We stand with women who fight injustice, with women willing to face violence and arrest to claim rights denied them.
Last week, for the first time in a month, I returned to the Kotel – the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem – the place where I was brutally stomped upon for helping women exercise their right to read from a Torah scroll. I was part of a group of men who ignored the protocol at the Kotel and provided a Torah for women to use.
When we arrived this month, new signs were posted declaring the absolute separation of men and women in order to “protect” the holiness of the site. New barriers were erected to enforce that separation.
For 25 years, Women of the Wall (WOW) have been struggling for religious freedom and women’s rights at the Wall, specifically for the right to use ritual prayer items traditionally considered male: wearing a tallit (prayer shall), putting on tefillin (phylacteries) and reading from a Torah scroll, an important centerpiece of Jewish worship. They’ve been arrested, heckled, attacked and demeaned. Yet they continue to hold a women’s prayer service at the Kotel on the first day of each Jewish new month, a holy day called Rosh Chodesh.
These rights have been upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court, but the Kotel plaza is run by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who’ll have nothing of it. His administrative rules governing the plaza effectively deny women access to a Torah scroll. Scrolls are available for men to use, but none there are available for women and none are allowed into the plaza from the outside.
Last month, for the first time, the male supporters of WOW used a Torah on our side of the plaza. After we finished reading from it, the Torah was taken to the women’s side through a gate in the mechitza, the separation fence between men and women.
The morning continued peacefully, for 15 minutes or so. It seemed that the violence that has marred women’s prayer at the Kotel before might just be avoided. Then a handful of men showed up, dressed quasi-uniform style, manhandling us while attempting to get to the gate.
Another man, Charlie Kalech, asked, “Who are you?” He and I were near the gate. He called out for the police. We tried to hold our ground against larger men. The gate was opened. I lost sight of Charlie when he was strangled and thrown to the ground, receiving a severe head injury. I saw an ultra-Orthodox man trying to charge through the open gate. He appeared violent.
I was the man between him and his rage against the women’s Torah reading. I wrapped my arms around him. My goal: keep people safe. In that moment, were there any good choices? Let him run through and perhaps hurt someone? Use myself, my body, as a barricade? I used my own body as deadweight to bring him to the ground. He jumped up and stomped on my stomach.
The tyranny of control over this ancient Temple site reared its ugly head on that day, as it has before.
This month was more peaceful, but in spite of the new barriers, we made another attempt to get a Torah to the women. That effort ended in one of our men being detained by police.
To the man who stomped on me: I’m disgusted by your behavior. You are the face of hatred of Jew against Jew. But here’s what I’ve been saying: “Don’t hate the man who stomped on me. Rail against his misogyny, object to what he was taught, condemn his behavior, seek justice against his violence, if that’s even possible, and seek change in Israeli democracy. But don’t use what happened to me to justify hate or prejudice of anyone.” I wrote a prayer about it.
To my daughters: I’m sorry for the fear this caused. I’ll continue to participate in the struggle. I promise to do it as a supporter, a poet, a writer and not as a 5’4”, 155-pound, 58-year-old untrained middle linebacker. The cause of WOW is just. The call to religious freedom is holy. I swear by peaceful resistance.
To those who would ‘stomp’ on WOW or any Jewish practices not your own: tyranny never survives, but there are real injuries and casualties along the way. Stop preaching hate. Stop trying to control Jewish practice with oppression and violence. This will not earn a place in heaven. It harms us as a people.
To the Israeli government: it’s time to run Jewish religious sites equitably and responsibly. We all should be able to pray at the Kotel according to our diverse and beautiful traditions. The Supreme Court ruling that women can read Torah at the Kotel should be enforced.
To you who’ve given up on the fight: Have you forgotten the day you first saw those majestic stones? Have you given up on a democratic Israel? There should be thousands of us at the Kotel, peacefully singing, demanding that the law of the land be upheld. The Kotel should not be a de facto ultra-Orthodox synagogue. None of our holy sites should be run by any one branch of our great tradition.
To the men who support Women of the Wall – to Charlie, Barry, Yuval, Oded, Ehud, Nitai, Yossef, Israel, Shemer and FE – you have my loyalty and respect. You are an inspiration. Real men stand with brave women. We stand with women who fight injustice, with women willing to face violence and arrest to claim rights denied them. When called upon, real men put themselves on the front lines. But the heroes are the women who’ve fought this fight year-in and year-out.
To the leadership and to the rank and file of WOW: We have your back.
I believe that this act earned us merit in heaven. If not, so be it. It should. Either way, that’s between me and God. No man has the right to plant his foot in my guts. No man has the right to shove Charlie to the ground. No man has the right to deny Torah to women.
We are men who stand with our sisters for the sake of religious freedom. We’ll do it again and again.
Editor’s note: The Women of the Wall will return to the Kotel, the Jewish Western Wall, for monthly worship on June 18, 2015.
Photo: Flickr/Minamie’s Photo