Every week, dozens of bar mitzvah boys from Israel and the Diaspora celebrate their rite of passage at the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, which, after the Temple Mount, is Judaism’s holiest site.
Many Diaspora families, especially from the more liberal streams of Judaism, are therefore surprised to learn that Israel forbids women and girls from doing the equivalent — celebrating a bat mitzvah at the Kotel.
According to Israeli law, “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.” Women are forbidden to read from the Torah, to wear prayer shawls or to blow the shofar there.
Several members and supporters of Women of the Wall (WOW), a multidenominational group of religious-activist women who come to pray at the Wall every Rosh Chodesh, the start of the Jewish month, have been detained and sometimes arrested for wearing prayer shawls in the women’s section.
For those girls who wish to celebrate their bat mitzvah near the Wall, without these restraints and scrutiny, there is an attractive alternative: Robinson’s Arch, a part of the Southern Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple.
Named after Edward Robinson, the scholar who identified the remains of the site in 1838, the arch historically served as an overpass at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount.
Part of the Jerusalem Archeological Park & Davidson Center, it is a tranquil, picturesque site just outside the Western Wall Plaza. It is the place designated by the Israeli government for religious ceremonies that do not meet the strict ultra-Orthodox standards established and enforced by the Ministry of Religious Services.
It is commonplace to see egalitarian or women-only groups praying here, in prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll.
It is also an option for some Modern Orthodox families of boys becoming b’nai mitzvah who feel uncomfortable with the total gender segregation at the Kotel: the mechitza (divider) between the men’s and women’s sections has been built higher and higher in recent years, due to Ministry of Religious Affairs directives, making it difficult for some women to feel part of the simcha taking place in the men’s section.
Non-Orthodox Jews have held egalitarian prayers at Robinson’s Arch since 2000, and Women of the Wall has often read from the Torah here (though not in recent months), following prayers at the Kotel.
Photo by Michele Chabin
Both WOW and the non-Orthodox movements would prefer to be allowed to pray according to their own traditions at the Kotel, and not have to turn to Robinson’s Arch, and, in response, the government has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to study the issue. He recently proposed a plan to expand the Western Wall Plaza to includ a space for egalitarian prayer. It would include Robinson’s Arch, but be separated by several walls and a bridge, according to media reports.
Some have proposed allocating non-Orthodox groups one hour per week, or per month, at the Kotel to pray the way they feel comfortable. The Ministry of Religious Services has so far rejected this idea, believing it violates Jewish law and would hurt the sensibilities of ultra-Orthodox worshippers. “We hope and pray to welcome women and girls for b’not mitzvah at the Kotel some day,” said Shira Pruce, WOW’s director of public relations.
“Right now, it would be impossible for a woman to be bat mitzvah at the Kotel. She and her family would be interrupted, harassed by police and detained. She wouldn’t be able to complete the service, certainly not with a Torah, as of right now.”
Although WOW at one time welcomed bat mitzvah girls and women to Robinson’s Arch, that isn’t an option through them at the moment, Pruce said. WOW’s board of directors recently voted to hold future Torah readings from a Chumash at the Kotel, as an act of civil disobedience, Ha’aretz reported.
Those wishing to hold a simcha at the Arch should contact the Masorti/Conservative movement in Jerusalem, which manages the site for this purpose, 12 to 18 months prior to the simcha.
More often than not, it is the prospective bar/bat mitzvah’s rabbi who contacts the movement, which will issue an entry permit (ishur) and schedule a time, almost always in the early morning. Entrance is through the Davidson Center, which charges for admission — even to bar/bat mitzvah families — after 9:15 a.m.
The Masorti movement maintains a list of rabbis (also Reform) with experience working at Robinson’s Arch. Their fees range from $300 to $1,500, depending on what services they render and whether they serve as tour guides the rest of the day.
Ivette Schirelman, the movement’s director of resource development, said certain restrictions apply at the Arch, due to its status as an archeological site.
These include a prohibition against bringing musical instruments or candy (to throw at the bat/bar mitzvah) into the park. Also, there is no seating, but if given advance notice, a few chairs can be arranged. If wheelchair lifts are needed, the movement needs time to ensure they are unlocked and functional.
Once the simcha is complete, many families head to the Kotel to take photos. It’s also possible to take guided tours of the Davidson Center and southern wall excavations and/or visit the wonderful City of David archeological park, both for a fee.
Another option is to explore the Western Wall Tunnels at the Kotel (book way ahead) and the winding alleyways of the Old City’s four quarters before stopping for brunch in the Jewish Quarter or one of the restaurants in the Mamilla shopping district outside Jaffa Gate (reservations are strongly advised, especially in upscale Mamilla).
“Linda from Florida,” a mother whose son, Xander, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch, wrote in a blog how much she appreciated the ability to personalize the ceremony.
“I wrote a blessing for my son and read it to him, my older kids participated in saying prayers, along with my brother, mom and aunt. For us it was very meaningful and positive. It was the highlight of our trip to Israel.”
Robinson’s Arch “was beautiful as it provided a peaceful and spiritual setting,” Xander’s mother wrote.
For more information, contact Rabbi Sandra Kochmann at email@example.com.