This past Friday was my first time coming back to Jerusalem to join my sisters at the Kotel for our monthly Rosh Hodesh service. I have been active in Women of the Wall for over 15 years. I am on the board and had been praying at 7 am each month, rain or shine, with these women at the Kotel for all of those years. Until I moved this past summer to Kibbutz Hannaton in the Lower Galilee.
Kibbutz Hannaton is a religious Kibbutz, but it is religious in the same unacceptable-to-the-Israeli-religious-powers-that-be way as Women of the Wall. We have a synagogue that is the center of our communal life, but it has no partition and women participate fully in the services that are held there. We have a mikveh that is in frequent use, but we have an open-door policy that allows anyone who wants to us the mikveh do so - no questions asked. Needless to say, because of our egalitarian religious approach, we receive no funding from our regional religious governmental office.
Although I have not made it to the Kotel for the previous Rosh Hodesh services since our move two hours away from Jerusalem, I decided to make a special effort to come this Rosh Hodesh Tevet. I wanted to support my ideological sister Nofrat Frenkel after her arrest last month for wearing a tallit at the Kotel and join the group in showing our relentless intention to continue to pray as a group of women at the Kotel in the way we are accustomed (as a group, in full voice, and in tallitot). The truth is that we have made many compromises over the years and do not actually pray at the Kotel as per our custom, which is for us to read from a Torah scroll and for some of us to wear tefillin. For this we go to the space we were exiled to by the Supreme Court, Robinson's Arch.
So I drove into Jerusalem in an electrical storm Thursday night to pray with my sisters in the pouring rain early Friday morning. In many ways it felt like coming home to rejoin the group, but not in only a positive way. As soon as I arrived at the Kotel, I spotted my group. In fact, aside from a few female worshippers under umbrellas up at the Wall, we were the only women who showed up that stormy morning. Yet, I heard loud protests coming from the men's section. It seems a group of ultra-Orthodox men had shown up that morning not to pray, but to protest our service. They were yelling “Gevalt! Gevalt!” over and over again. And when we left the Kotel plaza to head to Robinson's Arch to read the Torah portions for Rosh Hodesh and Hanukkah - singing “Not by weapon and not by might but by spirit!”- they followed alongside us on a raised platform and spat on us and threw plastic bags filled with water on us from above.
‘I don’t see myself moving back’
Later that morning, I went to swim laps in the Jerusalem Swimming Pool, where I had swum laps every day when I lived in Jerusalem. This Olympic-sized pool (the only one of its size in Jerusalem) has been around for so long that I remember swimming there as a nine-year-old child when I came with my family to visit Jerusalem one summer. There was a mournful atmosphere at the pool that morning, as it is slated to close down at the end of the calendar year. It seems it is not profitable enough as a business for the owners to continue running it, and so far the municipality has not jumped in to save it.
Two magical memories from that Jerusalem summer of my childhood that was instrumental in my decision to make aliyah almost 20 years later were being threatened, and both, in my opinion, out of a lack of concern for the rights and quality of life of people who pay taxes and love Jerusalem but are wondering what will be the straw to break the camel's back. I know I personally did not leave Jerusalem as a protest move. I still love Jerusalem but wanted to experience living in a different part of the country. A desire to leave the city for a more pastoral setting was a big motivation. But more than that, I wanted to experience living in a different part of the country.
Jerusalem can often feel like a place unto itself, cut off from the rest of Israel. I wanted to be part of building a liberal-minded, egalitarian religious community in the Galilee, where that notion is much more novel than in Southern Jerusalem. And I think part of me also wanted to get away from the growing ultra-Orthodox character that seems to dominate Jerusalem more and more these days. After 15 years of trying to sing Hallel at the Kotel without being at best verbally abused and at worst physically attacked can start to wear on you - especially when I am not sure if I should be more afraid of the men in black or the men in police uniforms!
As I was ending my swim, I looked up and saw another regular at the pool. “What brings you back to Jerusalem?” he asked me. “Have you decided to come back to stay?”
“Well, let me put it this way,” I answered. “Earlier this morning I was spat on by a haredi man as I tried to pray at the Kotel, and now I am swimming what may very well be my last swim in our beloved Jerusalem pool. I don't see myself moving back here very quickly at this rate.”
Rabbi Haviva Ner-David is a writer, teacher, and activist. She is the founding director of the Jerusalem-based Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage and Mi'Breishit: A Spiritual, Educational, and Pluralistic Mikveh at Kibbutz Hannaton. Her memoir, Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination was published in 2000 and her new memoir, Giving Chanah Voice: A Feminist Rabbi Reclaims the Women's Mitzvoth of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, is slated for publication is 2010.