Israel-Diaspora Story of the Year:

Whose Western Wall Is It?

Women gather last month for egalitarian prayer at Western Wall to mark Women of the Wall's 25th anniversary.

In the U.S., 2013 was the year of Women of the Wall — and the organization’s 25th anniversary, to boot. The group advocates for the right of women to pray collectively and audibly at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. Founded in 1988, WOW’s main tactic for two decades has been civil disobedience: the gathering of its members to celebrate each new month by holding a liturgically traditional service at the Wall. Over the years, the women have been negotiated with, reviled and harassed, most often by members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority, which finds their presence offensive.

But in 2012, episodes of harassment by the haredi community and arrests by the police began to spike, with at least 15 women being detained between June and December, according to the group’s spokeswoman. The American Jewish community responded strongly, especially when its own rabbis were arrested, as happened several times. American Jews held a series of solidarity services stateside, attended by hundreds of worshippers. While many Israelis consider the issue of women’s prayer at the Wall primarily a concern to the liberal diaspora, 2013 saw WOW championing its cause by gaining new prominence in Israeli society, as well.

Politicians — including newly elected female members of the Knesset — and male former soldiers — including those who appeared in the iconic picture of the Wall’s capture by Israel during the Six-Day War — turned out to pray in support. Away from the Wall, the women continued to wage their war in the courts and in parliament. The latest news is the possibility of a compromise in the form of a separate platform for egalitarian prayer, but the proposal has split the group. Stay tuned.

Helen Chernikoff