Original Women of the Wall Aim to Complete Long-Stalled Mission

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Much has changed since Geela Rayzel Robinson, a pre-rabbinical student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was among 70 women who ignored established policy and took a Torah to the Kotel to pray in 1988.

While that visit was met without incident, the women encountered on subsequent trips harassment, chair throwing, threatened violence and blatant insults from the primarily Orthodox men on the other side of the divide.

Over the years, an egalitarian option for prayer at the Wall emerged, although the area — near Robinson’s Arch — is cordoned off from the main Kotel plaza. An agreement to expand that area, merge its access with the rest of the plaza and grant administration over the area to a group representing Judaism’s diverse streams was shelved late last month by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Geela Rayzel Robinson

For Rayzel Robinson, now Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, it means that little has changed since her first foray into the issue so many years ago. So Raphael, who leads a small Reconstructionist congregation called Darkaynu in Warrington, is joining with Phoenix Rabbi Sara Leah Grafstein to organize a women’s mission to readdress their plight.

Their hope is that by drawing attention to it — returning to the Kotel in celebration of that past groundbreaking moment, while focusing on a spiritual mission of peace between Arabs and Jews — they can generate support for their cause.

And while they represent “The Original Woman of the Wall,” they’re happy to join forces with Anat Hoffman’s better recognized “Women of the Wall” since both organizations essentially want the same thing.

The difference is that while Hoffman’s group has accepted a compromise that would provide them with their own section of the Wall, Raphael and Grafstein don’t want any divisions. They consider the Kotel a holy site rather than a synagogue and, therefore, contend that women should not be excluded from using it the way they see fit, right alongside men.

“The two of us are friends,” Raphael said of Grafstein, who once accompanied her on a trip to Israel and the Kotel. “We’re both in the Jewish Renewal movement. We took a trip last year and it was a profound experience, so we decided to take a mission this year.”

The trip will run from Nov. 9 to 19, incorporating not only an attempt to pray at the Kotel but other interactions.

Tour guide Alisa Maier lives on a street that once divided Israel and Jordan in Abu Tor, where Jews and Arabs have since learned to live together in peace, even forming a joint soccer team.

“They’re a model for peace in Jerusalem,” Raphael said. “We’re trying to replicate how to make peace.”

As for the challenge of securing a place at the Wall, Raphael has no illusions. But she’s determined to make her stand against some formidable obstacles.

“The agreement Netanyahu took off the table consolidates power under the chief rabbi, opposed to the regimen various types of Jews want to celebrate,” Raphael said. “By denying the Women of the Wall, they deny diversity of Jewish religious expression.

“What makes the decision so egregious is that it invalidates all Reform and Conservative ideas and gives the chief rabbi a tight hold over marriages and other conversions. That’s why Jewish Federations throughout North America and liberal Jews are so upset.”

As for Israeli Jews, that’s a different story.

“Israeli’s are mostly secular,” Raphael said. “They don’t care, and they’re disgusted that the Kotel has turned into an Orthodox place.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729

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