Bat mitzvah girl Sasha Lutt reads from a tiny Torah scroll smuggled into the Kotel / Haaretz
I am sitting in front of my computer, talking via Skype with three women in Israel — Irina Lutt, her 12-year-old daughter Sasha, and Shira Pruce — who are kicking back after a day of school and work. Sasha made history at her bat mitzvah last week when she became the first female to read Torah at the Western Wall in 25 years. The fact that she’s a celebrity doesn’t seem to have registered with her. “You made the New York Times!” I tell her. She looks quizzically at her mother; she has never heard of the Times.
Shira, who is translating for us and trying to get Sasha to eat something, is director of public relations for Women of the Wall (WOW), the organization that has been fighting for a quarter century to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel. She and Irina know what a hard-won victory this bat mitzvah was for WOW and for the rights of women in Israel.
To begin with, they had to smuggle in a tiny Torah, because women have been aggressively and sometimes violently blocked from reading Torah at the Wall. Surrounded and sheltered by a circle of women, Sasha had to use a magnifying glass to read the text. She shrugs off my comment that this must have been tough. “I knew it really well,” she says.
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.
Recently, Amichai Lau-Lavie, founding director of Storahtelling and a second-year Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student, published a blog post about illegally smuggling tallitot (prayer shawls) into the Western Wall for use by Women of the Wall on February 11, Rosh Hodesh Adar.
“I broke the law by smuggling prayer shawls into the site of the former Jewish Temple, right under the nose of the Israeli police,” he wrote. “I don’t feel badly about breaking a law, which is not even an actual law to begin with — but I feel terrible about the situation in which a place for prayer has become a circus of terror and an abuse of all that’s sacred.”
Lau-Lavie spoke with The Sisterhood by phone from Jerusalem to explain exactly what he did, why he did it, and what he thinks might be the best way forward in making the Kotel a place where all Jews can pray as they see fit.
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.
Four women were taken into custody by the police on August 19 (Rosh Hodesh Elul) for wearing a tallit (ritual fringes) at the Western Wall, making Israel the only country in the world where wearing a tallit can be illegal, and the only country where there is a proposed law — submitted by ultra-Orthodox politicians — to make Jewish women’s religious practice punishable by a seven-year prison sentence. It’s not so much wearing the tallit that is illegal, but rather being a woman that puts one at odds with the police. Being a religious woman can be a dangerous thing in Israel.
I recently spoke with Deb Houben, a 35-year old graphic designer and wine taster living in Jerusalem, who was one of the four women taken into custody. A graduate of the modern Orthodox Maimonides Day School in Boston, she made Aliyah in 2007 and has been participating in the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers of Women of the Wall for around five months. This is the second time she has been picked up by the police during prayers. This time, she was charged with wearing a tallit and disturbing the peace, and sentenced to 50 days away from the Western Wall or a 1000 NIS (~ $250) fine.
SZTOKMAN: How did you get involved with Women of the Wall?
HOUBEN: My friend Molly works for Women of the Wall, and she invited me to come and I really love it. I really enjoy the experience of davening (praying) with this group, and lending my voice. My brother recently gave me a new tallit, although at the kotel we call it a “shawl.” It’s a traditional tallit, with black stripes, because that’s how I like it. It’s what my brothers wear, and it’s what my father wears. In fact, the tallit I used to wear was my grandfather’s.
Naomi Zeveloff has a story in this week’s Forward about a full-size replica of the Western Wall in the works in Wichita, Kansas targeted towards women who have had abortions.
An anti-abortion group, the Word of Life Church, is proposing to build this multimillion dollar “National Pro-Life Memorial and International Life Center” in the same city where abortion provider Dr. George Tiller lived and was gunned down by an anti-choice terrorist.
Included as a central aspect of the memorial, should it be built, will be a garden of crosses to represent what leaders call the “Holocaust” and “genocide” of the unborn, in addition to the replica of the wall. Pro-choice website RH Reality Check sees the memorial’s plans as part of a dangerous “my pro-life is bigger than your pro-life culture” which fosters extremism.
This plan is problematic, even offensive in so, so, so many ways. First of all, if any memorial gets built in Wichita it should be for Dr. Tiller who was a friend to women and a deeply compassionate provider.
Ah, the holy tears of Jewish women who weep while praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Not holy, says the holy site’s chief rabbi. Instead, says Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, women’s tears are responsible for the high level of fecal contamination found in the prayer books at the Wall, or kotel, even those that are found on the men’s side of the high mechitzah.
If anyone had any doubt that the man in charge of Judaism’s holiest site — Rabinovitch not only enforces the regulation banning women from praying together with a sefer Torah in the women’s section, but also seeks to segregate men and women throughout the entire large plaza that forms the approach to the kotel — should not be in his important post, then this assertion should make that perfectly clear. His statement underscores just how backwards attitudes toward women have become in the fervently Orthodox community. It also makes clear that it isn’t the women’s tears that are full of feces.
Every time I read about the ongoing Women of the Wall saga, I am filled with sorrow. As I picture Jew fighting Jew, a woman being roughhoused by police, fingerprinted like a common criminal, my heart is heavy. Their fight is reminiscent of that of Rosa Parks. All these women want is the same treatment as men. How could one group be allowed to monopolize a national holy site?
These are the emotions that fill my heart. When I think about it, though, I ultimately disagree with what the Women of the Wall are trying to accomplish.
I can see things from both sides because I’ve been in both worlds. I was raised as Conservative Jew, and was outraged the first time I saw the mechitza at the Western Wall, during a family trip to Israel when I was almost 14. I had basically no real understanding of Orthodox Judaism at that point, but the message of the mechitza was clear to me: You women don’t have the same rights and privileges as men.
Following the recent arrest at the Western Wall of a woman wearing a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, a prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi has requested that Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren meet with “a rabbinic delegation of American Orthodox rabbis who strongly support the right of women to wear a tallit and tzitzit.”
In a letter to Oren, penned this morning, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., called the arrest Monday of Nofrat Frenkel “offensive and dangerous,” adding: “You are ceding the Temple Mount and its holiness to a group of fundamentalist and exclusionary Jews who increasingly do not share that prophetic vision.”
“If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country in the world, there would be outrage,” Herzfeld told The Sisterhood. “Just because it’s the state of Israel doing it doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s not coming from antisemitism, but it’s still religious persecution.”