Today was a big day for me. I was asked to speak to the Jewish Federation of America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem today. It was for a panel regarding the Kotel, together with Knesset member Aliza Lavie, Natan Sharansky, and Anat Hoffman. It was a very impressive lineup, each with years of public speaking behind them, other than myself- and it was just a little bit intimidating as well.
I was super nervous before the speech, because I felt I’d be up “against the world”, without a single supporter in the audience- which is intimidating even if you are an experienced speaker… which I am not.
I got lucky, in that of the hundreds there, I ended up having at least 10 friends in the audience, which made it a drop less scary.
On top of that, Jerry Silverman, the moderator, the head of the Jewish Federation, was really sweet and supportive to me, and helpful and kind. It was a pleasure to meet him and to work with him. A real mentsh.
A few notes first about the speeches from the other panelists, and the Q and A session:
Kudos to Anat Hoffman for admitting publicly for the first time about the role Women For the Wall has played in this story, bringing thousands of women to the kotel each rosh chodesh. Until today, it was always “The rabbis brought seminary girls” and people even calling me delusional when I said about W4W bringing out the masses. And until today, WoW never acknowledged W4W’s existence anywhere, wouldn’t even meet with us…. So when Anat Hoffman complimented me in my role for bringing out the women, I couldn’t help but be a little cynical and say “Thank you for finally admitting that it was us, and not “the rabbis”.”
After Anat’s speech, Jerry Silverman asked Anat “Why do you think the government should make changes for only 11 hours of the year?”
Anat answered “You’re asking “Why do we only deserve 11 hours a year when we’re more than half of the Jewish nation? You’re right- we have rights at the kotel 365 days a year- we only did that because of strategy when dealing with the supreme court- but now that we see how the rulings are, we should have asked for more than 11 hours.”
Jerry Silverman mentioned about his daughter coming to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh one time, and getting so scared by everything going on there that she didn’t want to come back, and asked Anat how she feels about being responsible for that.
Anat Hoffman said “Don’t ask us, ask the rabbis who incite people to come and be violent.”
So then I responded “Anat, have you ever spoken with the Chareidi Rabbis? Do you know what their position is on this? Because Women For the Wall has spoken with the rabbis from across the spectrum, the chareidi gedolei hador, etc… including Rav Shteinman, etc… and everyone said the same thing- ” If you want to stand up to Women of the Wall, everything needs to be done “bineimut ubinachat”- with pleasantness and respect.” The people that are violent are not there because of the Rabbis. They are going against the orders of the Rabbis, they do not represent the Chareidi community who condemns them and the violence they’re causing. Everyone needs to be treated with dignity and respect, whether or not you agree with them. The Torah way is to treat people with respect and dignity, and the few people that are nasty to the women of the wall are going against the Torah and are an embarassment to the Jewish people, and we’ve been trying our best to get them to stop their bad behavior.”
I got a round of applause from the entire room when I said that, nearly a standing ovation. I felt it was very important that people (read: Anat) stop accusing the Rabbis of inciting violence, of the chareidi community for supporting violence, and I made it quite clear that these extremists do not have our support one drop. And that made a big impression on the crowd.
Anat Hoffman said “Ronit, if you can get us a meeting with Rav Shteinman, we’re happy to meet with him.”
To sum up Sharansky’s speech (to be honest, it was REALLY hard to understand him because of his heavy Russian accent, which was a shame, because I really wanted to hear what he had to say….), he said the main conflict at the Kotel stems from the fact that it is both the holiest site Jews have to access today, and the most poignant national symbol.
Anat Hoffman put on her Women of the Wall tallit while giving her speech. Funny quip I heard someone say “Why is she wearing her tallit? This isn’t the knesset.” For those unaware of the context- Anat Hoffman appeared in Knesset, and put on her Tallit, and was made to take it off, and told off for putting it on, because it wasn’t the appropriate place for that.
I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but I ended up saying something about the role of a Jewish woman, that its not “the first time religious women are having a say”, its that we don’t need the spotlight, we recognize that you can be in power and running the game without being the center of attention. I said that I myself hate being the center of attention, its really uncomfortable that I am in the center of attention- I would much rather be home taking care of my kids than in the spotlight, but I’m just doing this because I feel its necessary, but that’s not where I prefer to be. I said something that came out funny- that its the first, and hopefully the last time I will be asked to speak like that- and then I corrected myself- no, I actually do appreciate the opportunity to address the public, since it needs addressing, and don’t really want it to be my last appearance, but this isn’t my comfort zone… I got a lot of laughs out of that.
Aliza Lavie said the Knesset and the Israeli government needs me, and I should really consider entering politics. I said “You’re not the first person to suggest that, but that’s definitely not what I want to do at this point in time…. but maybe possibly in the future. Who knows.”
Now as for my speech….
I told the crowd how this was the first time since sixth grade that I was speaking in front of a crowd that size, so they’ll have to forgive me for not being the most polished speaker. That got a good few laughs, and then I got another few laughs when I quipped about being “at least 5 years younger than the other people on the panel”. Truth- I was more than 20 years younger than the other people on the panel, but I’m a little too PC to actually say that.
Anyhow, I went in to the GA with 3 main goals:
1) Make a kiddush Hashem
2) Be likable, and not “the big bad enemy”
and 3) Convince people of our views.
I was really hoping for 1 and 2, and really hoping that my speech would accomplish 3 as well, but not counting on it….
After my speech, someone mentioned how more than half of the Jews in the world don’t feel welcome at the Kotel. I, a little too sharply, answered “What percentage don’t feel welcome at the Kotel, and what percentage don’t feel welcomed at the Kotel because Anat Hoffman told them they aren’t welcome there?”
A person in the audience asked me what W4W’s endgame was, what we plan on doing after a compromise is reached and WoW moves to Robinson’s Arch and here’s what I answered:
1) We will continue bringing women to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh because we think its important that women have a connection to the kotel.
2) We will continue helping the Chareidi women’s voice and views be heard in the public sphere.
3) We will continue countering the negative press the religious community is getting by the media.
So my self critique on my appearance at the GA:
I spoke WAAAAY too quickly. I speak quickly as it is, but when I’m nervous, I speak even quicker… I gotta work on sloooowing down.
My other critique of myself is that even though I kept my speech as non confrontational as possible, I think in the discussions afterward I was a little too sharp and confrontational, with a few zingers, that, while not nasty, could have been worded in a way that would have been received better. Hopefully, with more practice, I’ll be able to work on my tone of voice when put on the spot like that….
How did the audience receive me? Well, obviously the Women of the Wall members in the audience weren’t too thrilled with what I had to say; they didn’t really have a good answer to my pointing out that they are driving a wedge between Israel and American Jews, and the damage it is causing… And when I said that we support freedom of religion, I got a snort from a certain teenage WoW member in the audience….
But other than that…
I had so many people walking over to me and telling me Yasher Koach.
The two things that warmed my heart the most were the amount of non Orthodox people who came over to me and told me they appreciated what I had to say. Some said “I disagree with your views, but I just have to say I really like you and appreciate what you said today, and admire you.” Others said that until they heard my speech, they were WoW supporters, but I convinced them, changed their mind, and they are now in our camp.
So that was goals one and two accomplished- I wanted to make a kiddush Hashem, and I wanted to make it that people could relate to me as a likable person, and not as the big bad chareidi enemy… And I did that. Because even when people’s opinions weren’t changed on the Women of the Wall issue, they still respected my views and me, because of how I presented myself.
And goal three- the fact that even some people switched camps because of my speech- that was beyond heart warming, and made all the stress of preparing for being in the GA and speaking at the GA worth it.
After the discussion, Aliza Lavie took my phone number and invited me to be part of her committee in the Knesset about the advancement of Women. I accepted, and look forward to her phone call- I look forward to contributing my views as a Chareidi woman in this committee that influences public policy.
And as a last aside, and totally unrelated- I think it’s super awesome that the boxed lunch given out at the GA came also in gluten free options. Score!