Local teenager helps make history at Kotel

Local teenager helps make history at Kotel

Dvorah Southland, top right, holds the huppa during the first full bat mitzva with a Torah reading ever held at the Kotel.     
Dvorah Southland, top right, holds the huppa during the first full bat mitzva with a Torah reading ever held at the Kotel.     

Named for the biblical heroine, Dvorah Southland of Piscataway recently played her own part in Jewish women’s history. 

The 16-year-old held a corner of a huppa used Oct. 24 during the first full bat mitzva with a Torah reading ever held at the Kotel in Jerusalem. 

The service used a miniature 200-year-old scroll smuggled into the Kotel plaza in a tallit bag by Women of the Wall, which has fought Israeli religious authorities for years for the right of women to pray and read Torah at the Western Wall.

The Orthodox administrators bristled at what they called a “deception,” but allowed the few dozen participants in the bat mitzva of a Russian-born Israeli girl to continue their prayers.

“I found the whole thing immensely moving,” said Dvorah in a phone interview from Israel.

She is spending the fall semester in the Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth Eisendrath International Experience, for students in grades 10-12.

“My whole life I really loved Israel, but from afar, and I finally got the chance to see this country that is my homeland and the homeland of the Jewish people,” she said. “You can’t really call something yours unless you work for it. 

“When I went to the Women of the Wall rally,” she said, “it was in support of something I would like to see happen in Israel. I would like to see more religious rights in this country, which now bans a whole segment of people from praying the way they want at the Wall.”

A junior at Piscataway High School, Dvorah is a member of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough. Also attending the bat mitzva was Shira Gluck, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and daughter of the synagogue’s Rabbi Arnold Gluck.

Ruth Southland, Dvorah’s mother, described her daughter as “a champion of women’s rights.”

“We gave her the name Dvorah for a reason,” she told NJJN. “Dvorah was a prophet, a judge, and a warrior who led the armies of the Jewish people. We wanted strong daughters, and we think she made a strong step in that direction. We are so proud and she was so excited when she called us.”

Dvorah said when her class boarded the bus that day to attend the Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel, she wasn’t aware there would be a Torah reading or bat mitzva.

“When they ended up taking out this tiny scroll, I was surprised,” she said. “They gathered us around a table and started reading.”

One of the women pushed her forward to hold a corner of the tallit being used as a canopy.

“She told me in English they were looking for tall women,” said Dvorah, who is almost 5’ 11”. “She handed me a corner and stood me on a chair. I kept thinking, ‘Is this really a Torah; because it’s so small.’”

She said she later learned the Women of the Wall had created a ruse to throw off authorities by bringing a full-size Torah scroll, knowing it wouldn’t be permitted at the Kotel.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation does not allow worshipers to bring their own Torah scrolls to the premises. About 300 scrolls are stored in the men’s section at the Wall for use during male-led services.

Dvorah described holding the huppa as “one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.”

During the service, in which Sasha Lutt — a 12-year-old from Be’er Sheva — read from the Torah with a piece of magnifying plastic, some observers reacted with hostility.

“Some people were yelling at us, mostly Orthodox men,” Dvorah said. “Some Orthodox women told us to shush. Some people tried to spit on us, but fortunately I was standing toward the center and was away from that.”

Not all those at the Kotel at the time were offended. Dvorah said a group of yeshiva students who were holding a co-ed service — by standing on their respective sides as close to the mehitza dividing men and women as they could — offered support.

“Every time people would start yelling loudly at us, they would begin to sing louder to drown them out,” Dvorah said. “When we lifted the bat mitzva girl in a chair, they stopped and started clapping because they realized what was happening. At first I was very scared because people were yelling at us, but then I realized how much support we had.”

She recalled the first time she went to the Kotel: “I walked up and touched it and this emotion came into my heart,” she said. The second time she was struck by the men singing and dancing while women were forced to pray silently. 

The third time, for the bat mitzva, Dvorah said, it was as if she had come for the first time, able to joyfully and fully pray.

As she stood holding that huppa, she saw it had been embroidered with the names of women of the Bible.

“Right where my hand was, was the name Dvorah,” she recalled. “It was as if she was reminding me that women need to be respected and have a role to play strengthening the Jewish people — just like my namesake Dvorah.” 

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