As a young child, I walked to shul with my father every Shabbat morning and watched the service intently as I hid beneath the fringes of his tallit. I especially relished hearing the weekly Torah portion and was intrigued by the colorful cantillation styles. One Shabbat, when I was nine years old, I had apparently talked too animatedly to the Torah reader (a teenage boy) about various tropes and was banished to the women’s section. What a shock! Not only could I no longer see the service, I couldn’t hear it either. Nevertheless, I continued attending services because prayer helped me connect spiritually. But as time passed, I grew resentful of women being excluded from actively participating in services and began questioning other facets of ultra-orthodox (Charedi) life.
I knew that Torah chanting was not an option for my Bat Mitzvah, but even so, as I neared age twelve, I asked my mother if I could have a Bat Mitzvah. Not just because I wanted to read Torah in the same manner my three older brothers had, but also because I coveted those checks my brothers had received as gifts for their Bar Mitzvah celebrations. Unsurprisingly, I was told no, I could not read from the Torah, that instead, the goal of my reaching Jewish adulthood was to be able to prepare a Shabbat meal from scratch, for my family of eight. No problem there, as I had been preparing Shabbat meals for my family since 5th grade. My conflict with Judaism continued throughout my teen years, and at age seventeen, suffocated by halacha, I broke away from the Charedi community. I completely distanced myself from Torah, trying to disobey as many commandments as possible (no, I did not kill anyone). I had little connection to Judaism for many years to follow.
That all changed when I married a Christian and needed to figure out what Judaism meant to me, what role it would play in the life of my children. It was through this process that I discovered another type of Judaism, one that championed women’s voices in tefillah and Torah chanting, one that included the Matriarchs in prayer. I slowly began to regain a sense of faith and spirituality which enabled me to embrace Judaism in a different light. The first time I chanted Torah was beyond affirming – I felt I had come home.
And so, I was very excited to return to Jerusalem (the last time I was there was to attend my brother’s wedding, 36 years ago) to pray at the Kotel, to feel spirituality at this holy place, and to raise my voice in song with Women of the Wall. However, that was not possible. It turned out to be more of a demonstration than a spiritual prayer service. I wasn’t surprised by the organized effort from the Charedi world to stop us – it’s all too familiar to me. But it still greatly saddens me and shows how far women have yet to go in their fight for equity and religious freedom.
Later, when I found out that two of my nieces had attended the Kotel event, along with the endless gaggles of Bais Yaakov girls bussed in to disrupt WOW’s service, I texted my sister-in-law to find out more. She didn’t apologize for the troublesome actions of the teenagers but asserted repeatedly that the Kotel is a sacred site and Women of the Wall has no right to pray there with a “modified” version of religion. She said that if we don’t believe in Moshiach (Messiah)’s coming and the rebuilding of the Temple, we have no reason to be there at all. I replied back, how can Moshiach come when there is such hatred between Jews? My sister-in-law didn’t answer that one, but she didn’t need to. Moshiach will not come in the midst of such hatred. No, she will not come.
Chaya Schneider recently joined WRJ as an individual member, and is interested in getting more involved with social justice activities. She attended WOW’s 30th anniversary event with WRJ, her daughter, Kayla Schneider-Smith, and Rabbi Ellie Shemtov, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Am in Freehold, NJ.