On December 1, 1988, Rivka Haut organized a first-time women’s prayer service in the women’s section at the Western Wall. Her vision, based on many years of organizing Orthodox women’s prayer groups, took us all by storm. That single prayer service wedded me fatefully, faithfully, to the struggle for Jewish women’s religious rights. That single, first service, changed most of our lives. It returned me to the study of Torah and to a Judaism that I had left behind or kept evolving in feminist terms. The late Marion Krug, who had suffered in a concentration camp said this was like a dream, that being together in this place was beyond her wildest imagining. Some women, myself included, returned to North America and founded the International Committee for Women of the Wall.
Two of the Israeli women who had prayed with us that day: Bonna Haberman and Anat Hoffman decided to continue the practice. That first year they and their supporters were met with soul-curdling curses, bags of excrement and urine, tear gas, and a hatred so high and so deep that we, who kept watch in North America, were also terrified. I had to call the parents of a young girl from California who had been hit in the neck by a heavy metal chair hurled over the mehitza. She had been taken to the hospital but would be fine.
We raised funding for a Torah dedicated to Women of the Wall (WOW), brought it to Jerusalem, tried to pray with it, were not allowed to do so—and thus, we, Diaspora women, became name signatories to the Israeli lawsuit. The Supreme Court understood that this was a matter that is crucial to all Jews everywhere, not just in Jerusalem.
We strategized and funded that lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court. Rivka Haut and I co-edited an anthology Women of the Wall. Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site. Haberman and Hoffman continued on, rain or shine, as did the other worshippers, lawyers, supporters. We had three separate decisions, and were sent to two Knesset Commissions. At the end of the day, the government was instructed to prepare Robinson’s Arch for us—but the government failed to do so in a timely fashion. Thus, we were entitled to pray out loud in a group at the Western Wall with a sefer Torah, wearing Tallesim. This ruling was upheld by Judge Sobel in 2013.
Since then, the violence of the haredim escalated.
We have been struggling for 25 years for one thing and one thing only: To pray out loud at the Kotel in the women’s section with other Jewish women with a sefer Torah, wearing Tallesim. Our definition of pluralism is unique. It means that women of every denomination and of no denomination pray together; we do not want to be denominationally divided. We recognize other definitions of pluralism but that is not what Women of the Wall have been struggling to achieve. I do not want to be separated from my Orthodox sisters and I am not willing to leave them without a prayer group at the Kotel.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, a hero with whom I’ve worked and whom I admire, has proposed a rather Chelm-like solution. In effect, both he and Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit –as well as the current WOW Board– are content to banish the Torah from the Ezrat Nashim and to banish the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements from the Kotel. This is not progress or compromise. This is an abject surrender. Calling it a “victory” will not change what it really is. Calling an archeological site—and one that is separated from the Kotel plaza by the Mugrabi Bridge, controlled by the Waqf—“the Wall,” or “close enough to the Wall” will not do. Archeologists and Muslims would lay their bodies down to prevent bulldozers from doing this.
Yes, facing the wall of hatred and violence is very hard as is facing the pressure from the denominations to, understandably, finally have a dignified place at the Table. I stand with the Reform and Conservative movements and suggest that they launch their own lawsuits or put their bodies at risk as Women of the Wall have done, rather than use Women of the Wall to achieve something less than what they deserve.
Really, why the Kotel? Well, why Israel altogether? Why not choose Uganda? Why the Kotel? Where else do Jews yearn to be and to pray?
We are now at a historical turning point, one that is important for all of Judaism and for women’s rights globally. We recognize and acknowledge the work and accomplishments of the Chair, Board, and staff of Women of the Wall (WOW) on behalf of women’s religious rights.
It is because our commitment to those foundational goals remains unchanged that we state here our shock and distress at the categorical divergence from the Board’s recent decision to accept an alternate site for the group’s prayer. Prayer at the Western Wall (Kotel), with other Jews, at the site Jews have sanctified with their devotion for 2,000 years, has been a core element of our cause. The group had a clear and consistent policy of rejecting alternate sites, including, repeatedly, specifically, Robinson’s Arch.
The WOW Board’s recent decision to accept Robinson’s Arch not only leaves the Kotel under haredi control; it enshrines that control and gives it formal and permanent status, establishing permanently the second -class status of other Jewish expression—religious and secular. It is an unthinkable position for our group to support.
This cannot be the upshot of our struggle all these years– to deny the very basis for our going to the Wall in the first place: The Kotel is the site of sacred memory and devotion for ALL the Jewish people and must be administered in a manner that reflects and honors that profound responsibility.
Acceptance of any alternate site rewards intolerance and fanaticism. Aside from the utter betrayal of our cause, it undermines our fundamental insistence that the State of Israel cannot decide policy—any policy—under threat of intimidation, harassment, and violence, but must do so in accordance with its founding principles, which establish the equality and dignity of all its citizens in public space and in law.
To accept any alternate site rewards the utter rank misogyny that we have endured at the Wall all these years, the assertions that women praying together, aloud, with a Torah scroll, tallit, and tefillin defame and disgrace Judaism. Hatred and denigration of Jewish women cannot be allowed to become enshrined as a permanent feature of the administration of that site. Rather, the sight and sounds of Jewish women at prayer in our manner must be added to the variety of expressions at the site, demonstrating that mutual acceptance and respect govern practice there, that Jewish women have a full and equal place in sacred space and above all—that the wanton Jewish-on-Jewish hatred that we are taught was responsible for the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, is being replaced, before the eyes of all, by a love of all Jews, and by respect for women as full participants in Judaism, a Judaism that is in their voice and their image, too.
These principles are what we, all of us, have stood for. This is what we, the undersigned, continue to stand for, and to which we remain committed, unalterably.
We have urged the Board to reconsider their decision. We have signed a Statement to this effect. We owe this to the women and girls of Israel, to our daughters, granddaughters, to our sons and grandsons, to ourselves, and to Israel.
Please join us. You can share your views at this website: https://www.facebook.com/WoWReferendum . If you want to join with those signing this statement, please send me your name: http://www.phyllis-chesler.com/contact.php .
Dr. Susan Aranoff, NY, USA
Miriam Benson, Esq., CT, USA
Aliza Cooper Berger, Jerusalem, Israel
Cheryl Birkner Mack, Jerusalem, Israel
Dr. Phyllis Chesler, NY, USA
Rabbi Helene Ferris, NY, USA
Dr. Bonna Haberman, Jerusalem, Israel
Rivka Haut, NY, USA
Dr. Norma Joseph, Montreal, Canada
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman, Iowa, USA
Dr. Shulamit Magnus, Cleveland, OH and Jerusalem, Israel
Dr. Vanessa Ochs, Virginia, USA
Hallel Silverman, USA