Sisterhood Blog

The Conversion Bill, the Kotel, and Women as Coalmine Canaries

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Forward alumna and current Tablet editor in chief Alana Newhouse has an incisive op-ed in today’s New York Times today, warning that Israel’s Rotem Bill, which would enshrine official approval of conversion to Judaism in the hands of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, will lead to a split between Israel and the Diaspora.

She’s right, of course, though I would argue that the growing alienation that many American Jews feel expands each time a member of Women of the Wall is arrested or detained by police for having the holy chutzpah to carry and love and feel close to a sefer Torah.

We women are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine; the way we are treated is a harbinger of how things are moving socially and politically in general. So the way Anat Hoffman and Nofrat Frenkel are treated at the Kotel, and women forced to ride at the back of busses bodes poorly for how Israel will fare as a culture and as the Jewish home.

As I’ve written in this space before, I already feel as if the Kotel does not “belong” to me, as a woman, as it should belong to every Jew. Women are physically marginalized at the Wall. Women are not allowed to pray as a community there. The culture of the place, like a Haredi synagogue, does not allow women to be heard in prayer or in song. I cannot fathom why any non-Orthodox Jewish mother would have her son celebrate his bar mitzvah at the Kotel, when she cannot be part of the simcha.

As a Jew I should feel at home in Jerusalem; why Haredi authorities are less concerned about that than they are about the affront of women wanting to pray together on the other side of the mechitzah at the Kotel is a sad measure of just how great the gulf already is.


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