Meeting the men of the Women of the Wall

Facing arrests and harassment, Jewish men from various streams join the female prayer group in an effort to promote justice and tolerance.

Men of the Women of the Wall pray behind the partition at the back of the women’s section, in 2013. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Men of the Women of the Wall pray behind the partition at the back of the women’s section, in 2013.
The group in the center of the women’s section at the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh – many clad in kippot, tefillin and colorful prayer shawls – has become a familiar sight over the past 26 years. But for the past two months, the media spotlight has focused on the smaller group of men who stand behind the women’s section and join in the prayers.
On April 20, Charlie Kalech became the first man arrested in connection with Women of the Wall. A month later, at the Rosh Hodesh Sivan service on May 18, Nitai Groen was detained for trying to pass a Torah scroll to the women’s section in the hope that six girls could receive an aliya for their bat mitzvas.
The 48-year-old Kalech was the first WoW member police detained since Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly decided in April 2013 that the police had no cause for arresting five women they claimed were disrupting public order at the site. Later that month, Judge Moshe Sobel upheld that decision, reinterpreting a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that had been used to apply criminal sanctions against women who wore prayer shawls and carried Torah scrolls in the women’s section. Until Sobel’s ruling, those actions had been considered a violation of the place’s customs.
Though the men who accompany the Women of the Wall usually stand behind the partition at the back of the women’s section, that month the men held a simultaneous service. When it was time for the Torah reading, Kalech passed the scroll through a door in the partition that separates the men and the women. The women read from the scroll without incident until a group of men believed to be ushers approached the men’s minyan and asked them to move aside so they could reach the women’s section, according to Kalech.
The WoW-affiliated men called for the police, and “one of [the ushers] took me by the chest and the throat and pushed me back. I fell right back and hit the back of my head on the stone floor, and they went through the mehitza [partition],” he says.
When Kalech and Alden Solovy, another man who was hurt, went to file a police complaint, Kalech was arrested. He says the police haven’t updated him regarding the status of his case, but he believes his file is closed, though he has been told that he has a criminal record.
After the incident, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld denied that Kalech had been mistreated.
“The suspect was arrested after causing public disorder at the Western Wall and violating the strict rules of the holy site,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “He received medical treatment and a lawyer according to police procedures.”
Rosenfeld said police had opened an investigation into the men who attacked Kalech and Solovy. “Police are looking into what took place during the entirety of the incident,” he said. Kalech, who was brought up Conservative, says the reason he joins WoW’s services as often as he can is that “as a Jew who made aliya, who experienced anti-Semitism, I have a responsibility to protect people without power.”
More specifically, he recalls an incident on Tisha Be’av in 1997, in which police asked him and the rest of a group of men and women praying in the Kotel plaza to leave in response to a haredi protest, even though they had a permit to be there.
“Then I didn’t go to the Kotel for 10 years. I had such a bad feeling. This is a time when haredim were throwing dirty diapers at people,” he relates. The Western Wall “wasn’t a pleasant place for me.”
But at some point, he began to join WoW for prayers and then go to Robinson’s Arch to listen to the group’s Torah reading.
At the time, he says, there were only two or three men who joined these services.
“Then came the Sobel decision, and I heard through the grapevine that they could really use support,” he recalls. “I came a couple of months in a row, and there was a group of men who would stand in the back.”
The avalanche of interest that resulted from the arrests and the subsequent legal decisions translated into a lot of noise – literally and figuratively, with increased attendance at prayers by supporters and opponents, and a slew of local and international media interest. To counteract that noise, the men began to wear headphones to listen to the service, says Kalech, because “we heard that the best thing we could do was to sing with them for support.”
ACCORDING TO WoW executive director Lesley Sachs, men from groups visiting from overseas have participated in services over the years, but it was only after the arrests of WoW members began that men became involved on a regular basis.
“From the first arrest at the end of 2009, we found that a lot of men were joining us,” she says.
She says that Western Wall and Holy Sites Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has long opposed the feminist group, has put up loudspeakers to drown out WoW’s voices, so the men wear their headphones and the cantor uses a microphone.
“In so many ways, they’re a part of our struggle,” she confirms. “So before [Rosh Hodesh Iyar], we asked them to assist us, and they held a minyan, a real service, and then at the appointed time we opened the door [in the partition] and we received the Torah from them.”
While WoW’s morning prayer service at the Western Wall has remained a constant, the struggle for the group’s right to read from the Torah there has continued.
The group held its reading at Robinson’s Arch for many years, but stopped that practice after the Sobel decision, pending negotiations with the government to create an egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch that meets WoW’s requirements – including elevating the area to the same height as the rest of the Western Wall prayer area, and creating a single entrance to both (at present, there is a separate security entrance to the arch).
These negotiations, which stalled with the dissolution of the 19th Knesset and have yet to resume, have divided the group between those willing to accept a compromise and those who believe WoW should focus its efforts on its right to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section.
One reason that the multi-denominational WoW has stopped reading from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch, says Sachs, is that under that set-up, the men and women were standing together there, which may have offended Orthodox members of what began as a women’s group.
For the two months following the Sobel decision, the women (and men), battling large-scale protests by haredim and a group called Women for the Wall, held its services in the plaza.
Until four months ago, the women read the Torah portion at the wall itself from a humash (printed Hebrew Bible), without the blessings traditionally recited when reading from a scroll. For two months, the reading took place from a miniature Torah scroll, via a magnifying glass. Rosh Hodesh Iyar was the first time the group read from a regular scroll at the Western Wall.
Last month, after Groen was unable to pass the scroll to the women’s section, WoW once again read from a humash.
ELANA MARYLES Sztokman, former executive directive of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and author of The Men’s Section – which investigates the phenomenon of Orthodox men joining partnership minyanim – believes men can both contribute to and benefit from involvement in feminist causes.
“When men get involved, it shows that we’re talking about issues that affect all of society and impact everyone. Women need men’s support. Not men’s takeover, but men’s support,” she asserts.
She says that by supporting feminist struggles, men gain two things, “one to help others, and one to help themselves.”
“For others, they get to support justice and compassion, so that when their grandchildren ask them where they were when women were fighting for basic rights and equality, they can say, ‘I was there, fighting along with them.’ They can help the movement grow stronger and more impactful,” she says.
“For themselves, they get to unpack gender issues...because feminism does not only liberate women from oppressive gender assumptions and pressures. It also helps liberate men,” she continues. “Do men want to be associated with the men attacking women at the Kotel? Is that the only way to be a man, or to be a Jewish man or a religious man? The idea that Jewish men cannot abide women reading Torah has implications for what we think it means to be a man. So feminism helps liberate men from that.”
Solovy, the man who was attacked along with Kalech in April, is one of those who believes he has gained personally from his involvement with WoW. Among other things, the 58-year-old poet and liturgist says it has inspired him to start putting on tefillin and praying daily. After he made aliya three years ago, he began to learn about WoW’s activities, and after about a year, he started to participate.
“I had actually given up wearing tallit katan [the four-cornered garment that contains the tzitzit fringes] and tefillin and kippa day in and day out... roughly 40 years ago, when I was 18,” he says. “I’ve written about 525 new prayers, so my connection with Judaism has remained strong, but that particular practice stopped speaking to me.”
After one Rosh Hodesh, he saw an online photo of himself next to a man wearing tefillin.
“I was shocked by this picture, by the contrast of him with his tefillin and davening [praying], and me watching him daven. That here I have a privilege that I am taking for granted, to wear tefillin to pray in a manner that our people have prayed for hundreds of years.
I thought, how can I do this when there are women fighting for the right to wear tefillin at the Western Wall?” recalls the Chicago native.
After that, he began putting on tefillin once a month when he prayed with WoW, and last Rosh Hashana he made the commitment to don tefillin daily.
“I could not imagine a man who could have convinced me with words and quotes from Torah to put on tefillin again,” he declares. “Seeing this picture of women fighting for the privilege for themselves... just woke me up.”
THOUGH THE core group of men accompanying WoW is a relatively recent addition, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, former president of the Conservative Movement in Israel, is one of the few men who has been involved since the women’s first prayer service in 1988.
“If I have earned my place in heaven, it’s due to the fact that I brought them the Torah for their first meeting,” he says.
That scroll was later used during the years they read from the Torah in the Archeological Garden in the Jewish Quarter, years before they began to hold their readings at Robinson’s Arch.
According to Bandel, there were always a few men present at the prayers, mostly the women’s partners.
“It was an educational experience for us to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of the partition,” he says.
Though as a Conservative rabbi he holds egalitarian services, he supports women’s right to pray as they choose.
“I see it as special that there are women from different denominations praying together who can find a common denominator between them. I feel we need to give them all our support and backup,” he says.
His aim is to “express solidarity with the women and support their goal to pray as they please.”
“No one has a monopoly on Judaism,” he adds.
“There is more than one way to be a Jew, and there is even more than one way to be an Orthodox Jew.”
Bandel was leading the men’s service on Rosh Hodesh Iyar when Kalech passed the Torah to the women.
“I am very proud of the fact that I was a partner to civil disobedience,” he says. “I felt like the Irgun members in the 1930s who smuggled a shofar to the Kotel and blew it there despite the directives of the British authorities.”
YUVAL NEWMAN, 43, of Moshav Shilat near Modi’in, says he has been joining WoW for the past two years.
“I started to come and support them, even though prayer at the Western Wall and segregated services don’t appeal to me,” says Newman, a member of a Reform community in Modi’in. “Women’s right to pray in the way they choose to in a public place is a basic right, and we have to fight for it.”
As a Reform Jew, he believes that the development of Orthodox feminism is fascinating and that the changes that stem from Orthodoxy, which is part of the establishment, will have far-reaching effects on mainstream society.
“Unfortunately,” he laments, adding, “I [also] hope that Israeli society will understand the immense contribution of the Reform Movement and that it is relevant to them.”
Regarding the importance of men supporting WoW, he says that “the first thing is to turn it into a struggle that doesn’t just belong to a small group of people. We are trying to show that it’s not specifically our struggle.
It’s the battle over the character of the Western Wall and Israeli society.”
Lifelong Jerusalemite and avowed atheist Oded Earon, 60, describes himself as a “strange bird” when it comes to his reasons for regularly attending WoW prayers.
When executive director Sachs – his ex-wife – first suggested he join the services, he rejected the idea out of hand.
“What does prayer have to do with me? I don’t relate to it at all,” he says.
But when she asked him again during the 2013 Women for the Wall protests, telling him WoW needed men there to support them physically and morally, he began to attend regularly.
“I consider the Western Wall to be a national heritage site,” explains Earon, who remembers secular and religious Jews walking through the Jewish Quarter on Shavuot in 1967, immediately after the Six Day War, all wearing tallitot. “It symbolizes Jewish sovereignty over the State of Israel.”
Earon says he is uncomfortable with what he considers the haredi takeover of the site.
“The Western Wall is first and foremost a heritage site and then a religious site. From a religious perspective, the wall is holy like any other synagogue. They [the religious] don’t have ownership over the Kotel. The state gives them control of the wall, which I object to as a Zionist and as a Jew.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t support WoW’s right to pray and read from the Torah there.
“When the violence started against the group – which is [a] completely Orthodox and halachic [one] – apart from the issue of needing to come to help physically, it was important for me to come because it was no longer a religious issue,” he explains.
Male members of the Noam Conservative youth movement have also been attending the services semi-regularly over the past two years.
But not all of the support the men demonstrate for WoW is prayer-based. Several of them are involved in the decision-making process. Other help is more pragmatic, like the time Kalech says he went to buy doughnuts from the Roladin bakery on Hanukka and set up a table for the women.
“We were like a women’s auxiliary,” he says.
Newman, meanwhile, wore the WoW shirt when he participated in the 10K Jerusalem Marathon event last year and in the full marathon this year. Considering he had never run before last January, he says he found the experience especially meaningful.
For Solovy, even being attacked is not enough to deter him from attending WOW prayers in the future. He further stresses that he harbors no ill will toward his assailant.
“I don’t hate him. I object to his misogyny, perhaps disagree with what he was taught, but let’s not use this incident as another source of sinat hinam [baseless hatred],” he says. “That is one of the messages of WoW: that we can find a way as a Jewish people of honoring each other’s ways of being Jewish without resorting to violence to control them.”