Yesterday morning I made it to the Conservative Yeshiva by 7am in order to board a bus which took about 50 of us to the Kotel (the Western Wall) to daven the morning service.
Well, more accurately, it took us to Robinson's Arch. The Western Wall is one of the retaining walls that Herod built to shore up the Temple Mount; the Robinson's Arch area is an extension of that wall. It's contiguous with the Kotel-as-we-know-it but feels somewhat distant because there is a wall between the Kotel proper and the Robinson's Arch area. Because the Israeli Rabbinate (being Orthodox) will not permit men and women to pray together in the official Western Wall plaza, they've allowed the Masorti (Conservative) movement to pray in this Kotel annex. Unlike the regular Kotel (which is gender-segregated but open all the time), the Robinson's Arch area isn't open on Shabbat and requires a reservation (and, if you arrive after 8am, an entry fee.) The Conservative Movement reserved two mornings this summer for egalitarian prayer at (near) the Wall; yesterday was one of them.
The area immediately in front of the wall is cordoned off, so we couldn't stand right next to it as people do in the Kotel plaza. But we stood on the big cobblestones -- once the Cardo, an open-air shopping street -- and some of us stood in the open-air booths which still line part of the street. Once upon a time these booths sold things that people would have needed to bring with them to the Temple. If a family had come from afar to make a thanksgiving offering, for instance, they probably wouldn't have brought their own doves from home, but they could buy them here on the street below the Temple complex. That's where I stood to don my tallit and tefillin and to daven the morning service.
Shacharit (morning prayer) was lovely. I enjoyed it a lot, though I'm not sure that's because the Robinson's Arch area (or the Kotel writ large) feels especially sacred to me; mostly I was just happy to be outdoors in the cool morning shade of a beautiful day. (There's an outdoor ampitheatre at the CY, but it's in full sun, so it's too hot to use during the daytime in the summer.) A new friend of mine who blogs at Beyond the Near led shacharit, and I took pleasure in how her strong voice rang out among the old, old stones. Afterward, we had a few moments to walk around and get a sense for where we'd been standing. I (re)learned that the dents in the street are not from earthquakes or the passage of time, but from the enormous stones which were thrown down from the Temple Mount after the second Temple was sacked. Some of those stones are still there.
When I was here in '98 with my mother we went to Robinson's Arch and to the archaeological park there, but I'd forgotten the name of the place, and I'm not sure I knew it was where Conservative Jews go for egalitarian prayer.
On the bus ride back to the Yeshiva, we heard from Rabbi Lebeau about what it was like to try to pray at the Western Wall in a mixed-gender way before the Rabbinate took pity and offered the Arch area as an egalitarian space. He told us stories about trying to pray as a mixed-gender group in the back of the Kotel plaza and being pelted with stones and with shit. Once, he told us, the police agreed to offer protection for a Conservative group on Tisha b'Av -- but once the prayer got going, the police turned on them and said through their loudspeakers that mixed-gender prayer was against the law and that they had to disperse.
Things are better now, in a certain way. We prayed, men and women together, and no one troubled us. But, of course, the Robinson's Arch area (and the archaeological park of which it is a part) doesn't have the same feel as the Kotel plaza proper. And the compromise doesn't seem to work for everyone. I don't think the Reform movement has chosen to accept the Israeli rabbinate's suggestion that mixed-gender groups should daven only there. And I spoke yesterday with someone who's part of Women of the Wall, a group which davens at the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh (new moon.) Its members aren't thrilled that they have to relocate to Robinson's Arch in order to read Torah and lay tefillin. (Read more here: "We do not feel that this is `the Wall.' No one feels that it is the wall. We are not second-class citizens who have to pray in an archaeological park...")
In a bigger-picture sense, I can't help thinking this is a major challenge to liberal Jewish life in Israel. Not just the question of who can pray at the Kotel and how, but the question of how and whether the Orthodox rabbinate will ever come to respect other strands of Jewish tradition. Non-Orthodox rabbis can't officiate at weddings here, unless the couple goes to Cyprus and has a civil ceremony first. (Kind of like me, as a not-yet-ordained rabbinic student, in most of the U.S. Except that someday when I get smicha, my status will change -- in the States; here I will continue to be persona non grata, in an official sense.) I'm not sure what it will take for Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal rabbis to be respected here. A seismic change, a paradigm shift, for sure. Kind of an irony, that so many American rabbis seek, and find, spiritual renewal in a place where the state religious apparatus doesn't honor our rabbinates.