Praying while female at the Kotel
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

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Women of the Wall’s executive director, Lesley Sachs, holding the miniature Torah scroll at a weekday rosh chodesh service at the women’s section of the Kotel. Miriam Alster

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel – Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

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This image is from the Women of the Wall’s new campaign, Demand Equality.

The Wall’s rabbinic supervisor, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, has been adamant in his refusal to allow Women of the Wall to pray as they see fit; it is a mode of prayer that he has called a “provocation,” suggesting that the women seek only to agitate and disrupt, not to practice religion.

“Basically what Judge Sobel said is that women can pray in the women’s side, with what we call the four Ts,” Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s executive director, said. Ms. Sachs, who has been involved with WOW for many years, and worked for the group since 2008, is touring North America, and will speak at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes on April 19. (For more information, see box.)

The Ts are Torah, tefillin, tallit, and tefillah, or prayer, Ms. Sachs said. Women have been arrested at the Kotel for wearing tefillin or tallit, for carrying a Torah, and for praying, she said, but the focus for their opponents’ outrage has shifted with time. “At the beginning, it was women’s voices” – voices raised in prayer – “that they were opposed to,” she said. “All the arrests except for the first two were about tallit.” There were 29 arrests, beginning in 2010, she said; some women were arrested more than once.

“We used to wear the tallit around our necks, like scarves, but one day I just said no, this is not acceptable. This is a tallit. It is not a scarf. We’re not going to do it.

“That’s when the arrests started.”

Many liberal Jews objected to the arrests; the idea of Jews being arrested for practicing Judaism in Israel upset them greatly. “We had tremendous support, both from Israel and abroad,” Ms. Sachs said. “I told Michael Oren,” who then was Israel’s ambassador to the United States and now will be a member of Israel’s next Knesset, “that you are losing Jewish support because of Women of the Wall. Everyone who comes from Israel is asked this question. When we speak, it is the first thing we are asked.”

In response to the pressure from abroad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Natan Sharansky to head a commission to investigate ways to fix the situation. He came up with a plan that pleased almost no one and was unlikely to work – it involved extending the Kotel plaza through archeological sites and areas governed by the Islamic authority, the Waqf.

Sharansky’s job was to “defuse the support for Women of the Wall,” Ms. Sachs said, and in large part it worked. “He didn’t speak to us in the beginning. He talked to the Conservative and Reform movements and the federation in the United States. He said that we would build a huge new plaza over Robinson’s Arch” – the place where non-Orthodox Jews have been allowed to hold egalitarian services, away from the plaza and the main part of the Kotel. The plan was controversial; many liberal Jewish leaders signed onto it but many others were unhappy, and the practical barriers to its execution became increasingly clear.

The government quickly built a small platform over Robinson’s Arch; it was met with derision.

Although the plan was introduced with great fanfare, it was allowed to wither slowly. Eventually, it shriveled and died.

Next, Mr. Netanyahu “formed a committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, about 18 months before the government fell in 2013.” This was about the time that Judge Sobel made his decision.

“Mandelblit discussed it with us, and brought us to the table,” Ms. Sachs said. “That was significant for us. The government of Israel says come to the table – so you go.”

Representatives of the Conservative, Reform, and federation movements were there as well; they were represented by Israelis for much of the talks, but occasionally the American leaders would take their places. Women of the Wall was represented by its chair, Anat Hoffman, and its vice chair, Batya Kallus.

“There were three topics on the table,” Ms. Sachs said. “The first is the financial structure of a new plaza, which would be at the southern part of the plaza, where Robinson’s Arch is today.

“The second was the administrative structure. Pretty much everything was decided.

“When we came to the third part, the geographic and topographic structure, we got stuck. Because when people come, they won’t see the financial or administrative structures. They’ll see if we are at the back of the bus or not.

“We demanded visibility, joint entrance, and contact with the wall itself.

“There are 60 meters of contact with the Kotel at the existing plaza,” she continued. “Twenty-two of them are for women.” The women’s section contracted some time ago and has grown since, but it has been expanding from the back. Women have not been given any more space at the Wall.”

Rabbi Rabinowitz refused to allow the Women of the Wall to be visible, so the discussions ended.

“It reminds me of 2010, after the arrests with the Torah,” Ms. Sachs said. “Rabbi Rabinowitz put out a regulation that no Torah scrolls can be brought into the plaza from the outside. His claim was that there are hundreds of Torah there.” But, she continued, they were all in the men’s section.

Judge Sobel’s ruling allowed women to pray with Torah scrolls, but Rabbi Rabinowitz’s regulation did not allow them to bring them into the enclosure. How is that possible? “It is a thin line,” Ms. Sachs said.

“We tried to bring in our Torah many times. We stood outside there for months with the Torah, saying, ‘Let our Torah go. Let us get in with the Torah.’ We told Mandelblit that we were not giving up our right to pray with a sefer Torah. It is an integral part of our tefillah.”

Recently, the women managed to get a “really minute Torah scroll,” which measured just 28 centimeters in length, into the women’s section. “We managed to smuggle it in twice,” she said; it was a loan from a British family, the Cohens. “We were able to hold the first bat mitzvah at the Kotel,” she said. “It was a wonderful young girl, Sasha Lutt.”

(Rabbi Rabinowitz is reported as having said, “A small group of Women of the Wall carried out a deception” because “they cunningly took a small Torah into the women’s section,” according to YNet.)

“Rabbi Rabinowitz can claim that we didn’t obey his regulations, but what we are doing is legal,” Ms. Sachs said. “We broke a regulation, but the penalty for breaking it is less severe than it would have been for wearing a tallit. We could have been tried according to Rule 4 of the Regulation of Holy Places, and we could have gone to jail for up to six months.”

Now, though, there soon will be a new government in place, and it is not clear what it will mean for Women of the Wall.

“That is the million-dollar question,” Ms. Sachs said. “First we need to see the government, and who will be in it. There will be 29 women in the Knesset – the largest number ever. Probably 16 will be in the opposition, and 13 in the government. It is very possible that there will be a cabinet with no woman minister.

“The question is who will be in the coalition, and whether Women of the Wall will be a topic in pre-government agreements. Hopefully it will not be. Hopefully the charedim will have more important things that they want to get.”

That’s why she is taking this trip, Ms. Sachs said.

“The only way we will get back to negotiations will be pressure from North America.

“The pressure has to be on the fact that a woman cannot read from the Torah in the women’s section. This is something that should make every sane liberal person’s blood boil – that a girl cannot have a bat mitzvah at the Kotel, in the holiest place for the Jewish people.

“Everybody in North America should feel that he or she could make a difference. The Kotel is a place that doesn’t belong only to Israelis. Really and truly it belongs to every Jew. Wherever they are, they pray toward Israel, and in Israel they pray toward Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem they pray toward the Kotel.

“It is our duty to fight for equality, even if it is not something that we ourselves want to do.

“Every time that someone comes from Israel, or speaks for the government, get up and say that it is not acceptable that women cannot pray with a Torah scroll in the women’s section. Write to the ambassador. Be vigilant. We need this support behind us.”

Information
Who: Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s executive director

What: Will discuss “Is Religious Pluralism Emerging in Israel?”

Where: At Barnert Temple, 747 Route 208 South, Franklin Lakes

When: Sunday, April 19 at 9:30

For more information: Call Vicky Farhi at (201) 848-1800 or email her at vfarhi@barnerttemple.org

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