Those two words and place bring up a host of memories. The Wall always had a central place in my family. I don't remember the first time I visited the Kotel - as we went so many times in my childhood. My father always spoke about how he had missed his college graduation to fly to Israel during the 1967 war and drive a garbage truck to fill in for the Israeli garbage truck drivers who were called to battle. He described the excitement that he felt when he heard over the bus radio the announcement that "the Old City is Ours" and how he went to the wall for the first time on Shavuot, where men and women danced together in celebration that the wall was under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in 1,878 years.
I remember staffing a USY Poland-Israel Pilgrimage trip, after 10 days of traveling through Poland and literally walking through the gas chambers in Auschwitz, landing at Ben Gurion and going directly to the Wall. The excitement of the high school students on that trip was contagious and palpable as we approached the Wall for the first time. One of these teenagers saw the barracks where her grandmother had been in Auschwitz, and then a few days later, at the holiest place of the Jewish people. After witnessing the remnants of the attempts to exterminate our people, we were coming home.
I remember fifteen years later, coming to the Wall with my daughter for the first time - when she was three and having her dictate a prayer for me to write on a slip of paper.
Her prayer was: "I love my family. I hope no one in my family will feel sick. I love froggy and baby [her stuffed animals]. I love God and God is in my heart." She put the paper in between the stones at the wall, and added her voice to the chorus of generations who have prayed at that place.
Yet, although the wall is supposedly the holiest place of our people, it's a place where I never really felt at home. I was raised in a Conservative-egalitarian synagogue where I could participate fully in the service. For my bat mitzvah, I read the full Torah portion, led all the prayers, wore a tallit, and was given a pair of tefillin. To me, it was always a given that girls and boys were treated equally in synagogue - as in all the other areas of my life -- but not at the Wall.
At the Wall, I couldn't have had a bat mitzvah. If my brother had a bar mitzvah there, my mother and I wouldn't have been allowed to stand next to him and participate in the service. At the Wall, if women pray audibly, they are shushed; if women try to read Torah or pray as a minyan, chairs are thrown and the women can be arrested. When I went to the Wall with my daughter, we couldn't stand with my son or husband. As I wrote down my daughter's prayer, I couldn't hear my son's prayer on the other side of the partition.
I remember years ago when I visited the other side of the Wall. It was a secluded area, less crowded, an archaeological site - which had the large stairs that had been the entrance to the temple in ancient times. There is a psalm, (Psalm 126), Shir Hama'a lot, the song of the stairs which is recited in the grace after meals on holidays. The psalm states:
A song of the stairs: When God brought back the captive to Zion, we were like dreamers. Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.
As I walked up those stairs, I felt a connection to those who had walked the same stairs in ancient times, and those who sung and dreamed about those stairs for thousands of years in exile. I was thrilled when I learned that part of this area would be designated as an egalitarian prayer space - which meant that girls would be able to have bat mitzvahs at the Wall without fear or violence, and that I could pray with my husband and son at this holy place. At long last, we too would have a home at the Wall.
When I think of my visit to the Wall on the Poland-Israel trip, I think of one of my co-counselors, Joel Chasnoff. Like me, Joel was raised in an intensively Jewishly-involved family on the East Coast. Joel was so inspired by that visit to Israel, that he decided to make aliyah after college and served in the IDF. While serving in a tank unit, he discovered that because his mother converted to Judaism in a Conservative conversion, the rabbinate wouldn't agree for him to marry his Israeli fiancé and if he died during battle, he would not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. After growing up in Jewish day school, living his entire life as a Jew, and risking his life for the Jewish state, he was told that he was not really Jewish after all (and would need to convert under Orthodox auspices).
With all these memories in mind, I am devastated by the two decisions that the Israeli government made on Sunday. The government suspended its 2016 decision to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, and the government's ministerial committee for legislation approved a proposed law that expands the authority of the Israeli chief Rabbinate and threatens the status quo on conversion to Judaism.
In this week's Torah portion, the people are suffering from intense thirst as they trek through the desert on their way to Israel. God instructs Moses and Aaron to bring forth water from the rock for "the congregation and their beasts." Commenting on this verse Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote:
The people drank like beasts, each person concerned solely with easing his or her own thirst. Only when we share with others what we ourselves also crave, do we rise above the animal level and become truly human.
Indeed, the essence of being human is the ability to share. As any parent of young children can attest, one of the hardest and most fundamental lessons that a child must learn is how to share their toys. Likewise, one of the most essential lessons that we must learn as a Jewish people is how to share our sacred places, so that all Jews can feel at home in our homeland.
In his moving memoir about his experiences in the IDF, the 188th Crybaby Brigade, Joel wrote:
"After two generations where Israel defined itself as a post-Holocaust haven for Jews - in other words, the past - Israel now faces a much greater challenge: defining its future." A small group of rabbis in Israel decide "who's in and who's out," of the Jewish people. Yet, Israel's future... depends on all the reject Jews that they've been pushing away from the table: the half Jews, and intermarried Jews, the queer and bi Jews, and the women rabbis, and young, freethinking Israelis who crave spirituality, not just restrictions, and the children of supposedly illegitimate converts like me."
Only when all Jews are able to climb those stairs, will we be able to truly fulfill the psalmist vision: "Our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing." Only then will our thirst be quenched.
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat