This morning we toured the Old City in Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall (or the Wailing Wall), the historic place where Jews pray for the loss of their old Temple. It was Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) and the Western Wall was alive with singing, praying, and festivity.
Amidst this spirituality and celebration, we witnessed something else. Social change was patiently and painstakingly emerging.
We had specifically arrived in time to watch members of the organization Women of the Wall. Since 1988, Women of the Wall have been fighting for the right to pray and sing aloud at the Western Wall, which is a public national heritage site and does not belong to any specific denomination of Judaism. Despite this, the last 25 years have been full of litigation, violence, and arrests because Women of the Wall have consistently sung and prayed aloud at the Western Wall on Rosh Chodesh, at the staunch opposition of influential Ultra-Orthodox Jews.
*Orthodox women praying by the Western Wall. Photos by Sara Gallagher.
Despite a landmark court ruling in April 2013 that allowed Women of the Wall to sing and pray aloud at the Wall, there is still opposition to the movement from Ultra-Orthodox men and women. A woman I spoke to from Women for the Wall (an Ultra-Orthodox group “preserving tradition and unity”) was especially concerned with the “disruption to the public peace” that Women of the Wall were “causing” by singing and praying aloud. She said that while she prayed at the Wall every day in peace, Women of the Wall arrived once a month, and brought with them police, protests, and violence. This perspective that Women of the Wall were the problem, and not the men throwing chairs and spitting, is unfortunately a common theme with some social justice issues.
In the past, oppositions included the throwing of chairs by men at the Wall, violent police intervention, and arresting of the women praying. Today, the disruption took the form of dirty looks and vocal criticism. In Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the woman’s voice is considered impure, and they are not supposed to sing or pray aloud. I found it very interesting that though on the men’s side there was shouting, singing, and praying aloud, the Ultra-Orthodox women did not notice those sounds—almost as if it was white noise to them. But the Ultra-Orthodox women clearly heard and were disturbed by the voices of Women of the Wall. This is where most of the dirty looks and shushing came from. Fellow women.
*Women of the Wall (center) singing and praying aloud at the Western Wall. Photo by Suravi Bhandary.
Our visit to the Western Wall and our discussion with Women of the Wall re-enforced an important challenge of the nonprofit sector and creating social change: relationships are often difficult and time-consuming to manage; but they are essential to success.
We were told by the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, Lesley Sachs, that this is not a fight about religion. This is a battle about territory, power, and money—common obstacles to peace that are currently largely out of reach of women’s influence across the globe. I asked Sachs how she engaged with opposing peer organizations like Women for the Wall. The answer? She doesn’t. According to her, these slanderers are impossible to work with. This is a shame given that social change generally and nonprofit success specifically, depend so heavily on relationships, dialogue, and mutual respect and understanding. If this isn’t a fight about religion, and these women are not interested in the territory, power or money struggle, why not align? And if Women for the Wall’s vision is unity, building a relationship would be favorable to both organizations.
To reiterate a lesson from Dr. Sheehan’s strategic management class, culture eats change for breakfast. Women of the Wall has been immensely popular among and supported by North American Jews. But this support provides limited success until those from within Israel buy-in to the cause. If Israelis and other religious women who pray at the Wall don’t buy into Women of the Wall’s mission, Women of the Wall cannot be truly successful at home, where the change is really needed.