Shalom Life | October 17, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with A Woman of the Wall

Shalom Life sits down with Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a Montreal-born member of the Women of the Wall

By: Daniel Koren

Published: June 13th, 2013 in News » World

On the morning of December 1st, 1988, a group of approximately seventy women – many wearing prayer shawls, one carrying a Torah scroll - approached Jerusalem’s Western Wall to conduct a women’s prayer service.

Suddenly, both men – on the other side of the wall – and women began to curse and threaten the group for ‘breaking religious laws.’

Out of this controversial incident, the first of many such occurrences that would take place over the next twenty-five years, the Women of the Wall were born.

5500 miles away, in a small suburb of Montreal, an 18-year-old Rachel Cohen Yeshurun was preparing to start her new life in the State of Israel.

“I never really heard of the group until three years ago when Anat Hoffman (the group’s infamous leader) was carrying the Torah scroll out of the women's section. They were going to read outside the Kotel plaza because it was (and still is) forbidden by various orders and regulations for women to read torah at the Kotel,” Yeshurun tells me via Skype. “I decided right then and there to join the group.”

Yeshurun, who attended Montreal’s orthodox highschool, Bais-Yaakov, made aliyah to Israel in 1989. Despite her orthodox upbringing, she became interested in egalitarian Judaism and the role of women in the synagogue after her son had his Bar Mitzvah. “I realized that I already knew how to read Torah, and began to feel that women could have a better participation, and a stronger involvement, with Judaism.”

Today, Yeshurun works as a computer programmer and software engineer in Jerusalem. She has resided in Ma’aleh Adumim for the past 24 years.

“When I joined the group, it was only really religious women from different streams who wanted to have a prayer service at the Kotel. But over the last three years, our cause has attracted more and more women from a liberal and secular standpoint,” she notes.

The goal of Women of the Wall, according to their official website, is ‘to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.’

“We want to pray at the Kotel, we will do it in the women’s section, yes, but women who want to wear prayer shawls should be allowed to and be free to do so,” Yeshurun asserts. “We want to be able to hold a full service, and pray the parts of the service that are usually prayed out loud. We don’t want to be quiet; we want to bring in a Torah scroll, have a Torah service, have Bat Mitzvot, and be allowed to have a full prayer experience with all the opportunities that are afforded to men in the men’s section.”

The primary objective of the Women of the Wall is to promote gender equality. “We are not asking to be separate. What makes our group so amazing is that we are a pluralistic group,” Yeshurun enthuses. “We are not of one stream of Judaism; each one of us comes from a different stream, whether reform, conservative, or orthodox. We all have different expectations, but we all come together once a month. We all leave our comfort zones, pray together, and compromise for one another.”


(Members of Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel)

Through these actions, the Women of the Wall provide a role model to communities across the globe, showcasing an example of pluralism and tolerance.

There have been several recent occurrences that have contributed to the group’s rising momentum, and have, in turn, transformed their initiative from a small group of 30 women into a worldwide human rights movement.

Each month, except for when it falls on the Sabbtah, the Women of the Wall make their way to the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of each new month of the Hebrew Calendar.

December’s Rosh Chodesh had come just as a new police-issued decree was put into practice, one that prohibited women from entering the Kotel with any holy Jewish articles, including tallilot and tefillin (prayer garments). The Women of the Wall were accompanied by New Jersey Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who, along with two young women from the UK gap year program, and Yeshurun herself, were detained, interrogated and removed from the Wall by police for refusing to remove their tallits.


(Rabbi Elyse Frishman with Yeshurun)

But in an age where standing up to Israeli police was a necessary reaction with a cause as symbolic and powerful as gender equality, it was not Yeshurun’s first time in jail.

“I remember my first visit to the Kotel with the group a few years ago. We were only about 30 women, and I remember as we were singing and praying that there were police officers there filming us, standing very close, telling us to be quiet, and trying to quiet us. And I thought that was horrific, and it made me even more determined to join next month."

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