Women on top: Women of the Wall’s contribution to Israeli and Jewish feminism

In December 2013 Anat Hoffman received great accolades and was awarded the Jane Evans Pursuit of Justice Award at the URJ Biennial. Miriam Alster, a young, female immigrant from Sweden won first prize in the Israel’s well known “Local Testimony” yearly photo competition and exhibit, with a photograph she took of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall as a movement graced almost all of the Jewish Top in 2013 including Haaretz and Huffington Post. On Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat, January 2, 2013 three young American women from Moving Traditions joined our prayer and had a life-shaping experience. Representatives from Women of the Wall are deep in negotiations with Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit on behalf of the Prime Minister of Israel, to create a new vision for the Kotel and redistribute the power at the holy site. An organization and movement that grew out of a small women’s prayer group at the Kotel is now being deemed, “a global consciousness. Whether you agree with their motives and efforts, the Women of the Wall have changed the face of Jewish identity and made many stronger for the confidence to pray in public.” Our prayer and consequent struggle takes place in the women’s section of the Western Wall- where only women can pray, where only women can lead- and where only female photographers and journalists can get the full scoop. In this setting, female photographers, videographers and journalists have an advantage. These trained and talented professionals – often smaller in stature than their male colleagues and used to fighting for a good shot above the crowd- breeze into the women’s section and mingle silently and unobtrusively with their subjects. The same female photographers, who are up-close witnesses to our cause, are also the victims of the inequality we fight. We are liberating the holy space from discriminatory, sexist regulations. This is the same sexism that makes it harder for women to get ahead in all fields, including journalism. Miriam Alster can be seen photographing WOW at the Kotel each month, crouching low and climbing high to get the shots she needs. We are proud to have taken even a tiny part in her victory- and she is not alone. Female rabbis and lay leaders have risen up through Women of the Wall – in Israel and all over the world- as a result of their involvement in the movement. Great modern Jewish feminist leaders were blossoming at the start of Women of the Wall. These women have since become the mothers of Jewish feminism: Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Deborah Brin, Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, Julie Fischer, Adv. Frances Raday, Anat Hoffman and more.

Newly elected female MKs Zandberg, Rozin and Shafir took center stage and made headlines in March and April of 2013, standing up for women’s rights to pray with prayer shawls at the Kotel. Male MK’s could not have helped in this case as they are well within their rights to pray this way. Young women, as young as 11, have written letters, blog posts, sent in pictures, videos and messages to support our cause. Movements like Moving Traditions and Kutz Camp have been fostering young women’s leadership by encouraging their involvement in Women of the Wall. University and rabbinic student interns join our staff each year, contributing to our work and learning about themselves as leaders and professionals. Women flourish in women-only settings. Women’s education, leadership and talents are strengthened when sexism and discrimination are removed from the equation. On our way to an ideal, fully nondiscriminatory society, some forms of women-only space neutralizes social constructs on gender. This freedom from the still-existing forms of oppression can be empowering. Even in our opposition, we see haredi women rising up to be public speakers and activists in the public eye. This is a first and rarity, occurring because ours is a movement that gives women a public voice and respects all traditions, even those who oppose free prayer at the Kotel. Men are a crucial part of this struggle and through our work we see feminist male leaders rise up, stand with us, in Israel and abroad. These leaders who follow our work, write about it and pray with us each month are proof that gender roles need not hold our society back from progress and we must work together to achieve our goals. Women of the Wall has evolved tremendously since 1988, into a religious, political and social movement that most of the founding mothers would not even recognize today.

Under the current leadership of Anat Hoffman, Batya Kallus, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, Peggy Cidor, Ella Kaner, Avigail Antman, Tammy Gottleib, Bonnie Ras and Leora Bechor, Women of the Wall is leading a revolution. Women of the Wall has created an opportunity for all women to find and take their place at the Western Wall, literally, and figuratively.

With the Kotel as a national Israeli symbol and as a metaphor- the home of the Jewish people, Jewish women and men have rallied around WOW in the name of democracy and equality. Today Women of the Wall inspires girls to study for their bat mitzvah, to visit Israel, to celebrate at the Kotel with their mothers and also to become rabbis, writers, photographers and activists. The women of Ben Gurion University in the Negev want to like Chanukah candles on campus, the women of Beit Shemesh want to dance, the women of Yeshivat Maharat have become rabbis and the Women of the Wall want to read Torah and create a new vision for the Kotel. Together, we will rise up and change Israel, leaving it a better place for our daughters and our sons.

About the Author
Shira Pruce is an activist and communications professional. After living in Israel for 13 years, she has recently moved back to New Jersey. She is former director of public relations for Women of the Wall, and has advanced the work of MASLAN- the Negev’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Support Center and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, to name just a few. She received her BA in Women and Gender Studies at Douglass College, Rutgers University.
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