A Moment of Kavanah: November 2, 2016 at the Western Wall

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Shoshana Dweck

ARZA Board Member

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As I stepped off the plane Thursday morning on my way home from Israel, my body’s aches and pains were different than the usual post-flight stiffness.  Yesterday, I had asked my legs to brace me and keep me upright against the pressure of those who wanted to keep us from reaching the Western Wall. My arms and ribs reminded me that I had been pushed and jostled and manhandled along the way.  From Tel Aviv to New York, I carried on my skin the hands and sweat of those who tried to stop us from reaching the Wall, intermingled with our tears of joy that we, in fact, brought our Torah scrolls into the Women’s section for Rosh Hodesh prayers.  

heads of reform organizations, impj, urj, arza

At 6am, I had hurried through the Old City of Jerusalem to meet up with Reform and Conservative Jews from around the world.  At the outset, it felt like a camp reunion, with greetings, hugs and selfies. There was a nervous energy. Everyone was there for a different reason: religious, personal, to make a difference, or just because their friends were going. But we shared the goal of praying with our feet for the right to pray with our Torah at the Kotel.  We needed these large numbers and the leaders of our Movement from around the world to have a chance at success with our planned demonstration. 

 At the security gates, we split into two groups to walk in, and then the abstract became real, very quickly. I was immediately behind the line of Torah scrolls, and when they separated, I was no longer blocked and protected. The masses behind surged forward with solidarity and resolve, as the security forces of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation fought back, pushing and shoving so hard against the people and Torahs scrolls that the metal detector moved and started tipping over. As we came out of the security area, violence erupted around every Torah, initiated by the Ultra-Orthodox and the security guards. 

Rabbi Jacobs pushed

Do you remember what it is like to hold a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah or at a Bar/Bar Mitzvah? People holding the scrolls in their arms were targets and were completely helpless to defend themselves, as they protected the sacred scrolls. Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President of ARZA, felt a hand around his throat as he carried a Torah. I saw Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, surrounded and partially turned around by security guards, as he tried to make his way forward.

And then, faces turned from fear to awe as we realized that at least one Torah had made it through. We welcomed each one into an inner circle, and surrounded them with prayer.  I will never forget the slow, steady pace of Rabbi Jacobs, his entire being focused on getting his scroll to the women’s section where he handed his Torah safely to a woman who brought it into the circle. 

On the walkway in the air above us all, many ultra-Orthodox gathered and screamed to interrupt our prayers.  Women wore signs taped to their backs and positioned themselves so that we could not face the Wall in prayer without seeing their accusations that our prayer was a mockery.  They blew whistles to drown us out, and boys in ever-growing numbers whistled, screamed, and harassed us.women protesting at the kotelI heard one boy, his face twisted in hate, scream “Nazim, Nazim” as he ran around the periphery of our circle, and I saw a woman giving the boys instructions.  A young boy made it into the center of the circle to argue. A woman threw herself to the ground, screaming wildly, and others attacked us verbally and physically.

And yet, we kept turning inward to the circle and praying, together.  

For nearly 50 years, I have mostly avoided the Wall.  I refused to become a Bat Mitzvah there in 1979, rejecting the segregation and the restrictions on what parts of the service I could lead.  My daughter had her first aliyah with three friends with Women of the Wall in 2011, but we still held a full service elsewhere, without the political overlay and discrimination. 

woman throwing herself to the floor

So I was unprepared for what happened next: as we turned toward the Wall to bow in prayer, tears started streaming down my face. This was Tikkun Olam in a most fundamental way, where the power of the public purpose to fight for justice and acceptance, joined with the private purpose of prayer in a sacred space. I experienced that rare moment of Kavanah – of pure intentionality in prayer. 

The Torah scrolls swayed in the arms of women and I tried to understand my tears.  I realized that this was never about the physical stones in front of me. It is about those who came before us, and those who will come after us.  It is about the women who surrounded me, and the men behind us. It was the sounds of our prayers and actions and our determination to make this world better that lifted me up for a moment and changed me forever.   

Yesterday, we took our place in the proud tradition of non-violent protest, singing as we walked together. We were too strong in international numbers to be pushed back. Working with the Women of the Wall, bringing in the Torah scrolls, demanding equality, justice, and that the Government of Israel fulfill its negotiated promises, at that spot and at that time, we took a stand against the forces of oppression, against those trying to refuse us our prayer space.

women holding torahs at the womans section

Wednesday’s march and protest will be the subject of much analysis.  Already, there are reactions from the Prime Minister, from Rabbi Rabinowitz (Rabbi of the Western Wall), and across our Reform and Conservative Movements. My prayer today?  That like other non-violence demonstrations of the past here in the US, the power and energy of Rosh Hodesh MarHeshvan 5777 will spread in ways we can’t predict…and will be remembered as one of the important turning points in our winning fight for social justice in Israel.