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Birthday Reflections: Mixed Emotions at the Kotel

6:30 am. All’s quiet on the Israeli front – or at least here in my darkened hotel room. This will be the fourth birthday I have spent in Israel. Birthdays post-High School on the Reform Leadership Machon and during the first year of Rabbinical School were part of year-long programs. A birthday present trip in 2004, shared with congregant Mark Wolfson, was purposeful (I had been away from Israel too long). This one, leading Or Ami’s first congregational trip to the Holy Land, is extra special because I get to spend it with my wife, children and dear friends from the synagogue.

Thursday’s Kotel (Western Wall) visit was familiarly distasteful and surprisingly touching.

It was touching because I placed prayers given to me by congregants including those of the Camerons, Erlangers, and Goldsobels. Our group authored our prayers at the Southern Wall excavations where moments before we walked on stones on which our Biblical ancestors tarried. In this same area, singing Shir HaMa’a lot, a Song of Ascension, we climbed steps leading to the gates (now blocked off) through which Biblical pilgrims entered to offer their thrice yearly sacrifices (on Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot). Then I placed my own which in part asked Makor HaChayim (the Source of Life) for blessings of health, safety, wisdom, tzedakah, openness and love for my family, my congregation and my world.

I felt the excitement of participating in a tradition that has captured the hearts of Jews worldwide and throughout the generations. Additionally, I stood at the Kotel with my sons and father-in-law as the boys for the first time placed meticulously written words in the cracks of the Kotel. Each searched for just the right place. Finally, I had to hold each on my shoulders so they could place it in a wider crevice 8 feet up. One son kissed the wall spontaneously, while the other donned the new tallit we bought for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah service to try it out in this holiest of places. Midor lador (from generation to generation). How moving to have three generations together in the place Jews for generations yearned to touch and pray!

Yet, the visit was familiarly distasteful because in the past I usually found myself agitated and turned off by the way this universal Jewish site has become transformed – for the worse – under the control of the ultra-orthodox. It has become, quite literally, an orthodox shul, in the most misogynist of ways. The women’s section, separated off by a mechitza (separation wall), is so small that our female participants could barely get a few moments to touch it. To be forced to experience this separate from other Or Ami participants, not to mention my wife and daughter, was distasteful and saddening. Rachel Isaacson, our Mishpacha Coordinator, along to help staff the trip, shared reflections from her experiences with Women of the Wall (a group pushing for the right of women to pray together at the Kotel with tallitot and Torah) was instrumental in helping some participants process these frustrating feelings. Additionally, the experience of ultra-orthodox Jews constantly walking up, begging for tzedakah, often specifically for yeshivot (orthodox study schools) which taught and worked against the right of Rabbis like me (reform Jewish) and Jews like me (egalitarian, religiously progressive) to pray and study the way we do, was distasteful. In the past, I visited the Kotel only because I was supposed to do so. I would choose a Southern Wall experience or visit a local synagogue of t’nuat Yahadut Mitkademet (Israeli Progressive Movement). Thank goodness that our progressive (non-fundamentalist), egalitarian (non-misogynist) religious perspective is increasingly taking root amongst the Israeli population (with PR reading “There is more than one way to be religious!).

Isn’t this the Israel I love? Rich with tradition; filled with contradictions. Love it, struggle with it, return to it again and again. Now that’s a birthday present!

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