People like to frame Women of the Wall’s struggle in terms of Jewish religious pluralism. That approach is mistaken, and a confluence of events this week reminds us of that fact. WoW’s fight is for women’s rights, civil rights and equal rights.
It occurred to me how important it is to regard WoW’s struggle in this light as I watched its chairwoman Anat Hoffman in her latest videotaped plea to supporters. She stood yesterday in front of the Kotel announcing a WoW sit-in in response to Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement of the completed construction of a large platform for non-Orthodox prayer at the southernmost portion of the Western Wall (in the Robinson’s Arch compound). Calling the platform a “sunbathing deck,” WoW denounced the plan to move all non-Orthodox prayer away from the main Kotel plaza.
WoW is fighting for women to pray any way they choose (including in egalitarian fashion, wearing kippot, tallitot and tefillin, and praying and reading Torah out loud) at the main Kotel area — which is where Orthodox Jews pray without being subject to violent taunts, egg and chair throwing, and arrest.
Criminals. Troublemakers. Attention seekers. These are just a few of the names that Women of the Wall have been called. I’ve met these women. I’ve prayed with these women. And you know what? I call these women discrimination-fighting superheroes with the guts to stand up for the human right to pray.
As an OTZMA participant and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I am blessed to have the opportunity to intern with this social advocacy group and experience the magic. Women of the Wall seeks to achieve the rights of women to conduct prayer services, read Torah while wearing tallitot or tefillin, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Their quest is to change the current status quo that prevents women from doing so — and to educate Jewish women and the public as well as empower Jewish women to take control of their religious and prayer lives.
At Rosh Hodesh Iyar, the first of the month, I prayed in the women’s section of the Kotel. Surrounded by a couple hundred women pushing up against me with their prayer books, I didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. I enjoyed feeling close to them. I like feeling part of a team — one united army of women from all different branches of Judaism with the common goal of freedom in prayer.
Yet the Kotel was swamped with photographers, reporters and police officers watching us as if we were plotting evil. Orthodox men stood on chairs in the men’s section screaming at us to pipe down and to stop the racket. They stared us down as if we were parasites.
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.
Outcry from Jews in Israel and the Diaspora has led the rabbi in charge of policies at the Kotel to back down from his plan to have women arrested for saying Kaddish, says Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall.
At a meeting Thursday with Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch “assured Sharansky that, contrary to the letter [sent by Jerusalem police chief to Women of the Wall], no woman would be arrested for reciting Kaddish at the Western Wall.”
The Jewish Agency made that announcement by posting a note on its Facebook page, which was illustrated with a photo of young women praying at the Kotel.
After The Sisterhood broke the story Wednesday of the police chief’s letter indicating that women would be arrested and charged for saying Kaddish, as well as wearing a tallit, it was covered extensively by the Israeli media, Hoffman said.
Add Kaddish to the list of Jewish prayers and ritual objects women are not allowed to be engaged with at the Western Wall, according to the commander of the Jerusalem police.
In a March 14 letter to Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, Yossi Pariente wrote that he met with a deputy attorney general for the government of Israel to go over the rules pertaining to Women of the Wall, which include prohibitions on:
…Wrapping yourselves in tallitot [prayer shawls], holding a minyan [prayer quorum] of women including the Kaddish or Kedusha prayers, and reading from the Torah.
Pariente warns that, starting on the next Rosh Chodesh, which falls on April 11, Women of the Wall will be arrested and charged with breaking the law for doing any of these things.
Right now, the women behind Women of the Wall are concerned about more than the chance of being arrested for wearing a tallit at the kotel on Tuesday. As they prepare to come out in large numbers for Rosh Hodesh Nissan, both at the Kotel itself and at solidarity rallies in New York and other American cities, they are also worried about what appears to be a possible incitement to violence against them.
This past weekend, pashkevilim, or traditional black and white text-only wall notices, were found posted in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. They called on people to “Save the Western Wall from trampling and desecration at the hands of a group that calls itself of “Women of the Wall.” Male and female worshipers were encouraged to go to the Kotel at 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh (the time for which the Women of the Wall service has been called) to protest against Women of the Wall. “Whoever cares about the place from which the divine presence never shifts, should come and protest and cry out!”
Women of the Wall responded Sunday to these posters in a press release. “Though there were no rabbis signed or taking responsibility for this call, as is customary on pashkevillim, it would seem that someone anonymous has an interest in opposing Women of the Wall’s prayer, despite the relative quiet of the last few months,” the statement said. “Aside from police detainments (43 detainments of women in six months), the prayers at the Kotel have gone undisturbed lately, and the Purim celebrations proved that without violent opposition or police intervention, the Jews present are quite capable of tolerance and sharing the holy space.”
The teenager arrested on Rosh Chodesh Adar at the Western Wall for wearing a prayer shawl on Tuesday convinced Jerusalem police to withdraw their 15-day ban on her returning to the Kotel. She plans to go to the Kotel on Monday to chant from the Megillah with other members of Women of the Wall in celebration of Purim.
Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman, 17, who is comedian Sarah Silverman’s niece, went to the Kishle police station on Tuesday with her parents and a lawyer for Women of the Wall, bearing a letter requesting that she be able to retract her signature on the ban. Originally, she signed it as a condition of her release on Feb. 11, when she was arrested along with nine other women at the Kotel.
“I was nervous, and I didn’t realize [signing] it would mean missing Megillah reading,” she said in an interview with The Sisterhood. Being held at the police station that day “was a very hard couple of hours.”
The only reason she agreed to sign the statement to begin with was that her mother was leaving Israel on a trip later that day and they were afraid that she’d miss her flight if they did not.
A prayer rally is being planned for Rosh Chodesh Nissan on March 12 to provide a way for Jews in New York to stand in solidarity with Women of the Wall, who will be praying at the Kotel that same morning.
The rally, billed as “Wake up for Religious Tolerance: Rosh Hodesh Nissan Solidarity Minyan in Support for Women of the Wall,” comes on the heels of 10 women being arrested at the Kotel Feb. 11 for praying while wearing prayer shawls. They were released a few hours later.
“The goal is first of all to have a really uplifting extraordinary Rosh Chodesh prayer service, and at the same time draw attention to those who can’t have that same experience because of the interference and harassment and arrests happening in Israel,” said Conservative Rabbi Iris Richman, one of the event’s organizers.
Shacharit [morning] prayers will be led by Cantor Shayna Postman, who works at Town & Village Synagogue in Manhattan. “She’s a woman davenning, but we are expecting to involve all four denominations in the service,” Richman said. Rabbi Robin Fryer Bodzin, who is known as one of the “Kotel 10” since being arrested on Feb. 11, will lead Hallel.
Ten women were arrested by police at the Kotel Monday morning after celebrating the start of the Jewish calendar’s most joyous month, Adar, while wearing their prayer shawls. This time, they had a large crowd of supporters and were joined by several of the men who, as young soldiers and paratroopers, liberated the Kotel in 1967, at the conclusion of the Six Day War.
The arrested women included WoW chair Anat Hoffman and American Rabbi Debra Cantor, who was one of the first women ordained by the Conservative movement, and American-born Rabbi Susan Silverman, who was detained with her teenage daughter Hallel. Silverman is a sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, who offered the best post-arrest commentary with a tweet praising their “ballsout civil disobedience.”
As always, coverage of WoW reflects the perspectives of those doing the covering, and some of it is bitterly angry. Arutz Sheva, which has a right-wing Orthodox perspective, included a headline making it sound like WoW’s prayer service was a terrorist attack, Allison Kaplan Sommer noted on Facebook.
As if things weren’t difficult enough for women who want to pray or be in any way connected with their loved ones’ bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, Israel’s outgoing Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, has proposed a mechitzah with one-way glass.
The current mechitzah at the Kotel is, I would guess, between eight and nine feet tall. A new mechitzah would presumably reach far higher. The current height makes it possible, if you are there to celebrate a bar mitzvah, to stand on one of the chairs on the women’s side and look over the top (it helps to be tall) and in this imperfect way be connected, however slightly, to the simcha. Which is exactly the problem, Rabbi Metzger says.
According to a report in the Yeshiva World News, “this he explains does compromise tznius at the Kosel. This is especially true when there is a simcha, such as a bar mitzvah when women wish to see the chosson bar mitzvah.”
I would really like to hear some prominent Orthodox rabbi somewhere, just once, say that men should work to keep their focus on their own tefillot rather than in some way blame women for being immodest — in this case, for wanting to be connected to a loved one’s bar mitzvah.
Two leading thinkers went head to head on the next best step for Women of the Wall regarding the quest to make Judaism’s holiest site a place where women can pray any way they want — even if that means wearing a tallit or tefillin.
Yossi Klein Halevi and Rabbi Rachel Beit-Halachmi, both American-born scholars at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, debated whether Women of the Wall should accept being required to pray at Robinson’s Arch or continue to push for equal access at the Kotel proper.
Women of the Wall has been meeting at the Kotel to mark the start of each Jewish month since 1988 (including some Orthodox members). Leaders and participants in the group have in recent months been detained by police for disturbing the peace by wearing prayer shawls or leading the Sh’ma Israel prayer in full voice. On Dec. 14, women had tallitot confiscated by security guards. Those who got close to the Kotel with their prayer shawls on were forced away from the prayer site by police. They included when she began to lead about 200 Hadassah women in prayer there. In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that WoW should pray at Robinson’s Arch, an archeological dig site adjacent to the space known worldwide as the Western Wall. Since 2009, in response to apparent instructions from the rabbi who oversees the Kotel, police have regularly arrested women praying at the Kotel for wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah scroll.
In what those involved are calling an escalation of the war against women who pray at Judaism’s holiest site, four women were forced away from the Kotel and detained by police Friday morning when new rules were put in place just before they arrived with Women of the Wall. The rules prohibited women from entering with religious ritual objects.
Eighty-eight women and 50 men went to the Kotel with Women of the Wall for Rosh Chodesh prayer, said the organization’s chair, Anat Hoffman, in an interview with the Sisterhood. At the security checkpoint, police told women that their tallitot and other ritual objects would be confiscated. Most complied.
But Rabbi Elyse Frishman and a few others wearing tallitot around their necks under winter coats just zipped them up and passed through the checkpoint.
Nearly every month, it seems, there is troubling news relating to the status of women in Israel. Late last year it was women forced to sit at the back of public busses, and then Haredim attacking schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh for being insufficiently modest. In October the leader of Women of the Wall was arrested and allegedly mistreated by police for leading others in prayer at the Kotel. And recently, according to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Knesset candidate Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan declared that the agunah issue is caused by women’s groups trying to besmirch the rabbinical courts, rather than by husbands who refuse to divorce their estranged wives.
JOFA brought together some of the women involved in confronting these issues, both in the U.S. and Israel, for a roundtable discussion on November 28 in midtown Manhattan.
Israeli feminist leaders Hannah Kehat, founder and executive director of Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum and Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of The Center for Women’s Justice participated, along with Americans Nancy Kaufman, director of the National Council of Jewish Women; JOFA founder Blu Greenberg and Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner.
Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Western Wall on Tuesday night for saying the Sh’ma Israel, Judaism’s central proclamation of faith, out loud at Israel’s holiest site.
“I was saying Sh’ma Israel and arrested for it. It’s just unbelievable,” she said in an interview from her bathtub, where she was soaking limbs bruised from being dragged by handcuffs across the police station floor and legs shackled as if she were a violent criminal. “It was awful.”
Hoffman has been detained by police at the Western Wall six times in the more than two decades that she has led Women of the Wall, a group which conducts prayer services in the women’s section at the start of each Jewish month. But on Tuesday night, when she was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and praying out loud, she was treated far more violently by police than ever before.
“In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.
“I’m a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh’ma Israel.”
If the current Israeli government were in power back in biblical times, there is a good chance that there would actually be no State of Israel today in need of governing. This is the message of a simulated correspondence between the Israel Religious Action Center and Israel’s Ministry of Interior, written by Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director and chairwoman of Women of the Wall.
In the fictional exchange, posted on IRAC’s website — an exchange more fitting in style to Purim than this week’s holiday of Shavuot — Hoffman petitions Interior Minister Eli Yishai on behalf of Ruth the Moabite, who seeks legal status in Israel. Hoffman asserts that Ruth (whose megillah Rut is read by Jews on Shavuot) is the widow of a Jewish man; entered Israel legally with her mother-in-law, Naomi; chose to align herself with the Jewish people, and has a sponsor in the upstanding citizen Boaz, who intends to marry her.
Predictably — at least for anyone who follows the politics of Israel and Jewish pluralism — the Interior Ministry denies Ruth’s request for legal residency status and orders her deportation back to Moab. She will not be allowed to reapply for re-entry into Israel until she has embarked upon and competed a wild goose chase in search of impossible-to-procure documents to prove her Jewishness.
Jerusalem police are recommending prosecution for Anat Hoffman, the Women of the Wall leader who was arrested in July while carrying a Torah in the Western Wall plaza. Read The Sisterhood’s interview with Hoffman — her first following the arrest — here and view our slideshow of women around the world holding or reading from the Torah here.
A Syrian soap has taken a turn for the political with a storyline about a Muslim woman’s decision to take off her veil — a decision that causes her mother to disown her and her brother to plot her murder.
Jenna Zark, over at TCJewfolk, has some fun playing with the initials J.A.P.
In attempt to counter those who accuse them of being extremists, Women of the Wall — composed of women who gather once a month for a prayer service at the Western Wall — recently asked women around the world to send in photographs of themselves reading from or holding a Torah. The campaign’s goal: Get 10,000 women to send these images (via the organization’s website), along with a letter of solidarity, to political and religious leaders in Israel.
The letter implores: “We ask you to open your eyes and see what is ordinary every place else in the world: women embracing Torah, reading from the Torah, rejoicing with the Torah and learning from the Torah. We ask that you see and be blind no more to the injustice of religious oppression.”
The campaign follows the June arrest of Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman for the crime of “praying with a Sefer Torah,” according to a spokesman for Israeli police. Hoffman insisted that she was not praying with the Torah, but rather holding it as she walked from the Kotel plaza to the section of the wall where the group is allowed to hold its service.
Already, women from around the world, daughters, mothers and grandmothers, alone and in groups, have sent in pictures of themselves with a Torah, to show their support for Women of the Wall.
Watch a slideshow featuring some of the images that have come in:
The monthly gathering of the prayer group Women of the Wall Wednesday morning — the first since last month’s arrest of the group’s leader for the crime of “praying with a Sefer Torah” — was a study in contrasts.
The sound of women’s voices singing psalms of praise — the Rosh Chodesh Hallel prayers — competed with the sound of screaming men and women scattered around, cursing and hurling intended insults: “You’re all Christians!” “Lesbians!” “Blasphemy!” “Impurity!” “Go away!” The protesters encircled the prayer group.
More than 100 women were at the prayer service, along with some 20-30 men behind partitions. Many of those who gathered were regulars of the group. But others had come out show support for Women of the Wall on the heels of the July arrest of group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, while she was singing and carrying a Torah. A 2003 Supreme Court decision prohibits women from reading Torah and from wearing a tallit over their clothes in the Kotel plaza, which many ultra-Orthodox Jews say violates Jewish custom. Hoffman was not reading Torah when she was arrested, but police, at the time said, “Anat Hoffman was arrested by police because she violated the agreement of the high court by praying with a Sefer Torah.”
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.