The status of women at the Kotel (Western Wall) is in the news. You may have heard of The Women of the Wall, a group that meets monthly to pray together at the Kotel. Some members have been arrested for wearing prayer shawls. The controversy centers around whether these women are simply observing Judaism in the way they see fit, or making a concerted attempt to change the status quo.
Today’s guest post by photographer Rahel Jaskow addresses a different question. Documenting her claims with photos, she argues that the status quo has already been changed. A concerted effort to enforce more segregation, and failure to improve the women’s areas, has led to a general worsening of conditions for all women who pray there.
Don’t miss the sequel: Return to the Western Wall, Passover 2013
Separate and Unequal at the Western Wall
Guest post by Rahel Jaskow
The first time I ever visited the Western Wall (in Hebrew, the Kotel ha-ma’aravi), it was a chilly winter day. The women’s section was packed with worshippers, while the men’s section was nearly empty. I assumed that the women’s level of devotion had to be much greater than the men’s.
I soon realized that my assumption had been wrong. There were dozens of men at the Kotel that day. But they were all inside the enormous amount of indoor space in the tunnel complex just to the left of the men’s section – protected from cold and rain in winter and the blazing sun in summer.
What about the women? Let’s take a closer look.
The Incredible Shrinking Women’s Section
Before February 2004, the women had about one-third the outdoor space that the men did. Unfortunately, I don’t have any digital photographs before 2005, but any search of the Western Wall or the Kotel can turn up photos that show the former size distribution. But the women’s section shrank dramatically after an earthquake destroyed the hill to the right of the women’s section in February 2004, exposing ancient ruins and sending tons of mud and rock tumbling into the women’s section. For a time, the metal divider between the men’s and women’s sections was opened and a temporary divider of plastic canvas was put up, giving the women more space outdoors. But the temporary divider – and the extra space it provided – quickly vanished, leaving the women’s section a fraction of what it had been. I call it “the incredible shrinking women’s section.”
(If you click on the above photo, you can view it in Flickr, with explanatory notes showing exactly where the men’s and women’s sections are.)
Here’s a closeup of the women’s section, to give a better idea of its size:
The women have only a tiny amount of indoor space that provides direct access to the Kotel. To the right of the women’s section, near the lintel of a Second Temple-era gate now known as Barclay’s Gate, is a tiny room where women pray indoors. I call this room “the classroom.” Here’s a photo of it, taken on a rainy day when it was so crowded that I couldn’t get inside:
[HK: Unlike the men's indoor section, the women's indoor section requires climbing a flight of stairs. It is inaccessible to women in wheelchairs.]
The plaza just behind the worship area at the Kotel has changed, too. For decades, a low barrier separated much of the plaza from the worship area, and people could observe the prayer services from behind. No more: a high fence now obstructs the view.
Women’s Prayer Space within the Tunnel Complex
Now let’s take a look at the space that’s made available for women on the other side of the Kotel plaza, in the tunnel complex. Below are photos of a prayer area for women that was constructed fairly recently. From this enclosed, balcony-like structure, women may look down at the Kotel and listen, through earphone jacks, to the services that take place there on special occasions, such as a bar mitzva. But they cannot touch the Kotel from here; there is one-way glass, plus a curtain, in front of them, and the door to the staircase that leads from this structure down to the Kotel is always kept locked. (Note the lattice pattern in the wood that prevents the men from seeing the women.)
Here’s what the indoor women’s balcony looks like:
Here’s the gate at the top of the stairs:
The view from the gate, taken through the latticework:
Earphone jacks for listening to the service below (for example, if your family is celebrating a bar mitzva there):
Women are never allowed in the space allotted to the men; men’s space is sacred space at all times. Not so for the women. Here, we see an employee at a supply closet that is located directly inside the worship space allotted to the women:
Here are some photographs taken in the synagogue built opposite and above the purported site of the Holy of Holies. Only men are now permitted entry into this synagogue, even when scheduled prayers are not in session:
Here’s another photo of the synagogue:
For good measure, here’s a photo of one of the light sources in that synagogue:
Here’s a better look at the room as a whole. This photograph was taken almost five years ago, when women still had some access to the synagogue:
Now, the women get to pray below the stairs leading to the synagogue.
Within the Western Wall tunnel complex, women have no dedicated worship area with direct access to the Kotel. All they have is improvised, “unofficial” space that is dimly lit and open to tour groups, so their prayers can be interrupted at any time. They are also forced to mingle with male passersby as they pray, an odd situation for a place that seeks to enforce strict gender separation.
Here is one example, where women pray opposite the Western Stone:
We can see here, too, that the women’s worship space is located along a foot-traffic route:
Here we see a group of men passing behind the women as they pray. Not only is there no divider, but the tour guide also invited one of the men to recite a chapter of the Psalms while the group was there. Evidently, neither the guide nor the man who recited the chapter noticed the women praying there – or, if they noticed, they did not care.
We can also see the quality of the light available in this “unofficial” prayer space for the women. Quite a contrast to the well-appointed synagogue upstairs, with its comfortable chairs and chandeliers:
This photo shows the amount of light there a bit more realistically:
Readers may want to scroll back up to the photos of the synagogue and then look at these photographs again. Quite a difference.
The separation of men and women is now enforced even more strictly during the week-long festivals of Sukkot and Pesah. Men and women must separate long before they approach the security inspection station – itself segregated by gender, another fairly recent development – and on their way into the plaza as well. On a recent visit during a holiday week, I watched as a religious couple moved one of the police barriers aside, opening a space so the wife could wheel the stroller with their baby inside to her husband. The photo below shows the signs ordering men and women to separate sides and the police barriers that enforce the segregation.
The segregation continues beyond the security checkpoint:
In addition, women are strongly discouraged from going to the northern side of the Kotel plaza during festival times, as this photo illustrates:
Just in case visitors need an extra reminder, this sign states: “Due to the holiness of the site, complete separation between men and women must be observed here.” As the photo illustrates, such complete separation is not observed – for one thing, it’s not always practical during family visits – but those in charge state clearly that it’s what they want.
But the northern side, where women aren’t supposed to go during festival times, happens to be where the restrooms are located. What to do?
The solution: temporary restrooms for women on the women’s side of the plaza. Here’s a sign warning the women away from the permanent restrooms, with full amenities, that they use throughout the year to the rudimentary ones we’re about to see. The signs read: “Women’s restrooms in the parking area.”
OK, then. Let’s trek to the other side of the plaza and see what they’re like. From the outside:
Another view from the outside. The signs read: “Women’s restroom only.”
Stalls and sinks. That’s it. Here’s a closer view of the sinks. Notice anything missing? Soap, maybe? Towels? A diaper-changing area? Not here.
What about access for women in wheelchairs? This doesn’t look too promising:
That’s it, ladies. Stalls and a sink – that’s all you get at the Western Wall during festival weeks. The women’s restrooms at the other end of the plaza, with all their amenities, are for men only during that time.
There is one bright spot, though: the women are sometimes allowed a bit more space during the festival weeks. But not much: it’s easy to see the placement of the temporary divider relative to the permanent one. Not a whole lot of difference, I’d say.
Still another view:
And just in case the total segregation over the holidays isn’t enough, the men now have a passage from one side of the plaza to the other that’s just for them, all year round.
The passage on a different day (the sign says “Passage for men only”):
Forced gender segregation has spread to the Kotel ha-Katan (the “small Kotel”) in the Muslim Quarter. Only this time, the women get no access to the Kotel itself. They’re supposed to stay behind the barrier (the men, of course, are supposed to be in front):
Right now, separation is strongly encouraged by a temporary police barrier. I fear that if things keep going the way they are, it will soon be permanent, with enforcement by the police.
Finally, during holiday times, extra separation is enforced, at least during the daylight hours, on the public bus system…
. . . either by illegally-hired guards with megaphones that play a pre-recorded message urging such segregation . . .
(The man in the purple shirt is the shift supervisor. He’s telling me I shouldn’t be photographing him and other young men employed to keep the genders segregated on the buses leaving the Old City.)
. . . or by personnel who work for the bus company itself – a patently illegal act:
As with all the photographs in this post, click on the photograph for more details.
That, more or less, is the current state of affairs. All of these changes are quite recent. I have to wonder whose idea they were . . . and who paid for them.
Here’s the post I put up a few years ago about my experiences with employees of the the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, “God’s Gatekeepers.”