One constant that we can rely on in our lives is change. Sometimes that change is a propulsion forward, and sometimes it is a reversion backward. In a pastoral care and counseling class that I took as a second year rabbinical student, I remember learning that all change brings about a sense of loss. Even if the change is a positive one, you are somehow losing out on a sense of what once was. My relationship with the Kotel is an ongoing story of change.
As a child in religious school, I grew up with the image of the Kotel as the major landmark that I pictured when I thought about Israel. This grouping of stones was more than just an impressively sized wall, it was a place where Jews from around the world gathered to pray and to stick notes in ancient crevices. For my middle school self, the Kotel was the picture of the unity of the Jewish people.
As I entered high school, I got the chance to live the experience that I had only been able to imagine in my religious school days when I went on a five week teen tour to Israel with NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth). My group visited the Kotel twice: at the beginning and end of our trip. I felt a sense of awe as I stood at the wall for the first time, taking in the cool and smooth feeling of the stones against my hand. I jumped at the chance to grab paper and write my note, but I also hesitated. The words had to be perfect. This was my chance to do what so many Jews had only dreamed of! I composed my letter, and then found the perfect crevice – one where my note would be secure. My first Israel experience was framed by visits to the Kotel, and therefore the greatest emotions that I felt regarding my first Israel experience were linked to that particular space.
When I began rabbinical school four years ago, I decided to join a group of my classmates who were praying with Women of the Wall for their monthly Rosh Hodesh service. I nervously walked the half hour from my Jerusalem apartment to the Kotel. Going through the security to enter the Western Wall plaza, I felt extremely anxious because I knew that I had a tallit at the bottom of my bag. Once I got to the women’s section and joined a large group of my classmates as well as others that were participating in Women of the Wall that month, my anxiety grew. We were surrounded by security guards with guns. They were not there to protect us from the men throwing chairs at us from the other side of the wall, or the women on our own side glaring at us, spitting, and even trying to shove us in attempts to interrupt our songs and prayers. Rather, the soldiers were there telling us to be quiet. In only my second month in Israel, my Hebrew was not yet great, but I did understand the ultra-Orthodox man who was yelling that we were the reason that the Jewish people had not found redemption, and that we were the reason why tragedies such as the Holocaust had happened. I was devastated.
As a first year rabbinical student, there was no doubt that I was a very different person than I was in my teenage years. I had time to develop my Jewish identity, and reflect deeply on my personal beliefs and practices. While my love of Israel had only grown and flourished, part of that love came with getting to know her better. I was able to look at Israel with more of a critical eye, and could see aspects of that place I had come to know as separate entities. There was eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel, as well as medinat Yisrael – the state of Israel. The land of Israel represented that continuity and connection that I had been fascinated with since childhood. This was the place that held one of the oldest landmarks I could experience; a wall that was part of the platform that held the Second Temple thousands of years earlier. The state of Israel was the place where that wall was governed by a religious body that would not even recognize my legitimacy as a woman to pray the way that I felt comfortable, let alone recognize me as a rabbi.
As I grew, my experiences with the Kotel changed, and those changes most definitely represented loss. I am saddened to realize that today, the Kotel is one of the places that I feel least connected to in all of Israel. While I grew up hearing that the Western Wall was one of the holiest places for Jews, it is a place where I find it exceedingly difficult to have an authentic prayer experience. I feel most connected to the sacred when I am in a space and community in which I feel comfortable – welcomed and accepted to embrace Judaism in my own way. As a progressive Jewish woman, I do not feel these qualities at the Kotel.
This past summer I went back to Israel for the first time since my year living there for school. I lead a Birthright trip, and it was fantastic for me to experience the Kotel through the fresh eyes of my participants. I was transported back to the feelings that I had felt years ago. I saw their joy and felt their awe, yet I was not able to share in it. It is heartbreaking to me to say that when I go to the Kotel now, I no longer feel the excitement and sense of wonder that I did on my first trip. I know that life is a constant process of change, and I hope and pray for the day when my current feelings about the Kotel can once again change – this time in a more positive direction.