For 25 years, Women of the Wall (WOW) have stood for one thing and one thing only: The right of women to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, the Board of WOW has recently voted to accept Robinson's Arch, an alternative location -- but a group of WOW's founders, both in Israel and the Diaspora strongly disagree with this decision and are attempting to reason with the Board, both privately and publicly. A press advisory will soon go out. People are confused. Is Robinson's Arch the Kotel or not? Is this a defeat or a victory, as claimed? What is really going on and what is at stake?
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 prayer 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 alive mainly in feminist ways. 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.
One remarkable Canadian-Israeli woman, who had prayed with us that day, Bonna Haberman, decided to continue and expand our practice. She invited another remarkable woman, Anat Hoffman, who had also prayed with us that first time, to join her. 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. And this is still true today as Diaspora Jews, as well as Israelis, weigh in on this issue.
We strategized and funded the lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court. Rivka Haut and I went on to co-edit an anthology Women of the Wall. Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site, a collection which contains articles by both Haberman and Hoffman and by many of the brave women, like Shulamit Magnus and Miriam Benson, who also prayed despite the terrible violence. Haberman and Hoffman and their supporters continued on, rain or shine, as did the other worshippers, lawyers, supporters. We had three separate Supreme Court decisions, and were sent to two Knesset Commissions. At the end of the day, the Court instructed the government 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 prayer shawls. This ruling was upheld by Judge Sobel in 2013.
Since then, the violence of the haredim (fanatic, fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox) has escalated.
We have been struggling for a quarter-century 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, (Bible) wearing prayer shawls. 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 women's section 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.
It is unbelievable, and somewhat tragic, that the Reform and Conservative leadership have been willing to settle for so little and that the Board of WOW has now gone along with this surrender.
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. The group had a clear and consistent policy of rejecting alternate sites, including, repeatedly, specifically, Robinson's Arch.
Acceptance of any alternate site rewards intolerance and fanaticism. Aside from the utter betrayal of our cause, it undermines our 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 principles, which establish the equality and dignity of all its citizens in public space and in law.
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.
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 David Jay Kaufman
Rabbi Susan Silverman
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