By Heidi Schneider, Chair of the Board of the Masorti Foundation
Sitting in my house, as most of you are now doing due to the Coronavirus crisis, I have time to reflect on much happier experiences only seven weeks ago when I traveled to Israel with 60 women, most of them, like me, from Minneapolis. It was a two-week journey of discovery that is even more precious to me now – knowing how COVID-19 has for now changed the way people experience the Jewish homeland.
This trip exposed me further to both the joys and challenges of being a Masorti-Conservative woman in Israel. These two sides of Jewish life in Israel came into the sharpest focus during my experiences at the Kotel.
The more challenging part of my Kotel related experience included participating in Rosh Hodesh Adar with Women of the Wall. For me this was more an act of resistance than a religious experience. I pray for the day when we at Masorti Israel can join with Women of the Wall to truly celebrate a time when women can pray at the Kotel fully free of harassment. By working together, we will make it happen.
A much more uplifting experience came when our group spent Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat at the Egalitarian Kotel. Our experience on Friday night was in stark contrast to Rosh Hodesh.
Our Hazzan, Joanna Dulkin, who led the trip, was asked by Masorti to lead the services on that Friday night in late February. About half of the women on our tour attended Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel. In addition to the women in our group, about five female students who were studying at the Conservative Yeshiva joined us, together with Eve and Tammy from the Masorti office. Eve was the person who made all the arrangements with the Hazzan for Kabbalat Shabbat services, and she was very helpful and a great host. Eve and Tammy, who is a member of Women of the Wall, handed out siddurim in Hebrew and in English. They also handed out Egalitarian Kotel bracelets as keepsakes for those who attended.
Our Hazzan sang beautifully. The space is vast, as you know, and her voice seemed absorbed into the giant stones. There was a lot of soft background noise—cars honking, singing from the men’s Kotel, birds chirping at sunset. The ambient noise was not a distraction, instead it seemed like part of the chorus. Tammy warned us that the call to prayer might erupt during our service, and that we should expect it and not be startled. (I was disappointed when we did not hear it.) Tammy added that the noises of Jerusalem preparing for Shabbat was part of the experience of praying at the Kotel on Friday night. Her intention was beautiful, and we really felt it.
The sun was setting as the service continued. The Hazzan asked me to say a few words to those gathered, and I told the story about how Jeff Feig of NY, a great friend and supporter of Masorti Israel, became inspired by this place and the need to create this opportunity for women (and their entire families) on Friday nights.
I also talked about the surrounding scene, the ruins below us, and how the Romans, and others, have sought to destroy our way of worshiping. But, I noted, we are standing above that destruction, continuing the tradition of prayer at the Kotel, and of women’s voices raised in prayerful petition on the eve of Shabbat.
While we were davening, two separate groups of men came into the area, appeared to examine the ruins, and took pictures of us praying. Our Hazzan invited them to join us, and they politely declined. Another mixed group of Israeli soldiers (mostly men) joined us. They observed us for a while, and at the end of the service, we joined in a circle to sing “Shechekiyanu.” We invited the soldiers to join us. They left abruptly—perhaps they were on duty and not allowed to participate in this way.
Many women from our group who joined the Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Kotel said it was one of the most moving spiritual experiences of the trip for them. I suspect our experience was unusual because only women prayed in the Masorti Israel egalitarian section that evening. But we found it captivating, and we were very happy to share the experience together.
Praying at the Kotel that day I was so grateful that a philanthropic visionary like Jeff had acted to make this Kabbalat Shabbat available to us. Without this new Masorti service launched last year, I likely would not find my way to the Kotel on Friday evening, since in the past the Kotel would not be a place where I would feel welcome. But this Masorti Kabbalat Shabbat experience has transformed that experience for me. I look forward to davening at the Egalitarian Kotel on Friday afternoons/early evening on all my future trips to Jerusalem.