Finding My Space
I visited the Western Wall twice as part of my school’s eighth grade trip to Israel—once on a weekday, and once on Friday night. These two experiences couldn’t have been more different.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is controversially partitioned into two sections: one (larger) section for men, and a (smaller) section for women. Men have the right to wrap tefillin, read Torah, conduct formal prayer services, and become bar-mitzvah in their section; women do not.
During my first visit to the wall, on a weekday, both sections were mainly full of ultra-Orthodox people. The men’s section was vibrant—full of prayer and commotion. After our visit, my male classmates returned to the group gratified and glowing. They later excitedly shared stories of all the people who had welcomed them, asked them questions about home, and given them tallitot to wear, as well as a sense of community.
In contrast, the women’s section was dead quiet except for the noise carrying over the barrier. The women made me feel like an observer. They looked me up and down, their eyes scanning my jeans and wild, uncovered hair that made me stand out in a sea of modest dress. As I approached the wall, the women interacted so little with me that they barely even moved to give me space to stand. I felt they had deemed me unworthy for this space, unqualified as a Jew and disgraceful as a woman. I was unwelcome and isolated.
When my class returned that Friday night for Shabbat I could barely recognize the space I had stood in days before. Both sides of the wall were electric. Younger, international crowds danced, prayed, and sang together. Languages and histories harmonized together in a passionate expression of joy. There were women in skirts, women in pants, women in Israeli Defense Force uniforms. They embraced my fellow classmates and I, welcoming us into their circles of prayer and dance. As I raised my voice to join theirs, I felt grateful and empowered. I was welcome, loved, and included, sharing the bliss of Shabbat and our shared faith.
It was remarkable to me how I could have such contrasting experiences in the very same place. I’d had preconceived expectations that I would go to this ancient, awe-inspiring wall and suddenly feel super Jewish, spiritual, and connected. Instead, what I found most valuable about my time at the Western Wall was the very difference between my two visits, and that allowed me to discover my space.
My first experience at the Western Wall was one I’m not eager to repeat. I didn’t like being silent and feeling like I had to dress and act in an unassuming way to be accepted. Then I had an experience that spoke to me. I learned that I love to feel united with other women. I like to be loud and unencumbered. I don’t want men to dictate my spirituality. That’s what works for me.
My time at the wall taught me that it’s okay to be uncomfortable with the way others choose to practice their Judaism. As long as I remain respectful, I don’t have to pretend that something works for me when it doesn’t. Many of the women I encountered on my first visit to the wall likely make choices for themselves that I would never make for myself. Yet in my reflections, I realize that respecting those choices, even if I find them problematic, makes me a more accepting feminist and a more righteous Jew.
As a feminist, I believe in equality, and as a Jew, I believe in compassion. Believing that everyone is created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image) means that I accept everyone as equal, and as worthy of my respect. That means I won’t bash women for choosing not to sing, or for accepting less prominent roles in their communities. I know that having a space in which you can feel welcome and complete is empowering. As a feminist, I believe in lifting women up, and fighting for social equality among all genders. All women deserve to have their space—whatever that may look like.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Weiner, Molly. "Finding My Space ." 10 October 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/finding-my-space>.