While Crossland’s virtual tour company also offers 10-day physical excursions to Israel, he does not think the emergence of the type of technology that may allow virtual travelers to engage other senses — like sight and smell — will have any impact on that business.

“We’re on the bleeding edge of that technology,” Crossland said. But there’s “nothing like being there.”

"When you can actually have boots on the ground and feel the heat on your skin, the packing, the anticipation — it’s a totally different feeling.”


Conflict on campus: Picking up where Jerusalem left off

NEW YORK — Back on Columbia’s campus after 10 days in Israel and Palestine, it feels different. Students are still dashing about to get to classes, but the masses of undergrads seem to slow down just a bit as they reach the center of campus walk, almost as if students are rubbernecking at an accident on the highway. And then I see the flags. The same ones I saw hanging proudly outside buildings and painted all over walls in Israel and Palestine.

The last week in March brings two conflicting events to Columbia: Hebrew Liberation Week and Israel Apartheid Week.

It seems like it’s the same old story from which I cannot escape: us vs. them. Oppressors vs. liberators. Zionists vs. anti-Zionists. As a journalist, I want to hear both sides. So that’s what I set out to do. On one side of campus, in front of Low Library, stand the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace in front of a makeshift Israeli West Bank Barrier, complete with iconic Bethlehem graffiti from British artist Banksy. On the other side stand the Columbia Students Supporting Israel, complete with flyers and keffiyeh scarves embroidered with the Star of David.

“[It’s] a week of celebration about the connection of Jews and the land of Israel and what Zionism is,” said president of the pro-Israel group, a Columbia junior named Dalia Zahger, 24.

A display of materials shared by the Students Supporting Israel during Hebrew Liberation Week at Columbia University. (Godland News / Steph Beckett)

She said the student group hosts a Hebrew Liberation Week every semester.

“I hope [people] come with an open mind to listen, to read and to learn and to hear from us,” she said. “Not to listen from other people about what Zionism means but to ask a Zionist what it means.”

After speaking with her, I feel even more confused about this term and its place in relation to the tensions that exist in Israel and Palestine. In Israel, our class visited the city of Acco to speak to Imam Samir Assi and Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar. They were friends.

“Best friends,” Yashar said.

After speaking to us about their faiths and their unlikely friendship, I asked how they could be so different and how Yashar could be a Zionist and still be so close with Assi. He looked at me for a second before saying in Hebrew, “It’s about respect for each other.”

That respect is rare. It doesn’t exist in most corners of Israel and Palestine, so how could I expect to come back to New York City and find it here?

I spent some time over at the anti-Zionist corner of campus, staring at the fake Israeli West Bank Barrier. It reminded me of Bethlehem and I missed it. One day while standing at the fake barrier, I heard a couple of students remark in disgust at a puppy wearing an Israeli keffiyeh on the opposite side of the courtyard.

“Ew,” one student remarked.

“Why would you do that to a puppy?” The other agreed.

Zionism, in the dictionary means, “a movement for (originally) the reestablishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.” The movement was established in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. But it’s come to mean different things to different groups since the term was originally coined.

For Zahger, it’s a word that means a connection to her home. She grew up in southern Israel, where she served in the army before coming to study at Columbia.

But for other students it’s almost a trigger word.

I spoke with a student involved with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. She asked that I not use her name because of how political the topic has become. She became involved in the organizations during her freshman year after realizing there was something wrong about the way she viewed Palestine.

“I don’t see how it’s okay for one group of refugees to create another group of refugees,” she said. “I also don’t see how I can justify that as the continuation of a state to do anything in its power to maintain a white Jewish demographic.”


The value of Shabbat, as illustrated by The Twilight Zone

In the minutes after the Shabbat evening service ended and before the rabbi started his teaching, the atmosphere at Congregation Shearith Israel shifted from solemn to relaxed. Congregants stood up from their seats and conversations broke out in the synagogue, located on the intersection between 70th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. To listen to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s message, men and women did not sit separately on the main floor and on the balcony but together on one side of the main floor. Soloveichik himself did not stand on the bimah — the elevated platform from which the cantor prayed — but behind a simple podium facing the believers.

He was ready to deliver his weekly 20-minute shiur, a lesson that teaches a passage from the Talmud. “We’re going to talk about time,” he began, but instead of drawing on Biblical or rabbinic sources, the rabbi proceeded to quote from the hit television series of the 1960s, “The Twilight Zone.”

Soloveichik read screenwriter Rod Serling’s opening narration from the eighth episode. The narration was the first passage printed on pale yellow pamphlets handed out to the congregants. “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers,” the rabbi said, “A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock.”

Men and women chuckled in their seats as Soloveichik continued to tell the story of Henry Bemis, whose greatest desire is to have unlimited time to read without being interrupted by his boss and his wife. During his lunch break one day, Bemis goes into the bank’s vault in hopes of having undisturbed reading time. A sudden explosion happens outside the vault, and when Bemis exits, he discovers that a nuclear war has destroyed everything and that he was the only person left alive on Earth.

“He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone,” Serling’s narration read. Soloveichik described Bemis’s despair. Although Bemis now had unlimited time, his loneliness drove him to prepare to commit suicide. At this point of the story, the rabbi delivered one of the lessons of his message. “Time becomes important when we use it at the service of someone else,” he said. In Bemis’s case, the bookish man had no one to spend his life with and serve. Soloveichik added, “It’s only when time is limited does it become valuable.”

His congregants, mostly married couples in their 50s and 60s, nodded in agreement to the rabbi’s words. Soloveichik proceeded to cite the Talmud, connecting the importance of limited time to the Sabbath day — the weekly day of rest when Jews do not work and usually spend time with loved ones. He referenced “Shabbat 33B” from the Talmud, which talks about a rabbi and his son seeing an elderly man holding two bundles of myrtle branches as the sun was setting on Shabbat eve.

Soloveichik read from the passage, “They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: 'Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: 'Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mizvot are to Israel.” The mitzvot referred to here are commandments in the Torah and the ones quoted in this passage are two of the sources of instruction for observing Shabbat.

The Sabbath day was made significant in chapter two of Genesis, when God finished creating the world on the seventh day. “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done,” Genesis reads. Believers at Congregation Shearith Israel observe the day vigilantly from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Soloveichik tied the importance of Shabbat to his earlier points. The fact that Shabbat is framed by a limited time, spent not alone but rather in community, makes it more special. “Shabbat time, we bless it and we sanctify it,” he said as he closed the shiur.

Zachary Edinger, the sexton of the synagogue, said that these 20-minute messages originally began in hopes of increasing the participation at Friday’s Shabbat services. “Our Friday night services used to be very sparsely attended, with 25 to 50 people,” Edinger, 40, said. “When the rabbi started a few years ago, he made it a priority to speak on Friday night, something we had not done before. This attracted a good crowd and we now regularly get between 70 to 90 people on Friday nights,” he explained.

Edinger said that thus far, the talks have not had a set curriculum. “Rather we hope people will be inspired and entertained enough to want to keep coming to our services,” he said.

At the message’s closing, men and women stood up from their seats and said “Shabbat Shalom” to one another. They exited the synagogue to return home and observe the blessed and sanctified day of rest, perhaps now with a new understanding that it is especially precious because it is not endless, but limited.