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.
Israeli fashion house Comme-Il-Faut presented their new collection during the recent Israeli Fashion Week. The inspiration for this season’s look? The Women of the Wall.
Karin Leikovich and Sharon Daube, the designers at Comme-Il-Faut, told Ynet that they met with Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs, the leaders of the Women of the Wall, and saw their work as a “feminist struggle affecting every woman in the country, which is especially important to us too as secular women. Therefore it is an issue we would like to put on the agenda through clothes.”
“At the end of the day, fashion is a tool of communication allowing us to convey messages through it and touch people,” Leikovich told Ynet.
So what does a avant-garde leaning fashion house do to message religious feminists on the runway? Dress them like Hasidic men.
The collection, which is limited to the conservative hues of black, white, grey and blue, features the designers’ take on the vests, coats and starchy white shirts traditionally donned by Hasidic men. The clothes are modest, but not matronly, and, as it appears, comfortable too.
The designers say they like the fact that their collection will appeal to women from all religious backgrounds.They also made a T-shirt with the slogan, “We lovingly give permission to one another,” proceeds from which will go directly to Women of the Wall.
On November 4, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall with over 600 women at the Kotel — a joyous event that went off with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and megaphone-enhanced cursing that the group normally endures during its monthly prayer protests. Two days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal on corruption charges at the Kotel.
I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years this group of pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to gain the right to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. Lieberman can swagger right up to the front with his kippot-clad guards and be sure he will be welcome.
I wish I could feel that the stones themselves are imbued with holiness. But the mechitza (the partition between men and women) has slowly moved to the right — both physically and metaphorically — from half the Western Wall being open to women to only 12 meters compared to the 48 for men. Presidents and popes place their little notes in the crevices without being briefed about or taking note of what happens on the other side. Scores of evangelical tourists squeeze their way through to the front trying to soak in the Jewish vibe while praying for their own messiah to come back and redeem them and the place. Shas leaders preen for the press and pray there for success in their next campaign. There are separate entrances, and now a “men’s only” upper plaza where women cannot even tread. And day after day both male and female Haredim pray there for the restoration of the priesthood, the Temple and the sacrifices, taking up the spaces closest to the stones. Those prayers and subsequently the stones which absorb them do not speak to me, or for me. Instead they have become a symbol of an encroaching public misogyny, an ultra-Orthodox legal hegemony and a manufactured emotional tourist-industry “high-point-of-your-trip” site that is part primitive and part Disney.
I can think of a hundred other places in Israel where I feel more spiritual. Give me instead a trip to the Ramon Crater, a hike to the top of Masada, a sunset in the Galilee, an afternoon at Yad Lakashish watching 90-year-olds in Jerusalem create Judaic art, a Friday night singing “Lecha Dodi” at the port in Tel Aviv. Give me instead the countless Jerusalem synagogues where on any Shabbat the harmonies of men and women move me to tears.
That does not mean I do not fully support Women of the Wall. I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have historical memory and the weight of tradition. In my dreams, like them, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured and valued. I want an apolitical wall not used to garner religious votes. I want a spiritual wall where harmonies are welcome and I can pray a silent Amidah with my tallit over my head. But that Kotel does not exist. The stones have been sullied and I think we need new “old” ones.
Women of the Wall is at a critical crossroads. Some members believe that the Western Wall can still have power for women, and that, if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer will one day be welcome there. And some of them know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right to don tallit and tefillin is hanging by a thin thread. This second group feels we have been given a historic opportunity to create and renew, and represented by the board of Women of the Wall, has agreed to move its monthly service over to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you can stand above fallen Herodian stones that are as old as the stones of the Western Wall. But this site doesn’t have the optics of the main part of the wall, the backdrop of the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967.
A subset of Women of the Wall leaders and supporters, who disagree with a plan to compromise on where the group can pray at the Kotel, has doubled in size from 10 to 21. Women of the Wall is a feminist group pushing to be able to sing, pray aloud and wear ritual garments typically worn by men at the women’s section of the Kotel.
The subset group announced last week that it rejected a plan put forth by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and conditionally accepted by Women of the Wall that would expand Robinson’s Arch, an area of egalitarian prayer.
The group released an open letter on Tuesday clarifying its dissent of the Sharansky plan and declaring that, “We are committed to our dream and to the work needed to fully realize and sustain it.”
Signatories include Rabbi Susan Silverman and Dr. Phyllis Chesler.
The dissenters wrote:
“The government proposes making structural changes at Robinson’s Arch to create a site to which all whose prayer practice is not tolerated by those who now control the Kotel will be relegated, leaving the Kotel permanently and officially in the hands of a segment of Jewry that suffers the presence of other Jews only on its terms. Regrettably, the Israeli government is yielding to intimidation, threats, and violence as the basis for policy making, rather than upholding the equality of rights of all citizens in public space that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and longtime supporter of Women of the Wall, told the Forward that the Reform movement officially supports the Sharansky plan, and that dissent like this was not uncommon in Judaism. “It’s not that we don’t think there’s a legitimate argument on the other side,” he said. “It’s a respectful difference.”
“Good moral caring people can differ on strategies and tactics, and how to achieve common goals, in this case, equal treatment of women at the wall,” Saperstein said. “Each of the locations has different strengths, and each of the locations has drawbacks. It seems that significant majority are willing to embrace the Sharansky approach.
“We’re sympathetic and appreciative of the majority of Women of the Wall who think that opening a larger area of the wall to be accessible to all people, all Jews, is most effective way of addressing need of having egalitarian, pluralistic, access to the Wall,” he said.
In an email to the Forward, Chesler wrote: “It occurs to me that we are not the dissidents. We are sticking to our fundamental and foundational principles. We are, oddly, the traditionalists and the current WOW Board have departed from our tradition. We hope we can get them to change their mind and come back to basics.”
Stay tuned for more updates on this developing story.
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.
When I woke up last Monday morning, I ditched my cozy blankets and jumped out of bed before sunrise to join my fellow Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students as we set out on a holy mission. Heading over to the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall, we knew we were striving for social justice — that we would chant our prayers and pray with all of our heart. That day, we would work toward liberating the Kotel once and for all.
This Rosh Hodesh Av, we joined women and men praying with tallitot, kippot and tefillin as we celebrated the beginning of a new month. I felt like I was floating on a hammock of happiness while being surrounded by my HUC classmates who share the same dream of becoming Reform rabbis, cantors and educators and improving the world through Judaism. As we begin our new journey toward becoming Jewish leaders, we think about the long journey Women of the Wall has taken, and how far we have come toward freedom of prayer.
As I proudly wrapped myself inside my white and blue tallit, without panicking over the possibility of being arrested, I remembered to appreciate the feeling of freedom and security that used to be missing in action from the Kotel. Passionate and persistent women like Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs suffered as they got detained, arrested and harassed repeatedly. Because of their dedication and perseverance, it is now possible for my classmates and me to lock away our fears and proudly wear tallitot.
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.
Women of the Wall has in recent months attracted lots of press and public support, from Members of Knesset to rabbis and laypeople, particularly since police stepped up arresting women leading Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel. Women of the Wall then ramped up its own efforts to illustrate that current policy there — which prohibits women from praying wearing tallit or tefillin or with a Torah scroll — is discriminatory. Now there is an additional party to the conflict: a new group called Women for the Wall.
Women for the Wall — abbreviated as W4W — was co-founded by Ronit Peskin, a 25-year-old mother of three, who opposes Women of the Wall’s goals and approach. On its website, Women for the Wall describes Women of the Wall’s efforts as “political battles” turning the Kotel into “a media circus”: They “do not belong at a place such as the Kotel. Their monthly activism threatens to turn this holy place into a site for a media circus rather than prayer, and is disruptive for all that come there to pray peacefully and connect to G-d.”
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.”
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.
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.
On Monday, 10 women were detained for participating in prayers while reading from the Torah and wearing religious garments at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There are many wrongs in this event, but unfortunately, it will probably happen again until a major change occurs.
Israel is by definition a Democratic Jewish state. Ever since it was determined as such in 1948, the Orthodox rabbinates have held a lot of power. As a case in point, marriage and divorce can only be legal if performed by the official rabbinate of Israel. This means that some parts of the law discriminates against women. For example, if a husband dies before he and his wife have brought any children into the world, his brother must marry the widow — unless she approaches the rabbinate of Israel and requests a “Halitsa” ceremony. This biblical rule still exists in 2013.
I was born and raised in Israel, and unfortunately this means that although I disagree with the Orthodox rules that apply to all Israelis, I have learned to live with them. When it is my time to be married, I must take part in Orthodox ceremonies I do not agree with, such as the Mikveh, being “purchased” by my husband through a Ketubah, and more. This harsh reality cannot be changed, and I have reluctantly learned to accept it. But what I still cannot live with are the small things some very dark people with lots of power believe they are allowed to do.
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.