Walling off, reaching out
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Walling off, reaching out

Teaneck shul offers discussion of Women of the Wall

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Women of the Wall blow the shofar at the back of the Western Wall plaza during its monthly Rosh Chodesh service on August 7, 2013. Miriam Alster

It is not an understatement to say that the saga of Women of the Wall is a metaphor for much of the struggle between tradition and change in Israel.

Founded 25 years ago by a group of Israeli and non-Israeli women whose religious affiliations ran from Orthodox to Reform, it has been a flashpoint for the fight for pluralism in Israel, as one side would define it, or the obligation to hold onto God-given mandates on the other.

As its members and supporters fought for the right to hold services in the women’s section, raising their voices in prayer, and later to wear tallitot and read from sifrei Torah, and as their opponents grew increasingly violent in response, it came to define questions of synagogue versus state and showcase both the strengths and the flaws of Israel’s extraordinary parliamentary system. It also highlighted rifts between American and Israeli Jews.

In the last year, change has come quickly, and more than ever events there are muddled. The Reform and Masorti/Conservative women who make up much of Women of the Wall agreed over the summer to move from the women’s section of the Kotel itself to a new area carved out of Robinson’s Arch to its south. That plan was spearheaded by Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who has been working, at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, to find a solution to the festering problem. Orthodox Women of the Wall supporters, as well as some of the group’s founders, are unhappy with that compromise. They do not want egalitarian prayer.

Now, in the last week, control over Robinson’s Arch, originally promised to the Reform and Masorti movements, has been given instead to a settler group called Ir David. In response to a strongly worded letter by the two movements’ leaders, the plan’s godfather, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, seems to have retracted it, but much remains murky.

So – deep breath now – that is the situation that the adult education and sisterhood committees at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck confronted as it sponsored a Shacharit service, breakfast, a short film, and panel discussion about it on Sunday.

Rosh chodesh – the beginning of a month – is connected to lunar cycles, and always has been seen as a woman’s holiday. Most Women of the Wall services are held on rosh chodesh. Thus, there was some poetic justice to holding the Teaneck forum on Rosh Chodesh Adar II -the month when queens Vashti and Esther exert their power for change.

Beth Sholom is fully egalitarian, so services generally are led by whatever mix of men and women present themselves at any time; but this service was led entirely by women, Elaine Cohen said. (Dr. Cohen is chair of the education committee.) “The underlying theme was pluralism.” To further that theme, the two panelists represented two movements ““ Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson of Manhattan is the director of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network, and Miriam Suchoff of New City is a lay leader very active in her shul, the Conservative Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York, and in the Masorti movement. Sandee Brawarsky of Teaneck, a Beth Sholom stalwart who also is the New York Jewish Week’s culture editor, moderated.

“The situation is so complicated now,” Rabbi Ellenson said. “It has grown and changed so much since the arrests started happening in 2009.” (She was talking about the many times that women davening with Women of the Wall have been arrested for wearing tallitot or praying out loud.) “There is so much news; we had to help people catch up with it.

“The overall questions still are who has the power to control what goes on at the Wall, and how we can help to create an Israel that reflects the Jewish pluralistic world.

“One of these questions is about the relationship between religion and state in Israel, and the other is how the view of Judaism as a pluralistic culture, we have for the most part adopted here, can be accommodated and acknowledged and accepted in Israel.”

Addressing the issue of pluralism in Women of the Wall itself, Rabbi Ellenson said that the group’s makeup had changed considerably since it was founded. “One of the issues is how we are going to maintain a prayer space for all women in the pluralistic section,” she said. “My understanding is that there will be a portable mechitzah. I even have heard from liberal Orthodox men who said that they would like that.”

She was dismayed by the latest hiccup in the process of developing the Robinson’s Arch area, but still she is optimistic. “I really feel that the potential to develop a multidenominational oversight committee would be a remarkable and profoundly meaningful thing,” she said. “Women of the Wall is taking an enormous risk. The core understanding always was that the only way that the third section could work would be if all the stakeholders participate.

“I don’t know how it will play out. My activism about Women of the Wall always has been about maintaining a woman’s right for access to this holy place, to be able to worship as I choose, and that I not be constricted by other people’s rulings or interpretations of law. I know that there are interpretations of halacha that allow it.

“It is hard to walk away from the women’s section, but it is a necessary development of Women of the Wall as a social justice group.”

The only way that it can work, she said, “is the creation of a new image of the Wall. It would have to be a bigger picture – literally. It would have to be a new definition, that includes not only what we always have known as the Wall but also this new section. It would allow for new ways to practice, and also even for secular people to be able to go there without being compromised.

“It gives a bigger picture of what it means to be Jewish. It is both real and metaphoric.”

Miriam Suchoff first went to daven with Women of the Wall with a group of Masorti women in 2002. “It seems now like such a long time ago,” she said. “It was a very small group. We stood at the back of the women’s section and davened. At that time, chairs were still being thrown, and in response the police asked us to be quiet.

“I went to the 25th celebration in October, and the difference was amazing. In 2002, no one wore a tallit. The prayer leader wore a shawl that looked like a poncho. Maybe there were tzitzit on it – I couldn’t tell. The whole look was very quiet. Now, in 2013, 750 women took over the section, in tallit, tefillin, and full voice.”

Ms. Suchoff, like Rabbi Ellenson, is passionate about pluralism. “We have to be aware of how endangered it is,” she said. “We have to have a Jerusalem where we can be comfortable walking.”

She recalled being struck by a change in the pedestrian traffic patterns at the Wall. “About two or three years ago, they built a barrier near where you go into the Kotel so that men don’t have to go anywhere near the women.

“It’s about power, and it’s also about fear. People are so fearful about what they don’t know.”

Four other local synagogues are co-sponsoring an evening with Women of the Wall’s public relations director, Shira Pruce. It will be an opportunity to learn more about both the background and the latest developments in the ongoing story.

Two of those shuls – Temple Emanu-El of Closter and the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg – are Conservative, and the other two – Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter and Temple Emeth in Teaneck – are Reform.

The discussion will be at Temple Emanu-El, 180 Piermont Road in Closter, on Thursday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. It is free and all community members are invited. For more information, email events@templeemanu-el.com.

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