In response to the recent move by Israel’s Cabinet to freeze a government decision to expand a non-Orthodox prayer section at the Western Wall, a Valley rabbi has joined forces with another rabbi and a peace activist to lead a women’s peace mission and spirituality tour in Israel in November in support of the Women of the Wall.
“We want to go show our support for the women who have gone to the Kotel (Western Wall) month after month for Rosh Chodesh for 28 years just to sing and pray and read from the Torah,” Rabbi Sarah Leah Grafstein, spiritual leader of Ruach Hamidbar-Spirit of the Desert in Scottsdale told Jewish News. “Instead, they have been harassed and arrested, yelled at and cursed. It’s unconscionable. We believe the government should go back to the negotiating table and stick to the agreement and listen to the (Israeli) Supreme Court.”
Women of the Wall (WOW) was legally formed in 1989, after a women’s prayer service and Torah reading at the Kotel in December 1988 was disrupted by verbal and physical assaults from haredi Orthodox men and women, according to the WOW website, womenofthewall.org. Ever since, the group has fought to allow women to pray aloud at the Kotel with Torah scrolls and tefillin.
The establishment of an egalitarian prayer pavilion at the Western Wall was approved by the Israeli cabinet in 2016. This proposed area was to be outside the Western Wall’s main prayer space, which separates men and women in accordance with Orthodox tradition. On June 25, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the construction of this egalitarian prayer area, a decision opposed by many Jewish communal leaders.
Grafstein will join Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael of Philadelphia and Israeli peace activist Alisa Maeir in leading “A Woman’s Journey of Transformation in Israel: Roots of Shechinah, Branches of Peace” Nov. 9-19.
“We wanted to create a trip that was not only about seeing the basic sights and engaging the senses, but also to elevate the purpose of the trip to a spiritual journey of inward and outward peacemaking and support for Women of the Wall,” said Raphael in an announcement about the trip.
The women’s trip will include an exploration of the ancient roots of Jewish women’s spirituality. For instance, a visit to the Israel Museum will examine archeological evidence of female goddesses of ancient Israel, and a Jerusalem tour will include information about the history of women who left their marks on the ancient city. Other highlights include meeting with women in Israel, such as a transgender woman in her 60s who previously lived as a Chasidic man, a metaphysical Israeli artist, and the founder of a post-denominational feminist yeshiva.
There will also be an optional culinary package that includes meeting with Arab and Israeli women chefs and sampling foods from various cultures in Israel.
The itinerary also includes Tel Aviv, Tsfat, Tiberias and the ancient city of Megiddo (the biblical Armageddon). The final day of the trip includes a prayer service at the Kotel with members of WOW.
Before the trip, participants will create cotton squares of fabric expressing messages of peace and hope that will be used to make a large patchwork quilt, “Piece for Peace,” an artistic expression for the desire for peace in the region. The project is organized by Women Waging Peace.
Grafstein, who was raised in an Orthodox home, started Ruach Hamidbar, a Jewish Renewal community, in 1989, and is the producer of a DVD library about Jewish Renewal. Raphael is an artist and ritual leader who teaches about spirituality, dreams and kabbalah. She was one of the original members of WOW and has maintained her connection with the group. Maier, who lives in Israel, is the founder of the Good Neighbors – Abu Tor/el-Turi project, a peacemaking effort that brings Israeli Jews and Arabs together. She is a certified Israeli tour guide, a holistic educator, a Reiki healer and a life coach.
Last year, the three women visited Israel together and prayed with WOW, an experience that Grafstein said filled her with “great joy because here we were, finally, davening together with our Israeli sisters and women from around the world in this powerful holy vortex where the shechinah never left, even after the destruction of Temple.”
“I thought, how is it possible that these very angry physical and verbal abusers forgot that they started their morning prayers saying, ‘I hereby accept upon myself the mitzvah to love your neighbor as yourself,’ which Rabbi Akiva said is the greatest principle of the Torah,” Grafstein continued. “With tears I walked up to the Kotel, pressed my head to the stones and prayed for the day when we can all be together at the Kotel in peace and in love, honoring our differences and fulfilling one of the greatest mitzvot in the Torah.” JN
Learn more about the tour from “A Woman’s Journey of Transformation in Israel” on mejditours.com.