When I became a Bat Mitzvah on Friday night February 19, 1971, 25 Shevat 5731, at Beth El Congregation in Akron, Ohio, the highlight of the evening was chanting a portion from the Haftarah in front of friends and family. Forty-five years later, my strongest memory is the help my big brother Scott gave me when I lost my place due to the glare of the light on the plastic sheet covering the holy words in my white binder. Although my celebration was limited to a modest Oneg Shabbat in the social hall after the service and of course, the “kids’ party” at the local Hilton Hotel with two other girls on a random Sunday evening, it was, in every way, a celebration.
Today, Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, 5776, another Frannie became a Bat Mitzvah, this time at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall. Exercising her spiritual civil rights to pray out loud and read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, guaranteed by the landmark Sobel Decision in April of 2013, Frannie took on the responsibilities of a Jewish woman. When I became a Bat Mitzvah, I felt the love and support of all those sitting before me in Beth El’s blue velvet seats. This morning, while I am sure Frannie felt the same love and support from the women’s side, just across the mehitzah, from the men’s side, Frannie faced unacceptable displays of religious-inspired ugliness.
While Frannie was able to read from the Torah at the Kotel, she did so in the midst of yelling and screaming and whistles blowing. Not only vile sounds but vile behaviors came from the other side. Exhibiting behavior worthy of Nazi Germany, Frannie and the WOW community celebrating Rosh Hodesh Tammuz witnessed an act of desecration reeking of toxic intolerance. Captured on video, an ultra-Orthodox protester ripped apart a Women of the Wall prayer book proudly, in front of a crowd. As Anat Hoffman, the leader of WOW, warns us: “History tells us that where prayers books are permitted to be destroyed, blood may soon after be shed. It is shocking that while this happened, Israel’s Police and Rabbi Rabinowitz stood by and were silent.”
Shocking is an understatement. It is clear that the recent wave of ultra-Orthodox activism is empowered by Bibi Netanyahu’s waivering on the Great Kotel Compromise. The public displays of religious intolerance against not just Women but the Reform and Conservative faith communities in Israel are another sign that Bibi’s pandering to his ultra-Orthodox political parties is causing very serious damage to his relationship with the Jewish People. The Great Kotel Compromise was hailed as historic when it was announced in January. Natan Sharansky, one of the great Jewish heroes of our time, chaired the effort to create new Holy Space at the Kotel area. Yet, in the wake of that agreement, not only did Bib backpedal, we have seen the questioning of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s Jewish credentials. Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox community is getting a sense that the winds of change are starting to blow. Maybe they sense that the Jewish People as a whole, and Israeli Jews in particular, are starting to care more about their spiritual civil rights in the modern Jewish democracy known as the State of Israel.
I am always amazed when current events in Israel and the United States dovetail so closely. A snapshot of this particular moment in time: Donald Trump uses a blatantly anti-Semitic tweet in an attack ad against Hillary Clinton, and his modern Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner has to somehow defend him; the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump so that she could marry Jared Kushner is Rabbi Haskel Lookstein; the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel refuses to acknowledge that same Haskel Lookstein as legitimate; the ultra-Orthodox community seeds activists that protest freedom of religion by ripping apart a holy book. All of this, in the monumental shadow cast by the recent passing of Elie Weisel, z”l, and the reminder of all that he stood for, as the ultimate voice of morality in the wake of the Holocaust.
Frannie, I trust that you have read “Night” and you are aware of the great tragedy that befell our People and all of humanity during the darkest of days during World War II. I also trust that you are learning the lessons of our Past as you bravely chart your way into the future. While sometimes we elders only see the challenges, I want to remind you that you are coming of age at the most miraculous of times for the Jewish People. The State of Israel is alive and well and thriving despite the never ending security situation and the complicated domestic situation. In the United States, no matter which candidate wins the Presidential election, the First Son-in-Law will be a Jew! And today, Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5776, a girl named Frannie read Torah at the Kotel as she became a Bat Mitzvah. Know that this Frannie is very proud of the Jewish “herstory” you made today.
Almost six years ago on Rosh Hodesh Av, 5770, the Jewish world began to wake up to the need to change how the Public Jewish Law of the Jewish State is defined and applied. When Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll away from the Kotel area, activists began to tell the story of the Women of the Wall and the role WOW was playing in the emerging Jewish democracy movement. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project was born out of my personal experiences with the Women of the Wall. Knowing that, “Zionism is not a spectator sport” (to quote Anat Hoffman), I made it my mission to catalyze support for all those working to creatively reinterpret the Public Jewish Law of the Jewish State. I invite those who similarly care about the state of Judaism in the Jewish State to follow the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project. Our next Concert of Concern is scheduled for November 13, 2016 at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia at 7 pm.
To Frannie, on her Bat Mitzvah, mazel tov on not just becoming a Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel, but on helping write a new chapter in the ongoing story of the Jewish People. If you happen to be in Philadelphia on November 13, please be our guest at our Concert of Concern at the Kimmel Center, where you can continue to raise your voice on behalf of spiritual civil rights for all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective! Maybe my brother Scott will be in the audience too. I can assure him that I won’t lose my place as I perform — only in Israel are plastic covers used for pages in binders in this day and age!