Sisterhood Blog

'Dragging' Israel To End Women's Segregation

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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A woman holds her baby as members of the religious group ‘Women of the Wall’ pray at the Western Wall on April 11, 2013.

As Women of the Wall members and supporters prepare to welcome the Hebrew month of Sivan on Friday morning, with Rosh Chodesh services in Jerusalem, its U.S. allies are getting ready to again demonstrate their support by doing the same. Solidarity services are scheduled for New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, opposing group Women for the Wall is gathering approbations from strictly Orthodox rabbis and hoping to rally women to also turn out in numbers for Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel.

On Friday, just a few days before the holiday of Shavuout, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, Women of the Wall will not read from a sefer Torah, as they had planned. It is a concession made to Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, during a meeting on Tuesday at which he agreed not to appeal an April 24th district court ruling that women praying in tallit and tefillin “does not disturb the public order.”

The views of Weinstein and others appeared to shift rapidly this week.

On Monday came reports that Weinstein had met with the rabbi of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Shmuel Rabinovitch, and that he was asking Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of religious services and a member of the modern Orthodox “Jewish Home” political party, to amend the “local custom” language of the current law. That law has been the basis for the frequent arrests, in recent months, of WoW members during Rosh Chodesh services.

There were also indications Monday that police planned to arrest WoW members on Friday, according to the group. Hoffman, reached at home Monday night, decried as “cowardly” Weinstein’s request that Bennett change the law’s language to make it clear that WoW’s practices are illegal.

On Tuesday Bennett met with Hoffman. While according to this article, Bennett told Hoffman that he has the power to outlaw their practices and will formulate amendments to the current law in the coming month. Hoffman said that he seemed receptive to WoW’s perspective. Hoffman agreed that, “as a gesture of goodwill,” WoW members will not attempt to read from a Torah scroll this month, though Rosh Chodesh is just days before Shavuout, which celebrates the giving of the Torah.

While what happens around the question of women’s communal prayer at the Kotel is important mostly for its symbolism, another change this week was seen as having far more direct impact on the daily lives of Israeli women. Weinstein also announced that he is making the exclusion and segregation of women a criminal offense.

News accounts reported that Weinstein ordered an immediate cessation of the growing practice of separating men from women at graveside funeral services and the prohibition against women offering eulogies. Weinstein ordered that no public transport service providers continue to allow the exclusion or segregation of women on buses and trains, and that the same be applied to gender segregation in government-sponsored health centers. What’s more, Weinstein ordered “all local authorities to disallow and remove any street signs urging women to dress modestly or keep to only a certain side of the road, a practice common in religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh.”

On Monday night Hoffman spoke directly about the ability of women to pray according to their own religious custom at the Kotel when she said, “Why is Israel having to be dragged to this moment kicking and screaming? Why isn’t Israel leading the Jewish world into this kind of change? It’s beyond me.”


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