Better than the Wall – Take Action!

Image: Women praying at the Kotel, early 20th century. Public Domain.

Longtime readers may remember that I was not thrilled about the plan announced last January for an egalitarian prayer space near the Kotel [Western Wall] in Jerusalem. It was hailed as a solution to the issue raised by the Women of the Wall: that because the Kotel was effectively run as a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) synagogue, women were not allowed to pray aloud, lead prayers, wear the religious garb they would normally wear, or read from the Torah.

Now it seems that the plan is falling apart. Many key players among the haredim who are influential in the current government regard Reform and Conservative Jews as heretics.

I just learned from my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, that one of the original Women of the Wall, Shulamit Magnus, wrote an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post. In it, she outlines an alternative plan that is much more savvy to Israeli politics, that will make a much more lasting change for the better for women in Israel, and that seems to me to be totally workable.

Dr. Magnus also shared the piece on her Facebook wall, with directions on how to advocate for this plan, if readers choose to do so. I share her Facebook post here with permission. The bolded font and the links in it are mine.

I have already followed Dr. Magnes’s suggestion and written to all those leaders. If this issue speaks to you, I encourage you to do so as well.


From Shulamit S. Magnes:

Dear Friends, Below, please see my Op Ed in today’s Jerusalem Post. In it I call on the Reform and Conservative movements to let go of this terrible deal to make the Kotel an official haredi shul and do something significant that would build the grounds for real progressive religious influence here– not flash-in-the-pan but largely meaningless symbolism, but real impact in Israeli society (I know this deal, given how it’s been peddled, has great resonance in North America but I assure you, that is not how it plays here. Other, smarter priorities, and real financial backing of them, could meet the aspirations of North American Jews AND do real good here).

Please send the Op Ed on to the heads of the movements and of Federation. This should not be a moment of perceived win (the haredim)-lose (these movements), but of real smarts about how to make a real difference going forward– one that would unite broad segments of disadvantaged and largely religiously and politically right-wing Israeli society and largely middle-class and religiously and politically progressive Jews in North America. Win-win!

This needs thousands of letters. Please send it yourself– and encourage others to do the same via your facebook pages and other media.

Please send to:

Rabbi Steven Wernick – wernick@uscj.org
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld – jschonfeld@rabbinicalassembly.org
Rabbi Rick Jacobs – rabbijacobs1@gmail.com
Rabbi Deborah Waxman – officeofthepresident@rrc.edu
jerry.silverman@jewishfederations.org

In Israel
Yizhar Hess – yhess@masorti.org.il
Rabbi Gilad Kariv – kariv@reform.org.il

Jerusalem Post
Opinion

An appeal from an Original Woman of the Wall

By SHULAMIT S. MAGNUS

06/12/2016

(in case the link does not work, here’s the piece):

Shulamit S. Magnus

To the Reform and Conservative Movements from An Original Woman of the Wall: An Appeal

We have just marked yom yerushalayim, the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. Much in this city is fraught. Among the unresolved issues is the deal for State recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism at Robinson’s Arch in exchange for changing the status of the Kotel.

Under the deal, the Kotel, the national holy site of the Jewish people, not now a synagogue, would be made officially a haredi synagogue. This is the tradeoff for making Robinson’s Arch, already a site of egalitarian prayer, a Reform and Conservative site. The haredi authorities would ban women’s group prayer at the Kotel, every aspect of which has Supreme Court recognition as legal, and which a District Court pronounced also in accord with local custom there. Women who will not move to Robinson’s Arch would be arrested. This aspect of the deal is deliberately obscured by its backers, who trumpet the deal as enlightened and progressive, without mentioning the coercive, misogynistic aspect at its core.

The empowerment of the haredi establishment in this deal is the reason that establishment agreed to it, until the fury of their street about recognition of movements they systematically demonize drew them back. The haredi establishment is now making demands for fundamental revision of the deal, which the Reform and Conservative movements say they will reject, threatening to take the matter to the Supreme Court, where they will demand accommodation at the Kotel itself. We seem poised for bitter, quite possibly violent, confrontation.

There is another way, and I ask the movements to take a step back and consider.

It is easy to understand the appeal of recognition at Robinson’s Arch. But there are tangible, powerful, facts-on-the-ground changes that the movements could set in motion if they go another way with the clout, and the money, the deal they negotiated would give them.

Take the money, take the political payoff the State “owes” you for being unwilling to implement the deal against haredi demands, and invest it in schools that teach your version of Torah. This has none of the blaze of glory that accompanied your announcement of the deal a few months ago. But the long-term payoff will be far greater and will move you far closer to what you really want here: real impact on Israeli society. Take that money and invest it in schools—not in the comfortable middle class locations in which you currently have them, serving your current constituents, but in “the periphery,” among the have-nots of Israel, who have never heard of your movements or have only negative associations with them. Build schools—in Yeruham, Dimona, Sderot, Afula. Give hard-pressed Israelis a robust alternative to 40-student classrooms in schools that do not offer afternoon clubs, enrichment which wealthy schools, or well-established parents give their children and which afford parents full work days and children inestimable advantages that play out generationally. Intervene in this dynamic, is which privilege begets privilege and disadvantage, likewise, is passed on, perpetuating the social divide that plagues Israeli society and feeds right-wing politics and religion. In fifteen years you will begin to see cohorts who repay you and all of society with better education, broader horizons, and deeply embedded commitment to pluralism and respect for others. Not a symbolic site, but real social change. And votes.

Get your constituents in North America charged up about partnering with Israelis to open minds and hearts from the “bottom” up and changing Israeli society for the better, based on shared values and language. They can have egalitarian events right now at Robinson’s.

Let this deal, any version of it, pass away. It was a mistake. This is a Ben Gurion moment, no less than the one in which that Prime Minister shrugged off the consequences of granting haredi exemption from national service. Empowering the fundamentalist haredi establishment; supporting banishment of the one non-haredi custom—women’s group tefilla– which has been established at the Kotel– is the last thing you should be doing. Duking it out in the Kotel plaza between vastly more retrograde custom at the Kotel and progressive practice at Robinson’s, for which proponents of the deal have thrown down the gauntlet, is puerile. Defer gratification. Think Yavneh—go for deep cultural change, and the time and hard work to bring that about. Send your young people and rabbis on hachshara to these schools. Forge deep ties; build broad, societal loyalty to your movements. Forego the show.

I recall in this connection the remark which the previous Lubavitcher rebbe made in the 1920s, while on a visit to the US from Europe. Taking in the US Jewish scene, he noted, “They will build Temples, and they will be empty. We will build schools, and they will be full.”

Take a page from Habad, Shas: invest in school systems.

Go to the Supreme Court, by all means. But as a veteran of time in the latter, where a case to enforce Jewish women’s already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel languishes while the State wins delay after delay, any notion that you will get swift justice there is sadly mistaken. In the meantime, sow real change.

Having just celebrated Shavuot, commemorating the bringing of First Fruits to the Temple and the giving of Torah, please think about those fruits your labors can ripen, and about the transformative power of Torah. Invest in those.

 

Personal Note: I’m Sad.

Image of the Kotel by Antonina Reshef – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

For 28 years, a small group of Jewish women, the Women of the Wall (WoW), have insisted on their right to pray according to their own traditions at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Every month on Rosh Chodesh they showed up at the crack of dawn and tried to hold services. The Kotel is managed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the official Orthodox arm of the government, currently controlled by Haredim.

The official rules at the Kotel, set by this office, were that it was to operate like a Haredi synagogue. Women’s voices were not to be heard, except for loud crying on Tisha B’Av. Men and women have separate areas and there must never be any mixing of the two. Strict dress codes are enforced. All prayer meets Haredi standards, which means that only men can pray aloud, and only men may handle a sefer Torah. The Women of the Wall, challenging these rules and petitioning the Israeli courts for limited exceptions to the rule, were met with 28 years of violence and abuse, yet they persisted.

This past week, the Israeli Government, along with the Reform and Conservative Movements in the United States announced a “breakthrough agreement” in which a separate portion of the Temple Mount area will be set up for egalitarian services and mixed groups for prayer. The “Robinson’s Arch” area is around the corner from the Kotel Plaza.

Talks to bring about this new agreement have been going on secretly for some time. Member of Knesset Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was interviewed for an article in the Jerusalem Post in which he talked about his reasons for getting involved in the talks. He was deeply concerned about the escalating violence at the Kotel, and worried about the impact of the ongoing dispute on U.S.- Israel relations. As with almost anything else in Israel, nothing was simple.

So why I am not celebrating along with my fellow American Jews?

  1. Regarding the escalation of violence at the Kotel: whatever happened to the rule of law? The Supreme Court of Israel provided guidelines for the situation. Why were those who broke those guidelines and those who resorted to violence not arrested and prosecuted? I am furious that a group of people have been able to get their way (retain control of the historic Kotel) essentially by bullying. What’s the take-away lesson here? Throw enough feces, throw enough furniture, scream enough profanities, and you can have anything you want in the State of Israel?
  2. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has condemned the agreement, since the new area, unlike the Kotel, is on ground claimed by the Waqf, the Islamic manager of the adjacent mosques. So we are going to make the Haredim less unhappy by stirring up trouble with the Waqf?
  3. Most of all, this new area does not address the intentions of the women who raised the question back in 1988 and who have pursued the issue ever since. They included a number of Orthodox women who do not want to pray in an egalitarian space. Putting them behind a mechitzah at the new spot will just underline their exile from the place they have sacrificed so much to occupy: the historic Kotel. Phyllis Chesler explains their point of view in her blog for the Times of Israel.

So I can’t celebrate this news. Perhaps the people who have negotiated it are much wiser than I and this really is the best course. What I notice, though, are the casualties and what feels to me like a rather casual attitude towards them.

I confess that my personal feelings about the Kotel are pretty cold. It seems to me that it has fostered a lot of sinat chinam [baseless hatred] among Jews since its liberation in 1967. I know that many feel it is the holiest place in Judaism because Jews have prayed there for so many centuries. But it is a wall built by a very nasty man, King Herod, who taxed the life out of Jews to remodel the Temple in a fruitless PR effort and a lot of ego. Moreover, those stones are merely a retaining wall, not a part of the Temple proper.

I supported the Women of the Wall because I thought they had a point: if we were going to claim that the Kotel belonged to all Jews, then dictating to women that they had to be quiet and that they could only pray one way there was not right. If this current arrangement is really the best we can do, it just makes me sad.

 

Mar Cheshvan, Indeed!

Anat Hoffman

Update is at the bottom of the page.

I just got word via the Women’s Rabbinic Network that Anat Hoffman was arrested again last night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, when she was there with a group from Women of the Wall and another group from Hadassah. Since I can’t find any more information on Ha’aretz to corroborate the details I’m not going to say more than that.  She’s been arrested, again. I wish I were surprised.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She is also the chair of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall.  She was elected to the Jerusalem City Council and sat on it for fourteen years. She has been tireless in her efforts to seek fairness and justice for all in Israel.

In the recent past, women have been arrested at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for wearing a too-traditional tallit, for wearing a tallit in a manner too much like a man, and for similar ridiculousness. If this is a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people, why are women not allowed to pray there? Why must women be silent and meek there? Why is only one expression of Judaism acceptable there?

Some will say that this is an unimportant matter.  Who cares what the haredim do at the Kotel? What about Iran? What about security? What about the Situation with the Palestinians? What about the Arab Spring?

But you see, this is not really an issue about women praying at a wall, or women wearing shawls.  This is really a question of the humanity of women. Women’s images are disappearing from public view in Israel, because one group of Jews sees all women’s images, faces, voices, and presence as immodest.  A group of men spat upon a young Orthodox girl, walking home from school, because her (very modest) clothing did not meet their standards of modesty. As with the Civil Rights Movement in the United Statesbuses have become a battleground: do women have to sit in the back? may they ride at all?

So it is not a trivial matter  that a group of women are insisting on their right to pray at the most famous holy site in the Jewish world. This is not about the Wall. It is not about shawls. It is about women’s right to be visible without molestation or repression.

The facts are not all in regarding this latest arrest. I hope that Anat is all right. She is in my prayers tonight. But not just in my prayers: I am joining other members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network in sending a donation to the Women of the Wall in honor of her, and to help cover the legal expenses of this work.

If you would like to join me (please join me!) you can donate funds to either of these organizations.  Just click on the link, and it will take you to the donations page.

Women of the Wall

Israel Religious Action Center

The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar”Cheshvan, Bitter Cheshvan, because there are no holidays or rejoicing in it. I am sorry to say that Anat’s arrest and the continuing assaults on women’s rights in Israel make this Cheshvan bitter indeed.  Let us hope that the time is coming when women can again stand at the Wall and pray, as we have done for centuries. Let us hope that some future Cheshvan is sweet.

 

Update:  10:58 pm, PST, Oct 16:   The Women of the Wall report on their facebook page that Anat was still detained at this writing, and they show a photo of her being taken away in handcuffs.  At their regular morning prayer time, two other WoW leaders, Director Lesley Sachs and board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, were also arrested.  (Now would be a very good time to “like” their page on facebook, if you use facebook.)