Women from S.F. synagogue help make history at Western Wall

When the ultra-Orthodox men stormed into the women’s section at the Western Wall three weeks ago — in an attempt to retrieve a Torah scroll they were dancing with and then reading from — the women from San Francisco said they were too exhilarated to be afraid.

“Suddenly there was this throng of men, very upset, seemingly intent on violence or disruption,” said Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El, one of 15 members of the shul who were at the Wall that day. “But that took a back seat to the moment, which was so thrilling and exciting.”

The Emanu-El members were on a 10-day trip to Israel to join the Women of the Wall for their regular morning prayer service held each month on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish month.

Rabbi Beth Singer of S.F. Congregation Emanu-El in Jerusalem on April 20 photo/jta-flash90-miriam alster

As it happened, on that day, April 20, a male supporter of Women of the Wall took one of the 100 or so Torah scrolls on the men’s side and handed it to women worshippers through a door in the barrier. Though women have been permitted to pray at the Kotel since 2013, Torah scrolls are banned in the women’s section, and aside from a miniature, 200-year-old Torah smuggled in last year, the women had never read from a full-size Torah in their area. Until April 20.

“We were so jubilant. It was so thrilling. There was so much dancing and singing and celebrating,” Singer said, speaking to J. this week after her return to the Bay Area. “Then there was a moment, during our prayers, when this group started to surge at us.”

One option would have been to “run away in terror,” Singer said. But that’s not what the women did.

“The moment the [men came across the barrier], the women — we were dancing in multiple circles around the Torah — instinctively, like mothers protecting their child, just locked arms around the Torah,” she said. She estimated there were 80 to 100 women surrounding the sacred scroll.

Being in the center ring, Singer said she didn’t witness what happened next, but she knows the attackers were repelled. She heard from some of the travelers in her group — those who had opted to stay on the fringes or in the plaza to have a better overall angle — that the men opted to retreat rather than touch women who were not their wives, an act forbidden by Orthodox law.

The women’s male accomplice didn’t fare as well, Singer added.

“I understand the young man who helped [get the Torah onto the women’s side] was pushed down and hurt, and that’s very unfortunate to hear,” she said.

Having been allowed to pray at the Kotel since 2013, the challenge since then for Women of the Wall has been to read from a Torah at the Wall. The group, and its longtime leader, Anat Hoffman, want the ban lifted.

Rabbi Beth Singer (left) and Anat Hoffman at the Kotel on April 20 photo/barbara josephine rolph

“As the Declaration of Independence clearly states, and I fully believe, everyone is created equal,” said Caroline Kahn Werboff, one of the April 20 participants from Emanu-El. “My efforts added support to the Women of the Wall, who have pressed so tirelessly to have equal rights to men at the Wall — and throughout the world.”

Having participated in the worship service with “no preconceived ideas of what was to be accomplished,” Kahn Werboff said she sees herself as having struck a blow for social justice. It was indeed a watershed moment in the fight for equality at the Wall.

“All of us felt like crying and laughing at the same moment,” she said. “The occasion resulted in being included in making history once again in our sacred land.”

Barbara Josephine Rolph, another Emanu-El participant, said she sees the issue as an equal rights struggle.

“I do not believe the Torah was given to men only,” Rolph said. “Moses came down from Sinai and gave it to the People Israel, not only the black-hatted, bearded ones.  Why should women not be allowed that right [to pray with a Torah at the Wall]? Who are these … bullies to determine who is a Jew and who has the right to pray at the Kotel?”

Singer said that on the plane ride back to the Bay Area, she watched the movie “Selma” and couldn’t help but feel its power. “I felt like whenever you have to fight for a basic right, if you don’t stand up, you will fail,” said Singer, who was given the second aliyah during the service after the Torah came into the women’s section. (Singer said Hoffman, whom she has supported for many years, arranged it so she was given the honor.)

Co-senior rabbi at Emanu-El, along with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Singer, since October 2013, Singer said she doesn’t want “the most Orthodox voices [to] make Israel a place most American Jews and others would feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in. I know there’s a place for every Jewish person in Israel.”

Rolph said she thinks the events of April 20 accomplished more than anyone expected.

“As American women, we were able to lend our bodies and our moral support to Israeli women in their ongoing effort for equality and empowerment,” she said. “Was it worth it? Was it worth it that Rosa Parks sat down in the front of the bus? Of course it was. The initial action and powerful image lives long after the event.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."