Unconventional Weapon: A Women’s Choir Joins Battle for Pluralism at the Kotel

Facing off against protests, loudspeakers, whistles and jeers, the Women of the Wall's choir is using their voices in the fight against religious coercion in Jerusalem

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The Women of the Wall feminist prayer group holds Rosh Chodesh services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 2021.
The Women of the Wall feminist prayer group holds Rosh Chodesh services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 2021.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Once a month, a group of women convenes at Jerusalem’s Western Wall to raise their voices together in prayer. And once a month, almost without fail, they find themselves surrounded by less-than-tolerant fellow Jews trying to shut them up.

“Before we even elicit a sound, the ritual begins,” says Yochi Rappeport, the executive director of the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall. “On one side are the young Orthodox seminary girls who shout and curse at us non-stop. In front are the older women blowing their whistles so loud it hurts our ears, and to our left are the loudspeakers blaring prayers from the men’s section. To hear our own voices over this cacophony, we have to sing so loudly we inevitably end up leaving the place hoarse.”

The rabbi in charge of the Western Wall only allows loudspeakers to be used at the site on rare occasions, but this is one of them.

For more than 30 years, Women of the Wall have been holding a morning service at the Jewish holy site on the first day of the new Jewish month. To push back against the deafening noise that greets them there, the multi-denominational prayer group is making use of an unconventional weapon: an entire choir of its own.

“Our goal has always been to make women’s voices heard in prayer,” says Rappaport. “This amazing singing group is our response to all those who have been trying for to drown us out.”

The Women of the Wall choir rehearses in Jerusalem, on Monday.Credit: Emil Salman

The all-women choir was established just a few months ago, and still has no official name. It has already joined Women of the Wall for two Rosh Chodesh prayer services, and this coming Monday will be its third.

The project could not have taken off without the financial support of another Jewish women’s organization, this one thousands of miles away: the Women Cantors’ Network in the United States.

Deborah Katchko-Gray, a fourth-generation cantor and the founder of the 40-year-old network, credits a fateful cup of coffee with inspiring this initiative.

“A couple of years ago, I saw a photograph of Anat Hoffman wearing a prayer shawl that had been stained when a cup of coffee was thrown at her,” says Katchko-Gray, referring to the longstanding chairwoman of Women of the Wall. “I found it unbelievably disturbing that a woman praying would be assaulted with hot coffee. I reached out to her and offered to send her a coffee-colored prayer shawl I had woven by hand, so that if it ever happened again, the stain wouldn’t show.”

Director Ottolenghi leading the choir rehearsal, in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

The two women soon struck up a friendship, and Katchko-Gray invited Hoffman to speak at the weekly Zoom gathering of her cantors’ network. “Anat spoke about the audio terrorism her group was up against, and I was able to convince our network – though it really didn’t require that much effort – to donate $10,000 to set up this choir. We had never done anything like this before, and now that it’s all come together, it’s like a dream come true.”

Although it wasn’t planned that way, the choir launch coincides with the rise to power of the most Orthodox and reactionary government in Israeli history. Indeed, never has there been a government in Israel this hostile to progressive streams of Judaism and to the values of pluralism and feminism represented by Women of the Wall.

Indeed, if it has its way, the Women of the Wall group could soon find itself banned from prayer in the women’s plaza, where it has been meeting for more than 30 years.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators clash with police at the Western Wall during a Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service, last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Orthodox establishment in Israel has long maintained that the practices these women embrace – wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, and especially singing out loud – violate local customs at the Jewish holy site. But 10 years ago, an Israeli court ruled that this was not the case, providing Women of the Wall with an important legal victory.

As part of the coalition agreements, Likud was forced to make major concessions to the religious parties, which hold an unprecedent number of seats in the new government. Among these concessions, the ruling party agreed that local custom at the Western Wall would be determined by the rigidly Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s office, and if need be, a new law would be passed to override the 2013 court ruling. The choir launch, and the resistance that it has already garnered, may intensify Israel’s already heightened intra-Jewish conflicts.

Standing taller

Ester Ottolenghi, the 34-year-old choir director, begins the weekly Monday evening rehearsal with some stretching and breathing exercises. Generating a round of applause is her announcement that within the next few days, a shipment of scarves, decorated in Women of the Wall’s colors and musical notes, will be arriving in Israel. These gifts from the cantors’ network in America are meant to help visitors identify the choir members during their monthly Western Wall performances.

“We may even have them in time for our upcoming Rosh Chodesh services,” says the beaming director.

Women sing during a Women of the Wall choir rehearsal in Jerusalem, on Monday.Credit: Emil Salman

Ottolenghi moved to Israel from Italy 15 years ago, after graduating from high school. A trained pianist, she directs five separate choirs in Jerusalem, four of which are affiliated with synagogues.

“I come from an Orthodox home, and my dad was a cantor, so the connection between music and Judaism has always burnt strongly in me,” she says. “When I was offered this job, I didn’t even have to think twice about accepting. Not only did it bring together Judaism and music, but it also was a cause I believed in.”

Ottolenghi has recruited 18 women, most of them in their twenties and early thirties, for her choir. Some are professional singers and musicians, but certainly not all. The group includes a translator, a social worker, a graphic artist, a waitress and an unemployed animal trainer, who makes the 90-minute drive from Hadera each way to attend these weekly rehearsal sessions.

Ottolenghi at the choir's rehearsal.Credit: Emil Salman

Yael Dushy, a 25-year-old music student, has been a supporter of Women of the Wall for quite a few years. As a participant in a gap year program run by the Reform movement in Israel, she says, she frequently joined the prayer group for its monthly service. “During that year, I developed a real love for pluralistic Judaism, so when this opportunity arose, I jumped on it,” she says.

Avigayil Zadik, a high-tech executive who also works as a mixed-media artist, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox home in Bnei Brak. Among the reasons for her rebellion against her upbringing, says the 33-year-old, was that she was not allowed to indulge her passion for singing. “That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my love for prayer, and so for me, participating in this project is like fulfilling a calling.”

Have the added professional voices of the choir succeeded in overpowering the loudspeakers, whistles and other noisemakers? “Very much so,” says Rappeport. “In the past two months, we’ve actually been able to hear ourselves.”

“But even more important,” she adds. “It’s been a real morale booster. I see that especially among the young girls who regularly join us at the Kotel. It used to be that they would shrink into themselves whenever the noise started. Now I see them standing a lot taller.”

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