The Right to Wear a Kippah in Israel

March 12, 2015Liya Rechtman

I don’t remember the first time I skimmed my skull with a bobby pin and pushed a circle of knitted white cloth and strands of hair into its metal clasp. Wearing a kippah felt like a natural extension of the Jewish history I was learning and the Hebrew grammar and vocabulary that was quickly becoming the primary language through which I understood my surroundings. I was 15 years old, and I had chosen to study on Kibbutz Tzuba with Eisendrath International Exchange as a return to both my symbolic, spiritual home as diaspora Jew, and to my familial home, only miles away from the kibbutz where my father grew up and his parents and siblings still lived. I wanted to know, as I began to plan out my college career, if Israel would be my future home, if the army would be my intermediary step and if I would, perhaps, studying at Hebrew University  instead of an American university.

So I wore a kippah. I wanted to test what it would feel like to be an observant Jew in my father’s homeland, I wanted to feel, at every moment, the Jewishness of how I woke up, what I ate and how I interacted with my friends and family. A kippah will do that to you; wearing a symbol of your Judaism, feeling the weight of that small, knitted round of fabric and those bobby pins tight on your head day in and day out makes you sit up a little straighter, speak more compassionately, and think, all the time, about the Jewishness of your actions. It was hard, it was certainly a challenge – but I loved it.

It didn’t occur to me, in large part because I was primarily surrounded by my kibbutznik family and other Reform Jews, that my kippah could be an entirely different statement. To my mind, donning a skullcap was not an act of defiance, but of devotion and religious observance. Sure, halachically and historically kippot had been reserved for men, but so had the rabbinate, and I had, after all, been raised by a woman rabbi. Naïvely, I didn’t anticipate any problems.

And yet, as I was passing through security on my first trip to the Western Wall, a soldier stopped me: “Excuse me, miss, but I won’t be able to protect you inside.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your kippah. Women are not allowed to wear them, and I won’t be able to protect you if you’re attacked at the Wall. Please take it off.”

Shaking, I unclipped my kippah from my head. How could this be?

Years later, remembering the incident, my only surprise is at my own innocent ignorance. I didn’t know that Reform Judaism was systematically undercut by the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate and that the Western Wall was the symbolic nexus of the fight for gender equity and pluralism in Israel where Women of the Wall fought every day to read out loud from the Torah and pray as a community in the women’s section. All I knew when I was asked to remove my kippah that I was scared, as a woman, to be a Jew in the most Jewish of places. All I knew was that I had experienced an injustice and that the Israel of my homecoming dreams was not the Israel where I lived, was not the Israel where I would be told I had to take off my kippah at the Western Wall.

When I was recently asked if I wanted to be on the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) slate for the World Zionist Congress next year, I jumped at the chance. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that while I love Israel, there is much to be done before it could ever really be my home. Here was an opportunity to stand with my fellow Reform Jews for the values of pluralism and gender equality in Israel.

From now through April 30, the polls are open in the 2015 World Zionist Congress election. Every single Jew has an important – and real – opportunity to make their voice heard. By voting for ARZA-Representing Reform Judaism, you’re supporting gender equality, religious equality, and peace through a commitment to a two-state solution.

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