By Angelica Vohland
I had the opportunity to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem on my first trip to Israel through the Reform Movement’s Sci-Tech Israel program. Jerusalem was one of the most anticipated stops on our tour of numerous factories and tech-startups located throughout the nation. My soul was swelling with excitement; I knew I was footsteps away from a place I had merely visited in childhood daydreams. As I walked through the women’s courtyard for the very first time, I noticed that a stark barrier stood distinctly to my left, separating me from the male friends I had met on my science- and technology-focused journey.
I had brought my tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, to wear at the Wall. It was an extremely special gift that had been given to me when I became a bat mitzvah. But when I got to the Wall, Orthodox women instantly began scowling and shouting at me in Hebrew. I was confused as to why I was being completely rejected from the most central place of meaning in my religion, and I didn’t know how to react.
I peered through the woven barrier to my left in a desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of my friends. I was surprised to see them dancing and singing with Orthodox men: a vividly stark contrast to the somber scene depicted on the women’s side. Their tallitot waved like flags in the wind, and my heart filled with envy for the acceptance and love they were receiving. I had expected to have the same intense, connective experience with my faith and my people, but I was instead greeted with nothing but hostility and anger.
Little did I know that the Western Wall would come to symbolize my first exposure to raw religion-based gender discrimination. After doing some research, I learned that my choice to wear my tallit as a woman at the Wall was considered highly offensive in the Jewish-Orthodox tradition. Women are also prohibited from singing, dancing, and reading from the Torah at the Wall since the site is controlled by the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community.
I have been a member of the only Conservative Jewish synagogue in the United States that has two female senior rabbis since I was three months old. As a young female, I never experienced gender discrimination within my own Jewish community due to its bold stance on female involvement. I also neglected to recognize the possibility of being exposed to religion-based gender discrimination in a foreign setting prior to my highly politicized experience at the Western Wall. So, I decided to embark on a battle against the discrimination I faced by raising awareness about the issue within my own community.
With my camera in one hand and my passion in another, I created Women Facing West, which is a photo exposition that focuses on revealing the struggle that reform and conservative women face in attempting to pray, wear tallitot, and read from the Torah at the Western Wall. My goal is to change the Orthodox status-quo that is currently preventing women from being able to pray freely at the Western Wall. This goal has tremendous ramifications for women’s rights in Judaism and in Israel, and must be achieved through social advocacy in order to raise awareness and change social perception of these issues. It is important that women around the world become educated regarding the violation of their civil rights, human rights and religious freedom. The project itself involves traveling to numerous Jewish synagogues to photograph female members wearing tallitot and praying freely. So far, I have been able to partner with three local synagogues to help expand Women Facing West and further develop awareness regarding the issue.
One of the core values that was seamlessly incorporated into the Sci-Tech Israel program that helped to inspire the creation of Women Facing West was kesher, or connection. Further deepening my connection to Judaism by visiting Israel, as well as maintaining my connection to my Jewish community in California, I have been able to shed light on this extremely controversial subject within my own community, and will hopefully bring about change to the archaic Orthodox traditions that prevent women from praying freely at the Western Wall. The Reform Movement’s Sci-Tech Israel gave me the opportunity to not only connect to other Jewish students through scientific and cultural exploration, but it also allowed me to strengthen the personal values that I have developed throughout my life, and inspired me to raise awareness about an important issue within my own community. I sincerely hope that I can continue this project in a university setting next year, and raise awareness on a larger, more global platform in the future.
For more information about Women Facing West, please visit our website, womenfacingwest.org.
Angelica Vohland is a senior at Redwood High School in Lakespur, CA. She started Women Facing West after spending last summer in Israel on the inaugural Sci-Tech Israel trip. To learn more about Sci-Tech Israel visit 6PointsSciTech.org/Israel.
Sci-Tech Israel is generously funded by the UJA Federation of New York, Jim Joseph Foundation, and The Jewish Education Project.