Anyone who takes their Judaism seriously and follows events in Israel closely is familiar with “Women of the Wall”. For over twenty years, an extraordinary and fearless group of women have been campaigning for the right to pray at the Kotel garbed in tallit and tefillin and reading from a Sefer Torah. These devout women have been subjected to abuse and violence such that had it been perpetrated by gentiles-we would call it a pogrom. But no, this abuse and violence, including spitting, the hurling of garbage, screaming, and the throwing of chairs at worshippers was perpetrated by fellow Jews. These women, a mixture of reform, conservative and modern orthodox worshippers, as well as many who identify with no denomination, were harassed and harried by the ultra-Orthodox and in many cases even arrested by the police-all for the “sin” of praying at the holiest spot in Judaism.
In recent months, a growing number of Israelis, fed up with the harassment of these women by the ultra-Orthodox, are calling for them to have the right to pray in peace and safety. In addition, courts have ruled that these women constitute “no provocation” and are to be left alone to pray. While recent rulings have gone in favor of the Women of the Wall, the issue is far from settled entirely.
Many Diaspora Jews have been enthusiastic and vocal supporters of the right of Women of the Wall to pray in peace and safety. Countless sermons have been given by pulpit rabbis, articles written, demonstrations held and even monies collected and sent to Israel to support the continuing effort of these brave women.
All this leads me to ponder the empty seats in many synagogues on Shabbat, on holydays, and at daily minyans. In America, where we may pray freely in the synagogue and in the manner of our choosing, we seem to be choosing to not pray on a regular basis. Not every synagogue, and not all the time of course-at my own congregation we were packed for Erev Shavuot and even Shavuot morning saw a respectable attendance; but it is irrefutable that in general synagogue going is down across the board, in both the Reform and Conservative movements. (and to my Orthodox brothers and sisters-don’t get smug-you have your own issues that you are only barely beginning to address).
We campaign with fervor for the right of Jews to pray as they choose in Israel, but here in America where we are granted that right, fewer of us are deciding to exercise it. Yes, I know that in the current thinking the burden falls on us, the rabbis and cantors, to devise services that are more compelling, more spiritual, more uplifting-but is it really only up to us? Is there no obligation on the part of the Jewish people in America, who commendably care so deeply for worship in Israel-to embrace worship here with the same seriousness? I support Women of the Wall; it is time for us to equally support People of the Pew.