When Amy Small joined the Women of the Wall at the Kotel on May 10, she was not expecting a set of experiences that ranged from the joyous and spiritual to the scary and stomach-churning.
That morning, she was among some 400 women — many wearing tallitot and kipot — who arrived at the Kotel to observe Rosh Hodesh, or the new moon service, and to test a Jerusalem court decision that allowed them to wear such religious garb without fearing arrest for breaking “local custom” at the site.
Small, a Reconstructionist rabbi who lives in Morristown, took part in similar prayer services in previous months. She is in Jerusalem to take graduate courses in Jewish studies at The Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Unlike previous Rosh Hodesh encounters, this time when she approached the Wall she spotted hundreds of yeshiva girls walking toward the Kotel plaza’s women’s section, telling reporters that they were there to block the egalitarian advocates from praying there.
Also crowding the plaza were hundreds of young haredim, or fervently Orthodox men, yelling, making obscene gestures, and throwing rocks to protest the women’s prayer service.
On previous occasions as they neared the wall, Small said, security guards gave her and other women “a hard time” about carrying tallitot.
“But this time we were ushered in really fast and the whole aura of the experience was entirely different,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from Jerusalem.
To Small it was “an historic event. The men were shouting. There was a lot of agitation. So we just started to sing. Even with the loud voices that surrounded us, we were in our own zone. We were smiling at each other, even as we could see the pressure of a mob growing. Then we looked out and saw this enormous crowd of yeshiva boys.”
In the midst of the melee, one girl became a bat mitzva.
“She was wearing tallit and she was absolutely adorable,” said the rabbi. “Taking out an actual Torah scroll would have been too provocative, but some of the women took out a book with the Torah reading for that day and she did the blessing and chanted the Torah portion. Then she was hoisted onto a woman’s shoulders and there was dancing and singing and saying ‘Mazel tov.’”
And unlike previous services, they were protected by police.
“It was a moment where everybody there knew we had crossed a bridge,” Small said.
But as they left the plaza, “we could see the mobs of yeshiva buchers [students] trying to push through the line. It was absolutely frightening.”
As she jumped onto a waiting bus, “a mob of haredi guys were throwing rocks and shouting and screaming and giving us the finger, and I suddenly realized this was really dangerous. For that moment my stomach was doing somersaults,” she said.
‘All stood together’
Police arrested three haredi protesters, and a police spokesman said more arrests may be in the offing as police review video.
“I’m not sure if I was more upset about the physical threat of the guys who became violent or the fact that they were Jews. How could it be that this was what Jewish people were doing to each other?” she wondered.
Cecille Asekoff, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest and executive vice president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, had a similar response.
She was in Jerusalem to attend a chaplaincy training program, and on May 10 took time off to join the Women of the Wall.
Asekoff, who emphasized that she attended as a private individual, was joined by her husband, Rabbi Stanley Asekoff, religious leader emeritus of B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Orange.
“There are many women, myself included, who believe that Judaism was not given to one gender or one sect of Jews but was given to all Jews,” she said in a phone conversation three days later. “The Torah says, ‘Men, women, and children all stood together to receive the Torah.’”
Asekoff said she was “not at all afraid” when she reached the area outside the Kotel at 6:30 a.m.
“We did not see any violence,” she said. “We were among the first two tiers of people standing but we did hear noise from other sections. There was a lot of yelling going on. Nothing was thrown at me.”
Asekoff said she is troubled by such intense conflict among Jews.
“Our enemies can figure out who is a Jew but we can’t seem to get it right,” she said.