I visited the Western Wall twice as part of my school’s eighth grade trip to Israel—once on a weekday, and once on a Friday night. These two experiences couldn’t have been more different.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is controversially partitioned into two sections: one (larger) section for men, and a (smaller) section for women. Men have the right to wrap tefillin, read Torah, conduct formal prayer services, and become bar-mitzvah in their section; women do not.
During my first visit to the wall, which was on a weekday, both sections were mainly populated by ultra-Orthodox people. The men’s section was vibrant—full of prayer and commotion. After our visit, my male classmates returned to the group gratified and glowing. They later excitedly shared stories of all the people who had welcomed them, asked them questions about home, and given them tallitot to wear, as well as feeling a mutual sense of community.
In contrast, the women’s section was silent, except for the noise carrying over the barrier. The women made me feel like an observer, rather than an equal participant. They looked me up and down, while their eyes scanned my jeans and wild, uncovered hair that made me stand out in a sea of modest dress. As I approached the Wall, the women interacted so little with me that they barely even moved to give me space to stand. I felt they had deemed me unworthy of this sacred space, unqualified as a Jew and disgraceful as a woman. I felt unwelcome and isolated.
When my class returned that Friday night for Shabbat I could barely recognize the space I had stood in only days before. Both sides of the wall were electric. Younger, international crowds danced, prayed, and sang together. Languages and histories harmonized together in a passionate expression of joy. There were women dressed in skirts, in pants, and in Israeli Defense Force uniforms. They embraced my fellow classmates and I, welcoming us into their circles of prayer and dance. As I raised my voice to join theirs, I felt grateful and empowered. I was welcome, loved, and included, sharing the bliss of Shabbat and our shared faith.
It was remarkable to me how I could have such contrasting experiences in the same place, and only a few days apart. I had preconceived expectations that I would travel to this ancient, awe-inspiring wall and suddenly feel ‘super Jewish,’ spiritual, and connected. Instead, what I found most valuable about my time at the Western Wall was the very difference between my two visits, which enabled me to truly discover my space.
My first experience at the Western Wall was one I’m not eager to repeat. I didn’t like being silenced and feeling like I had to dress and act in a traditional way to be accepted. The Friday night experience, however, had spoken to me. I learned that I love to feel united with other women. I like to be loud and unencumbered. I don’t want men to dictate my spirituality.
My time spent at the Wall ultimately taught me that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable with the way others choose to practice their Judaism. As long as I remain respectful, I don’t have to pretend that something works for me when it doesn’t. Many of the women I encountered on my first visit to the Wall likely make choices for themselves that I would never make for myself. Yet, in my reflections, I realize that respecting those choices, even if I find them problematic, makes me a more accepting feminist and a more righteous Jew.
As a feminist, I believe in equality, and as a Jew, I believe in compassion. Believing that everyone is created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image) means that I accept everyone as equal, and as worthy of my respect. That also means I won’t bash women for choosing not to sing, or for accepting less prominent roles in their communities. I know that having a space in which you can feel welcome and complete is empowering. As a feminist, I believe in lifting women up, and fighting for social equality among all genders. All women deserve to have their space—whatever that may look like.
That’s why as I continue to grow, with both my Judaism and my Feminism guiding me, I’m fighting to open more spaces for all Jewish women to feel as I do.