A Muslim man's sacred job renting crosses in Jerusalem

As seen in The Media Project:

JERUSALEM — Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.

Every day, Kenan walks the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, a route sacred for Christians around the world. With a smirk on his face and a cigarette in his free hand, he smoothly moves through the crowds of tourists and shop owners. But hauling the cross around Jerusalem in the path that Jesus walked is not a sign of devotion for him. The procession and the rental business are merely transactional trades for Kenan, whose family is Muslim. But despite his religious background, he’s the go-to guy pilgrims visiting Jerusalem rent their crosses from.

Mazen Kenan carrying a cross through Jerusalem. (Godland News / Vildana Hajric & Isobel van Hagen)

Christian pilgrims from around the world visit the Old City, a place rife with key historical Christian monuments and Biblical references. Israel reported a record number of visitors last year, with nearly 80 percent of the more than 3.6 million visitors stopping in Jerusalem. More than half of Israel’s tourists were Christian and 25 percent of those were visiting as pilgrims.

The Stations of the Cross, a circuitous path along the Via Dolorosa with 14 stops in total, is believed by many to be the route that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Tour groups of pilgrims large and small move from station to station, carrying with them hymn books, pamphlets with descriptions of each station, and, most importantly, a large cross.

On a recent Friday in March, one of the busiest times to walk the procession, Kenan followed a group as they started their tour. The group was made up of pilgrims from Los Angeles, New York or the Philippines, and was led by a man who identified himself as Pastor Joel from California. Kenan snapped pictures at every station, and when the priest took some time to reflect on the importance of the group’s trip, Kenan took a cigarette break instead.

The weeks before Easter are a particularly busy time for business, said Kenan, thanks to a combination of warm weather and the holiday season.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric and Isobel van Hagen)

“It’s always been my dream to come here,” said Dulce Guzman, 50, who had traveled from Fresno, Ca. to make her way through the walk. “I wanted to experience how Jesus lived. We’re exploring his life and time. It’s a remarkable experience for us,” she added.

Yvonne Amantea, a pilgrim from Los Angeles, was in Jerusalem for the first time. She walked through the streets murmuring, “Our Father, hail Mary, glory be,” as she held part of the giant wooden cross over her head.   Between each stop on the route, at least six people walk with the cross, she explained, so everyone gets a chance to hold it.

Bob Vega, 72, a retired accountant from Fresno, had started his trip in Bethlehem, then traveled to Nazareth and now was in Jerusalem to complete not only the Stations of the Cross, but the entire path of the life of Jesus. This was his 10th time traveling to Jerusalem, and his favorite spot along the procession is the 11th station, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. “While it’s important symbolically when I carry the cross on this walk,” he said, “the one Jesus carried was definitely much heavier.”

As Kenan followed the group making its way toward the ninth stop on the Via Dolorosa–called “Jesus falls a third time”–the midday sun beat down, and it was hard to hear Joel preaching over the Muslim call to prayer.

Kenan makes all of the crosses himself, mostly out of olive wood. He has around 50 and keeps the majority of them at his home in Jerusalem. Every day, however, he brings a few to the first station of the Way of the Cross and rents them out depending on daily demand. Though demand fluctuates throughout the year, the past couple of weeks have been particularly busy for him due to the Easter holiday. But when asked how many crosses he had rented out that day, he held up a single finger. “One.”

The business has been in the Kenan family for nearly seven decades. His father, who passed away about three months ago, started it back in 1951, according to Kenan. He took it over in 1999, helping to transform it into what it is today. Pilgrims can rent the cross for $50. To supplement his cross rental income, he takes pictures of tour groups and charges them about $3 per photo. If the group decides to use him as their photographer, the cross comes free.

Some, however, choose to avoid this rental cost and bring their own cross, hauling it in in pieces and assembling it right before the start of their tours. Shafik Elias, a Syrian Christian who came with a larger group, is one of those people. He brought his own handmade cross–carved of pale orange wood–in two pieces along with a screwdriver to assemble it. He even saved scraps of newspaper to help cover up the edges for protection during travel.

Pilgrims return their crosses in a courtyard located just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The courtyard, raised above the city, is a quiet and secluded world of its own. Here, another group – this one of Greek Catholic pilgrims from Nazareth – took a photo with the cross they had rented from Kenan. As they finished their tour, the leader of the pilgrimage said Kenan told him to just leave the cross in the courtyard. He would grab it later.

The pilgrims left the lone cross leaning against the ancient stone wall of the courtyard.

A centuries-old dispute comes to a head at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

JERUSALEM — “There is a time,” the Bible tells us, “to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” For the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, however, the act of moving even a single stone can provoke the greatest of controversies.

Stones have apparently complicated restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of shrines and altars that houses two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the place where Jesus died on the cross, and the place where he was resurrected.

Over the last two millennia, six Christian denominations have claimed custodial ownership of these places. They have devised among themselves an elaborate choreography of how and when each church can use each space. 

On September 22nd, 2017, the Church of the Archangel Michael, part of the Holy Sepulchre complex, was ordered closed after a small stone fell from its the ceiling.

Instead of repairing it, the two churches that claim ownership over the church prevented one another from making necessary repairs. One of them is the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has long claimed ownership of the Church of the Archangel Michael, and the surrounding courtyard atop the complex, called Deir El-Sultan. The other church that claims ownership is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

When the stone fell, the Copts and the Ethiopians could not decide who was to take responsibility for reinforcing the ceiling of the Church of the Archangel Michael. The physical damage caused by the falling stone, however, paled in comparison to the fragile peace that was shattered between the two churches as age-old disputes bubbled to the surface.

It was not a matter of money. “Everyone can afford to repair it,” explained the Rev. Marcos Alorshalmey, the secretary of the Coptic order. “It’s only a small piece of the roof, but the Ethiopians don’t recognize us as the owners.”

St. Antony’s – Father Markos Alorshalemy, Secretary (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

He said that the Copts and Ethiopians generally cooperate. “At the end of the day, we are all one Christian community. But if you have a right, you cannot just leave it – you have to defend it.”

But the Ethiopians have a different story. Bar Markos is one of 21 monks living in cramped cells in Deir El-Sultan.

He claims that the Ethiopian presence goes back 2,000 or more years. “There were monks at the time of Jesus Christ here,” said Markos, shaking an English-language pamphlet in his right hand.

“And before that, the Queen of Sheba secured this land for the Ethiopians from King Solomon.”

After this confident declaration, he invited tourists to come and see their one remaining church, where a painting of the Abyssinians bringing gifts to the Davidic king hangs from the wall.

Deir El-Sultan – Bar Markos, left, is one of around 21 monks living on the holy site. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

When Alorshalemy heard of this claim, he was baffled.

“But King Solomon was not Christian!” cried Alorshalemy.

“And more than that, during the time of King Solomon, there was no one here. There was no monastery. No church. No nothing! So, how come King Solomon gave them this area?” he questioned, repeatedly.

Unfortunately for the Ethiopians, the archaeological and historical record falls silent on these claims, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a destination of Christian pilgrimage since at least 325 A.D., when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have rediscovered the holy site.

Mutual recognition between the two Oriental churches of an Ethiopian presence on Deir El-Sultan begins in the 17th Century.

Both sides are in agreement that, in 1654, the Armenians and Greeks evicted the Ethiopians from their altars inside the main church when they could not afford to pay taxes on their property.

At that time, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, as an apostolic see, ministered to the Copts and Ethiopians. It was not until 1959, when the Coptic Pope Cyril VI granted the Ethiopians their own patriarch, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church became fully independent.

“Before, they had no place to go,” said Alorshemy. “So we, as their mother church, allowed them to stay as guests until they found somewhere else.

“Back then, the Copts were few in number, so the Ethiopians ended up staying there for many years.”

In fact, the Ethiopians go a step farther than this in their official history, which is summarized in a pamphlet that is readily available from their church offices. They claim that it was actually the Copts – and a man by the name of Ibrahim Giuhari, specifically – who stole property from the Ethiopians back in 1774. No evidence was produced to corroborate this event.

The Copts, however, say that they have evidence that they were there even earlier. For example, the iconostasis and other engravings bear the hallmarks of Coptic design. Official documents date these artifacts to the early 12th century.

Circa late-1800s – Coptic monks praying in the two disputed churches of Deir El-Sultan (Courtesy of St. Antony’s Coptic Monastery)

Though none of the monks speak fluent English, Hebrew or even Arabic, the pamphlet goes to pains to describe the poverty of the Ethiopian community, who, through the centuries have lost the majority of their properties in the Holy Land. Their last stand, they seem to be saying, is Deir El-Sultan. What emerges from this short historical pamphlet is a people clinging on dearly to what little they have.

Shortly after the dispute over the fallen stone, the Coptic Metropolitan Bishop of Jerusalem and the Near East, Anba Antonios, issued a press statement saying that the Copts should be put in charge of the renovation based on legal precedents. He recounted the number of times the Ethiopians had wrongfully tried to seize their property and had failed.

“We call upon all parties concerned to support the Coptic Church in preserving its property in the Holy Land,” said the bishop.

Twice, he wrote, the Ethiopians had stolen the keys to Deir El-Sultan’s main buildings and gates – once in 1850, and again, in 1862. In both cases, the Ottomans ruled in favor of the Copts by decree.

The Dome of the Church of St. Helen – an Ethiopic monk prays decades of the rosary. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Alorshalemy speculates that these incidents instilled within the Ethiopians the feeling that they were under threat of expulsion. On two separate occasions since the 19th century, the Ethiopians have secretly attempted to commission renovations and painting, in order to exercise some proprietary right over the premises. In 1959, a Jordanian court even decided to hand over the keys to the Ethiopians, but this was short-lived, as the Copts successfully petitioned King Hussein a year later.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated Egypt, the Israeli government turned Deir El-Sultan over to the Ethiopians. Again, the Copts appealed and won in the Israeli Supreme Court, but the decision was not acted upon.

“The Israeli government has refused to implement the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1971 to the present day,” explained the bishop in dismay.

To preserve their rights, the Copts have devised a series of symbolic acts and gestures, which, they believe, proves their undisputed ownership.

“We have one cell at Deir El-Sultan, and that’s where the head of the monks in that monastery should stay,” said Father Alorshalemy.

“That room is ours, so one of our monks goes and sleeps there every day,” he added. “But because there is no water, no electricity, no sewage, we take it in turns to stay there.”

The 21-strong Ethiopian community feels much aggrieved by their lot, too, but they blame it largely on the Copts.

They complain that for 80 years, until 1970, the two Ethiopian shrines were locked for Easter, and they had to celebrate outside in the open air. Similarly, at times, the purported shutdown prevented the Ethiopians “from burying the corpses of dead priests and nuns,” reads the pamphlet. These claims have not been independently verified.

“Politics is a dirty game,” lamented Bar Markos, bowing his head.

“Even your cat or your dog cannot live in this place. In this society, in this century – there is no humanity.”

Deir El-Sultan– Ethiopian monks have lived here in ‘temporary residence’ since 1654, when they were evicted from the main church. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

These accusations have deeply upset the Copts, though despite living several feet apart, the two orders rarely meet, or converse, on account of the language barrier. This makes a resolution near impossible. At present, there is only one clerical figure who speaks Amharic and Arabic, and he resides with the Copts. His name is the Rev. Gabriel Selassie. He is at least 93-years-old and was ostracized from the Ethiopian community 18 years ago for supporting the Coptic position.

In 2008, the late Dominican priest, the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, published a book entitled "The Holy Land." He alleged that the Copts were “torturing” the Ethiopians, forcing them to live in poverty. Alorshalemy said that he was shocked at the charges, which, in his view, made the Copts out to be “bad people.” He wrote to Oxford University Press, requesting a correction in the next edition.

The Copts see it differently. In light of their charity work and sustained commitment to allowing the Ethiopians to stay on Deir El-Sultan, the monks of St. Anthony’s take great offense to such judgments on their character.

“It’s simply not true – not true at all,” sighed Father Alorshalemy.

Almost a month to the day after the stone fell, the Dangerous Buildings Department of the Jerusalem Municipality sent government-appointed engineers to admit equipment to the site to begin repairs. As a compromise, the Israeli government had offered to fix the roof.

But the Copts had flatly refused unless certain conditions were met. Among these, the Copts insisted that they – and not the Ethiopians or the Israeli government – pay for the restoration. It was clearly a way of asserting ownership.

No reply came.

“As we did not receive any reply, we sent several other letters to confirm our readiness,” recalled Bishop Antonios.

“We sent the engineering report, the blueprints and the contract agreement to the engineering office assigned with the renovations,” he added. “But we have yet to receive any written response.”

And neither would they. The government proposal to take control of the renovation was not the one the Copts had hoped for. When they heard the news, the Archbishop hurried to assemble all the Coptic monks, deacons and priests to peacefully protest the decision. They stood at the gate and waited until engineers left without delivering the equipment.

“The Egyptian Embassy intervened in this matter,” said the Coptic bishop, “and this led to the delay of the work until coordination in writing is made with us.” The entry of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry into these negotiations has undoubtedly raised the stakes, for the confrontation has now escalated beyond a petty church dispute.

But it remains to be seen what will happen next, and more importantly, how the Ethiopians will react. Alorshalemy is optimistic that a solution will be reached soon, though the Ethiopians will not compromise so easily.

Deir El-Sultan – An Ethiopian nun reads a newspaper. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Whose church is it? Greeks and Arabs struggle over Orthodox Christianity

KAFR KANNA — George Jaraisi owns a souvenir shop catering to Orthodox pilgrims just feet away from St. George’s Orthodox Church here. Among his merchandise is local wine – Kanna wine – named in commemoration of the Biblical miracle that is associated with this town: Jesus turning water into wine. Among the bottles on his shelves is a portrait of Jaraisi’s grandfather, Issla Jaraisi, a native Palestinian resident of the town who helped rebuild St. George’s several decades ago. But despite his strong connection to the church, Jaraisi said that he never even steps foot inside.

St. George’s, which is run by Greek monks like the Rev. Chrestostomos, does not serve his interests, Jaraisi said. “They want everything to be Greek,” he said. “Instead of bringing people together, they’re splitting them apart.”

Both Jaraisi and Chrestostomos are Greek Orthodox, like most of the 200,000 Christians in the Holy Land. But like many other Orthodox Christians, Jaraisi feels misunderstood by the predominately Greek leadership of the Holy Synod, the governing council of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and of the bishops under their auspices.

As the Christian Palestinian community continues to emigrate, now only at about 1 percent of the total Palestinian population, there is heightened tension between an increasingly shrinking indigenous Palestinian laity and the Greek priests of the leadership.

“There are very few Arab priest and monks within the Jerusalem Patriarchate. The laity have never really trusted the patriarchate,” said Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

Today, there are 1,800 Arab Orthodox Christians in Kfar Kanna, a village in the north of Israel near Nazareth. Orthodoxy’s presence here began in the 4th century when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, came to Syria Palaestina on a religious pilgrimage in which she sought out every place where Jesus performed a miracle.

In the year 327, a monastery was built around the church to house the dozens of monks who since have preserved the patrimony of the holy site through centuries of fires, earthquakes, and conflict – most notably during the Persian invasion of the 5th century. St. George’s reached its age of splendor in the late 19th century when Nikolai II, the last Russian emperor, bequeathed a large donation resulting in the installation of marble floors and floor-to-ceiling murals in the church. The former bustle of monastic life has been reduced to one abbot who preserves the besieged universe of St. George’s, Father Chrestostomos of Thessaloniki.

Chrestostomos said that where he’s from is not relevant to how well he can address the needs of his Palestinian flock. “For monks, we are like soldiers for Jesus. Everywhere is the same, we go where the patriarchate moves us,” said Chrestostomos. He dons a flowing black gown, and grows his hair out in a ponytail and in a long brown beard. His introspective brown eyes convey a loneliness that comes from being the only Orthodox priest in the community, away from both his native Greece and his fellow monks. “I don’t have friends here, I live alone, but I’m here for the families of this town. Someone must continue the tradition here.”

That tradition, though, is contested, based on conflicting ideas of the church’s purpose and the people it serves. Chrestostomos argues for the continuity of Greek cultural presence. “The abbot of this church must be a monk, and it is not easy to be an abbot. The fathers who led this church have always come from Byzantium and spoke Greek. The Greeks continue the original kind of Christianity.”

Chrestostomos was born in Greece, and his trajectory to St. George’s corresponds with how most enter the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, one of the 15 self-governing or autocephalous branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jerusalem Patriarchate represents about 130,000 Orthodox Christians in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Chrestostomos insists that although he was born in Greece, he is steeped in Palestinian culture. “As a small child, around the age of seven, I left Greece to live at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. I grew up, and became a part of the patriarchate. Now, I’m like a visitor in Greece.”

In addition to the clergy who come from Greece, there are also Orthodox priests who were born and raised in Israel and Palestine, among them Archbishop Atallah Hanna. He in no way sees himself inferior to the Greek priests.

“We reject and refuse to be looked at as a minority,” said Atallah Hanna, one of a handful of Palestinians who are members of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Among the twenty bishops, only four are Palestinian.

Archbishop Atallah Hanna in Bethlehem, 2018.  Courtesy of Zeina Jallad

Archbishop Atallah Hanna is notable for his vocal political stances against the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. He was arrested in 2002 during the height of the second intifada, and accused the Israeli government of unfairly targeting him for criticizing the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

“We are not a minority in our homeland. We are a main component in the Palestinian people and we are part of the struggle against occupation,” he said.

Archbishop Atallah Hana was born in the Arab town of Rameh in Israel’s north and grew attached to a local Orthodox priest there. He left for Thessaloniki to study Greek and the Bible, but insisted on being called his birth name Nizar.

“My family was so much in love with the great Arab poets and they decided to name me after Nizar Qabbani. I always went by Nizar even when I went to Greece, and I was always proud of that name. I was called Nizar until I became a priest.”

In 1992 Nizar was ordained a priest at the Church of the Holy Selpuchre in Jerusalem and was put in charge of Arabic language translation for all the church’s communiqué. It was then that he assumed the name Atallah Hanna or “gift of God.” “I climbed the ladder from the first plank of laity to the second of being a priest, third archimandrite and fourth as an archbishop – but I never changed. I will always be Nizar.”

“Christian churches in Palestine have always stood for the rights of the Palestinian people,” he said. “The church here is the mother of all churches and here is where Christianity was born...We’ve been here for more than 2,000 years and our roots are planted deep in this soil.”

Even during the Byzantine era when Greek influence was at its zenith, the patriarchs of Jerusalem were Arab, except for a brief interlude during the height of the Crusades in the 12th century. This changed in 1534 with the installation of Greek Patriarch Germanus who completely transformed the institution, removing Arab clergy and Hellenizing the Holy Synod. In 1669 his successor, Patriarch Dositheos, decreed only Greek clergy could gain entrance to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, the patriarchate’s then-highest body. This is the tradition which Father Chrestestomos is referencing, and which Archbishop Atallah Hanna pushes back against.

But their differences are much more than just cultural. They are also about land, like so much else in Israel and Palestine.

The tension erupted into the public sphere most recently in January when Patriarch Theophilos III was met with hundreds of Palestinian protesters in Bethlehem, angry over the recent sale of church properties to Israeli companies and settler groups, both in Israel and East Jerusalem. In 2015, they sold large sections of the Caesarea National Park for $1 million, and in 2012 sold 240 apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Oranim for $3.3 million to a shell company based in the Virgin Islands. According to real estate appraisers, the amount paid for the transactions was far below market-rate. Most of these deals weren’t made public until late 2017 when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained several of the contracts. The Jerusalem Patriarchate is the second-largest holder of real estate in Israel after the state itself.

In the wake of these revelations, the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour refused to attend the Orthodox Christmas celebration in January 2018, the first time in decades that municipal leaders have publicly rallied against the head of the Patriarchate.

The main Palestinian Orthodox protest group is called Gheyr Mostaheq which means “illegitimate” in Arabic. Formed in 2005 during the push to have disgraced former Patriarch Irenaios I resign, Gheyr Mostaheq is composed of a number of groups, including the Central Council of Orthodox Christians and the Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Orthodox High Council. Irenaios was widely condemned during his tenure for a series of land sales in the Old City of Jerusalem to the right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim and is accused by Gheyr Mostaheq activists of embezzling over a $1 million. They remain critical of the current patriarch for what they see as a continuation of improper land sales without consultation.

“Land is very important for the Palestinian Arab community. Selling land is almost like selling a piece of their body,” said Bendcowsky.

“There’s a popular opinion that most of the church’s money comes from local Palestinian laity and the church’s selling of its assets is a betrayal of that trust. Does the church property belong to the clergy or to the community?”

The patriarchate says that it doesn’t have a choice but to sell its properties. “The church is doing the work of the municipality in Jerusalem. We have schools, hospitals, and the most important tourist sites, all with no state involvement. It’s a great burden to maintain these sites,” said Assad Mazawi, legal advisor to the Jerusalem Patriarchate.

While many Palestinian Christians object to the selling of any church lands to Israelis regardless of them being in Israel or the West Bank, Mazawi says they are done pragmatically in the church’s interest and that there is no affiliation with the kind of Palestinian nationalism that Attlah Hanna articulates.

“We sometimes have different agendas than those groups,” said Mazawi, “The church has no Palestinian agenda.” Patriarch Theophilos re-affirmed this neutral viewpoint in a January op-ed in The Guardian when he said, “Jerusalem is a sacred gift, hallowed ground, for the entire world. Attempts to possess the holy city, or to define it in terms of exclusivity, will betray its true nature.”

In a striking omission, Theophilos doesn’t mention the dispossession and political repression of Palestinians in Jerusalem, a surprising fact given that most Palestinians, including members of his flock, cannot worship or reach the city without obtaining Israeli permits, a process shown to be increasingly difficult and arbitrary.

Chrestostomos blames the lack of Palestinian representation in the church on the fact that not many young people today want to become priests. “The Arabs want their children to be doctors and not priests. Today people believe in money. To reach the upper echelons of the church, one must enter the church at an early age.”

Yet Bishop Attallah Hanna says the church needs to try harder to incorporate the diversity of the communities they represent and forcefully act a political and social force for change. In 2009, over 3,000 Palestinian Christian leaders, including the Archbishop, signed the Kairos Palestine document outlining the church’s responsibility in opposing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. “Christian Palestinians are not alien in their own church. For us who come from this land, we reject being treated as fourth or fifth-class citizens. We are proud Christians, and it is a duty for each one of us to love our homeland and protect this nation.”

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.