PREPARING TO VISIT Israel for the first time, my mother gave me a note and said, “Place this in the Kosel in Jerusalem.” I knew that when my Mom drove to work, she had a daily conversation with G-d. I just figured that this was another distinctive act. I was surprised when I found that the crevices between the massive stones were jammed with notes and it was hard to squeeze hers in. Drawn to the place and the moment, I too wrote a note to G-d and awakened to the power of addressing G-d directly and spontaneously. I would later teach this technique of letter writing as an introduction personal prayer. I would do so with the awareness that you do not need to stand before the ancient outer courtyard wall in Jerusalem to address G-d. And yet, it helps. For as our sages taught, G-d may be the same everywhere, but we are not.
When Jews through the generations came on pilgrimage, they wailed at the ancient Temple’s outer Western Wall expressing a yearning for national return. When Jerusalem was reunited fifty years ago, David Rubinger’s photo of three paratroopers with the Kotel looming behind them became the enduring image of a dream fulfilled. I have since stood in the plaza that extends from the Wall and watched young people sworn into the Israel Defense Forces. For this place is a core symbol of the Jewish people.
Once yeshiva students hurled trash and insults at me as I stood in that same plaza because I was praying alongside women as part of a Conservative Minyan on Tisha B’Av, marking the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Women were entitled to socialize in that large, open space, but treated as provocateurs if they began to chant the sacred words of our tradition. For twenty-eight years, women friends have also gathered as Women of the Wall to celebrate the new month on the women’s side of the partitioned prayer space. Some have been arrested and have had chairs thrown at them from the men’s side. As a result, the Wall as an extreme Orthodox synagogue lost its appeal for me as a place to commune with G-d and community.
Natan Sharansky is a national, Jewish hero. The former Soviet refusenik now heads The Jewish Agency, which is tasked with Israel relations with Diaspora Jews. In that role, he offered a plan to honor Jewish unity: Develop a separate space for egalitarian prayer as the Wall continues alongside Robinson’s Arch, which is now an archaeological park. Prime Minister Netanyahu supported the compromise, as did the Conservative and Reform Movements, and the leaders of Women of the Wall. And yet, for nearly eighteen months, the government has stalled in implementing the agreement. Now, the ultra-Orthodox parties have threatened to bring the government down if plans move forward.
Israeli government leaders have capitulated. In prioritizing their coalition survival, they divide our people: delegitimizing and denying choice in how we express our Judaism. I have rejoiced when a bat mitzvah has chanted from the Torah in my synagogue as a sacred act that honors G-d. The Kotel, our collective mailbox and symbol of return, beckons such heartfelt expression from all Jews, including those chanting prayers as men and women standing side-by-side. Only by fulfilling the promise of an alternative, dignified prayer space that enables egalitarian prayer will we non-Orthodox Jews feel fully at home in our homeland.
Rabbi Spitz is a caring mentor to his congregants at Congregation B’nai Israel, a scholar, and has recently ended his 20 years of participation in the Rabbinical Assembly Committee of Law and Standards. He lives in Tustin, California with his wife, Linda; they are the parents of Joseph, Jonathan and Anna Rose.