Lost in Ambivalence at the Western Wall
On Monday, July 9, our NFTY in Israel group ended a long day in Jerusalem’s Old City with a visit to the Kotel, also called the Western Wall. We had learned from our group leaders of its rich history as the last part of the Second Temple to remain standing, as well as its spiritual value and symbolism to Jews across the world. We had been briefed about the differences between Orthodox and Reform Jews and the possible challenges that could result at the Wall. With all that in our minds, I could feel a sense of curiosity from the entire group as we were separated by gender at the security entrance and entered the holy site.
As a person who identifies as male, I went to the left, to the men’s side of the wall. Walking in together, we put on kippot (yarmulkes) and were offered the opportunity to put on tefillin (phylacteries). Although there was a definite feeling of uncertainty among the teens in our group, most of whom had never put on tefillin before, a majority of us – myself included – chose to wear them at the Wall as a way to connect to a piece of Judaism we hadn’t experienced before.
With my hand against the hot stone that had stood there for over 2,000 years, I felt a physical connection to my spirituality. Having learned about the Wall for years, in both religious school and history class, it felt surreal to finally be standing next to it. Despite all the learning, it wasn’t possible for us to truly know the feeling of being there until we were actually there ourselves – touching it, feeling it, and listening to the people around us. I said a personal prayer in my head in English, while next to me, many Orthodox Jews were bowing their heads as they said prayers in Hebrew in a rhythm unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Entering the room next to the wall on the men’s side I saw about a hundred other men praying in this same manner. A few of my friends and I were a bit uncomfortable because we tend to express our Judaism in dramatically different ways than this; however, I appreciated that we were able to pray peacefully side-by-side. It did feel a bit strange, though to have such a stark binary between two groups of people, both of whom identify as Jews. Standing in my tefillin and kippah watching the Orthodox Jews continuously bow felt nothing like the singing and dancing during prayers I am familiar with from URJ Camp Eisner (a Reform Jewish summer camp) and NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement events.
The gender separation at the Wall also felt strange to me. The men’s side was spacious and had a separate room for learning and praying, while the women’s side to the right of us was packed and significantly smaller. The women’s side also had chairs set out, unlike the men’s side, suggesting, perhaps, that the women wouldn’t be strong enough to stand at the Wall and pray for a long period of time as the men did. This set-up not only felt sexist, but also gave me an uncomfortable feeling of privilege. I also thought of my Jewish friends at home who don’t identify as either male or female. Where would they go? Why is there a need for separation at all at a place meant to bring Jews together as one?
Overall, I had a meaningful prayer experience and enjoyed trying the tefillin. Physically touching the Wall that I had heard so much about was an experience unlike any other. However, the stark contrasts between Reform and Orthodox Jews, as well as the physical separation between males and females at the Wall, was unsettling. I left the Wall lost in my own ambivalence.
The Kotel, together with Auschwitz-Birkenau, which we visited prior to arriving in Israel, are two of the most important places we as Jews can visit. Each was an incredible experience within the context of NFTY in Israel and allowed us to form our own educated opinions around complex situations. My fellow participants and I are incredibly lucky to have been able to visit these amazing, historic, and spiritual places that will continue to give context to our future decisions and moral integrity.
Visit NFTY in Israel for information about travel opportunities to Israel for teens.