Tammuz 5759 – Egalitarian Minyan at the Kosel on Shavuos

15 Tammuz 5759

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

I need some help. The following is a message from my aunt. What do you thing I should respond to her? Thanks for your input and time.

I’m sending a copy of a message my friend forwarded to me from her Rabbi who is on sabbatical in Israel. What are your thoughts?

How could something so beautiful end so ugly?
I looked forward to a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot here in Jerusalem. We study all night and end with a sunrise minyan at the wall. (Shavuot was the first holiday celebrated just weeks after the reunification of Jerusalem, in 196 7. People streamed into town to have their first encounter with the Kotel. Ever since then davening at the Kotel at the vatikim ( sunrise minyan ) has been a part of the celebration, of the birthday of the Torah).

The paper was full of learning options for the evening. I chose to start the evening at the Hartman institute. At 4am I walked with a young Israeli fellow to the Kotel to join the Conservative Minyan. As we entered French square I stopped my walk and did a 360 degree turn. I snapped mental pictures along the way. People were streaming onto Agron street from every corner. It looked a little like the “Night of the Living Dead “. Rows and rows of people following each other in a seemingly endless stream to the old city and the Kotel. The sky was dark but reflected the street and store lights which gave an unreal glow to the event.

As we entered the Jaffa gate it was 4.30 am. We turned right, but many of the throng proceeded straight through the now empty and surprisingly wide Arab market. I was appalled at the singing that was going on. The many religious Jews were happy and joyous and therefore singing happily but in complete disregard for the sleeping natives who lived there. Or maybe I was being naive, and it was specifically because of the sleeping neighbors that they sang so loud going through the Arab market. Noise, disrespect and incitement, would not be strangers this evening.

We went through the Armenian and then the Jewish quarter. As we walked down the stairs and with the big Yeshivot buildings on our right, we turned and for the first time saw the Kotel. What a spectacle! Directly in front of us was the Temple Mount with a minaret lighted up with bright green neon rectangles layered in its upper quarter. The whole area reflected the spotlights and general illumination of the Kotel, and it’s immediate environs. It gave a gas light effect, on the vista. The area in front of the wall was fuller then I had ever seen before. The density was so great that I could think of sardines in a can that had more room. What was even more impressive was that the entire area behind and above the floor level of the wall was packed as well. By the time we and all those behind us would descend , there would be no room at all. Women were filling the hill that is besides and above the woman’s section. They ascended the hill to the point of being next to the fence that leads onto the Temple Mount. Every possible square foot was filled with people.

These were not your usual summer, Friday night tourists, and white-shirted daveners . These were overwhelmingly black hatted, streimeled, Haredim. For a moment it looked like I was at a picnic standing over the spilled honey and watched the golden color turn a kinetic black from all the ants.

I met my Rabbi and asked him to hold my talit as I needed to use the bathroom. It should have taken five minutes to get there and back. It took 15 as I had to fight the crowd every step of the way just to traverse the area. On my return, my Rabbi took me to the place where our minyan was to be. In the darkness (we were farthest away from the light reflecting off the Kotel) I had no idea that we had a special area waiting. The Rabbi was about to take me out of the area and then re-enter the security gates into the cordoned off area. The guards told us to just go in through a little opening in the temporary barrier. We did and it was then that I first realized where we were and what they had done.

The police had established a two layer barrier of steel police barricades. In between was a five foot moat of air and behind the second barrier were the 250 worshipers who had come to pray in an egalitarian minyan on Shavuot in the vicinity of wall. I say “vicinity” since we were near the exit portals above the dung gate, as far away from the worshipers at the wall and still be inside the greater Kotel area.

We would have about 15 more minutes of twilight before the white light in the sky would vanquish the blue black that was still the predominant sky. Nevertheless we were anything but invisible. Already kids and adults surrounded us and stared at what was to them a spectacle. Here were men and women, boys and girls, teens and college students davening together. Many women wore talitiot. Over forty police stood sentry protecting the group behind them.

At first as I looked around and in the still darkness I fantasized the wedding scene from Fiddler on the Roof. There, one boy reached across the barrier and danced with his girlfriend and soon everyone joined together. For a passing moment I fantasized that a few would come across the barrier and join us, bringing down the barriers. Later as the service progressed I noticed that the corner of our outer fence nearest the overflow hill from the ezrat nashim (women’s section) were becoming filled with women staring in at us. Again I fantasized what they might be thinking. They saw and heard women singing and davening together with the men. Perhaps they would articulate why not me too. I would like to be involved this way.”

My fantasizing stopped when the young kids, pre-teen, standing near, decided this was the time to disturb the service. With coordinated shrieks they tried to drown out our davening. We ignored them and they quickly tired. Five or ten minutes later they would muster another attempt and again we ignored them and they stopped There were the occasional yells, heckles, screams, and a particularly obnoxious American young adult, screaming insults and looking for a fight. The police began to pay more attention but little else happened. We finished the book of Ruth, the woman who read a chapter received sarcastic applause. Then hagbah and the beginning of the haftorah and then it hit.

About half an hour earlier I noticed from the back of the courtyard area, at the opposite end from where we were, people were disseminating cases of bottled soda pop. I assumed it was a promotional giveaway by a company to market their pop. I don’t think they ever intended it to be used as grenade-like missiles, but that’s exactly what happened. Out of nowhere and with no warning a full bottle of pop landed in the midst of the group brushing a woman on the side of her face and turning it all red.

We were now on full alert. Would this be a one time event or the beginning of an assault? We didn’t have to wait long to find out. From different directions they started to drop. We never saw from where in the crowd they came, only a high trajectory drop thay we could pick up on the descent. I noticed a woman, a Rabbinical student from Israel, staggering with an ugly 3 inch raised welt on her forehead ,courtesy of a direct hit.

We regrouped and tried to continue. A young woman from Argentina, continued with the Musaf service. She is the daughter of a Conservative Rabbi who was killed in the bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires a few years ago.

Another bottle landed.

The police now saw a thrower and one officer jumped over the barricade grabbed and then arrested him. The crowd was now rowdy and angry at the police. More bottles in greater frequency descended. We were scared, as we did not know from where the next missile would arrive. Birds in the area suddenly became a distraction as every time they flew by, our peripheral vision picked them up as incoming. We then would have a group reflex ducking.

The Kotel services had ended and so the crowd around us was now thicker, older and angrier. Every incoming that crashed nearby was responded to with a loud cheer by many. The sounds of Haredim, of Rebbes, of anyone, hissing the attackers was nowhere to be heard. The bochers on Aish Hatora’s roof were shooed inside by their Rabbis, but no one protested or chastised the attackers.

I now had a new fantasy. I was a civil rights marcher in Selma or Montgomery being jeered and attacked. I felt vulnerable, afraid, but mostly I was angry and disgusted. I wanted to leap over the barrier and punch someone in the nose. I was queasy in my stomach with the idea that Jews could do this to other Jews.

We expedited the end of the service because police who had been supportive, were now concerned. Before we finished but with my guard down because I thought it was over, a bottle went flying by me. I was sprayed in the face and the back of my neck. My talit was stained. My adrenaline was pumping.

We walked out of the area backwards, anticipating and even catching the many final salvos as the last of the Haredim took their best and final shot. A woman I knew asked me to walk her out of the old city. We took the long and circular road out. I watched every rooftop looking for the yeshiva bocher version of a sniper. Thank God there were none and we exited safely, albeit totally unnerved.

Who were these people and how could they do such a thing?

Later that night I would have to go back to the Kotel. We were having dinner at a friend’s home and were to meet near the Carlebach minyan. I found them , but there were no siddurim so I had to walk across the area to get one.

It was wall-to-wall Haredim. Streimels everywhere, but a concentration of people so intense that if you were even a little claustrophobic you would have had a full fledged attack. As I walked through, I felt anger rising in me, mixed with a strong dose of disgust.

Were these the people who laughed at us? Were these the” missile” launchers? Were these people now davening and shuckling and calling out to their maker the same ones who attacked me and my people?

If they represented Torah true Judaism then you could keep Torah and Judaism. But they aren’t Torah-true. They’re ignorant, fanatic, violent, “Desecrators of the Holy Name”. They are Chilul Hashem practitioners, masquerading behind a costume of piety. In the presence of the wall that is all that stands of a temple destroyed because the Rabbis teach, of hate between brothers, these people would bring down the next temple before it can be built. They would bring down the 3rd Jewish commonwealth just like their zealot ancestors did 2000 years ago.

I could not stay down on the same floor level and daven with them. Anger and hate were polluting me. I walked up to where my wife was standing, above the “holy melee” and standing next to my wife found enough peace to welcome in the Sabbath.

Shame on you! You can’t answer a letter like this by now? I understand when you get a really good slimy character, but this one is so transparent.There were over 100,000 people there, according to some reports 100’s of thousands. How many people were throwing bottles? Don’t you think if this crowd wanted to get them they could’ve?

In all the years I’ve heard people describe the beauty and inspiration of thousands upon thousands of Jews streaming to the Kotel on Shavuos night, this is the first time I’ve heard anyone have the unmitigated chutzpah to describe it as “the night of the living dead”. But it makes perfect sense, because to him these people are dead. The millions of Jews in America assimilating and vanishing from the pages of Jewish history are “alive”. The assimilationists, represented by the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof ” that moved him so much, is the beauty of the Jewish people. Jews breaking down fences (What do the Rabbis that he loves to quote say about that?) and breaking out of the old meaningless Judaism is the reason his group numbered 250 as opposed to hundreds of thousands. Who are the walking dead?

But his view was clear before he ever arrived at the wall. All the Jews singing in celebration is discarded as a possibility. It must be a provocation! What do the Rabbi’s say about judging people favorably (or am I being naive to suggest this gentleman cares what the Rabbi’s say?). He arrives at the Western Wall and instead of mourning the minaret that rests upon our holiest spot, he takes in the beauty of it. Has he ever been disturbed on behalf of the Jews who have their sleep interrupted by the wailing from that minaret every morning, or do only Arabs have feelings and rights?

But the best is yet to come. I imagine if a group of Orthodox Jews went up on the Temple Mount to pray and evoked an angry reaction from the Arab worshippers, he would be terribly upset by the provocation and lack of sensitivity and he would be right. But the fact that he and his group of 250 participants were a provocation to hundreds of thousands of Jews had no impact on him. Perhaps they would look to longing and break down the barriers of Jewish law as hundreds of thousands had before, leaving the Kotel with only 250 people next year. The Conservative dream – total assimilation. Just like in Fiddler on the Roof!

But his lack of total sensitivity is not the problem. It’s his constant need to dehumanize fellow Jews. Haven’t we had enough exposure to this kind of tactic in the past fifty years that we shouldn’t be calling people black ants, wall of black, etc.? If it was the Israel day parade would he be complaining about the density of the people? Of course not, because he likes them. He doesn’t like Charedim, hence his inability to be near any of them because a few nuts threw bottles at them. If a person was mugged by a gang of Afro-Americans would he then tar the entire community? Doesn’t he appreciate his hypocrisy in invoking, of all things, the Rabbis’ complaint against senseless hatred in order to senselessly hate?

I wish this kind of thing still got me upset, but unfortunately it just fills me with pity. It’s pathetic Rabbinical figures like this fantasizing that they are marching for civil rights that allow them to sow the seeds of hatred in the Jewish people. I guess it gives them a little respite from the realization that the odds are not very good that their grandchildren will be Jewish.

A few years ago I spoke to the leaders of Hillel on behalf of Aish HaTorah Fellowship programs. A young woman from Harvard from a Reform background was describing her experience. The highlight was her trip to the Kotel on Shavuos. At this the group leaned forward in anticipation. Ah ha! At last! The attack on the egalitarian minyan! She described the power of being with hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Kotel and feeling as one with the Jewish people. I guess she didn’t have the advantage of her Rabbi explaining to her that they weren’t Jews at all, rather ants and zombies. The disappointment in the room was palpable. “But what about the fight at the egalitarian minyan?” they asked. “What fight?” she responded clearly taken aback. “All I saw were Jews praying.”

Too bad this Rabbi missed the experience of Shavuos at the Kotel.

Dovid Orlofsky