WOW hold first Kotel Bat Mitzvah in History
Women of the Wall completed the first
ever full Rosh Hodesh (new moon) prayer service and bat mitzvah in the women’s section of the Western Wall today.
After Women of the Wall’s Torah was banned at the entrance to the public, holy site, an alternate Torah, a tiny 200 year old Torah was brought into the Western Wall, under the radar of theauthorities. This 28 centimeter, 200 year old Torah belongs to John and Noeleen Cohen of London and is certified Kosher (by an Orthodox Sofer Stam). Mr. Cohen’s great-grandfather carried this Torah with him from Lithuania to South Africa in 1880, and he loaned the family heirloom to Women of the Wall. Cohen said, “The purpose of a Torah Scroll is to be read and I can think of no better place for the Scroll to be on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan than at the Kotel, in the women’s section, being read by women who want and have every right, to read Torah at the Wall and, in my view, at every other place that a man can read Torah.”
12 year old Sasha Lutt of Beer Sheva read from the Torah for her bat mitzvah ceremony this morning, completing the first ever full bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. Irina Lutt, the proud mother who moved to Israel from Russian when Sasha was just a baby, looked on and supported her daughter during the ceremony.
Lesley Sachs, Executive Director of Women of the Wall, said, “This morning was historic and emotional for us all. The Torah scroll we used was probably created for just this purpose, for Jews who were banned from publicly celebrating Jewish rituals and ceremonies in the past. We read from the Torah today, in the women’s section of the Kotel, with no disturbances. So the only question remains, why does Rabinowitz, a public servant, try to deny women this right at the Kotel, a public holy site?”
The Torah is central in Judaism and binds all Jews, across denomination, religiously, spiritually, culturally and historically. To deny any Jew access to a Torah scroll, as has been done so many times before throughout Jewish history, is an affront to religious freedom. To refuse women access to Torah has no basis in halakha (Jewish law) and has no place in a public site in a democratic state.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, overseen by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, runs a lucrative and active industry of Bar Mitzvah celebrations for boys at the Western Wall. The foundation offers no such ceremony for girls, in fact Rabinowitz actively prevents any type of bat mitzvah ceremony for girls by refusing women access to Torah scrolls at the holy site. Legally, the April 2013 Jerusalem District Court ‘Sobel Decision’ guarantees Women of the Wall the right to pray freely according to their tradition, which should include Torah scrolls. Rabinowitz has put in place local regulations banning entrance to the Kotel with a Torah scroll and refusing women access to even one of the 100 scrolls held at the Western Wall for “public” use. Women of the Wall maintains their right to read Torah from a scroll at the Western Wall and celebrate bat mitzvah ceremonies at the holy, public site.
For over 25 years Women of the Wall has continued to fight for religious freedom and women’s rights at the Western Wall. As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.
Photos and video will be available upon request
Director of Public Relations
This summer, I spent two months in Jerusalem on Onward Israel, and I had the amazing opportunity and privilege to attend Rosh Chodesh services with Women of the Wall. I was there both on Rosh Chodesh Tamuz and Rosh Chodesh Av. I could spend pages writing about my experiences, but I will simply say this: joining WOW for services was a life-changing experience. Never before have I felt so welcomed while praying. Never before have I been in such a nurturing, positive environment even in the midst of so much tragedy happening in the region and the country. Never before have I connected on such a deep level with my own Judaism. I have always considered myself Jewish and have seen religion as having an important role in my life, but praying with WOW was the first time I have ever connected with the words written in the siddur. The services I attended with WOW were the first times in which I realized how well the traditional prayers I recite every time I pray from a siddur mirror my thankfulness for everything good in my life, as well my despair about everything that is unjust and wrong and my intense desire for the world to be a better place. For the first time, I was moved to tears because I felt the power behind the prayers not just from my own heart, but from the hearts of all of those Jews who have recited and continue to recite the same prayers every day.
I am now back in the United States and have returned to college for my third year, but I still think about WOW every day. My experiences this summer have inspired me to become even more involved in my campus’s Hillel; I am one of the leaders of the Reform Minyan, and I am working this semester to gather a group of women to pray on Rosh Chodesh in solidarity with WOW. Since I’ve returned from Israel I have bought WOW’s Rosh Chodesh siddur, the Reform siddur Mishkan T’filah, and read Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site. These texts and the experiences I’ve had this summer have changed the way I see my own Judaism, and have motivated me to consider attending rabbinic school. Whatever career path I choose, I know I will continue to learn about Judaism and to both seek out and create environments like the one I was so lucky to be a part of this summer. I am so thankful for my experiences with Women of the Wall and cannot wait to join them again the next time I am in Israel.
Standing strong with the people of Israel, ‘Women of the Wall’ is saddened and shocked by the kidnapping of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-ad six days ago. The fabric of the Jewish people is a diverse and colorful one- woven together tightly by faith. Women of the Wall have faith that the boys will be returned to their families swiftly. Until then, we pray and stand united.
On Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, June 29, 2014, Women of the Wall will gather to pray at the Kotel. Though we cannot know what the fate of our nation and the kidnapped boys will be in ten days time and we pray for a celebratory occasion, either way we invite women to gather with us at the Kotel – to pray for peace and the welfare of the State of Israel.
We remain dedicated to women’s free prayer at the Kotel, with a Torah scroll. Now more than ever, we depend on our faith, our traditions and Torah to get us through. We continue to look to Israel’s leaders to ensure women’s rights at the Kotel. For more information and to get involved, go to www.womenofthewall.org.il/letmytorahgo.
In honor of Jerusalem Day, today, and the month of Sivan, when we celebrate the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai…
Join Women of the Wall’s campaign: Let My Torah Go!
At the Kotel, men have access to 100 Torah scrolls. Don’t get us wrong, we are happy men have can read Torah but we want women to have equal rights. The Western Wall is a public, holy site which belongs to all Jews.
Women are refused the right to bring a Torah into the women’s section of the Western Wall by Kotel Administrator, Rabbi Rabinowitz.
Women are half the kingdom.
Women are half the Jewish world.
It is time women have access to Torah at the Kotel.
LET MY TORAH GO
Rivka Haut and Rabbi Rayzel Raphael 1988
Women of the Wall mourn the loss of our founder and sister, Rivka Haut. Rivka was the visionary who conceived the idea of the first women’s Torah service at the Kotel on December 1, 1988.
That day she organized women from Israel and abroad, from across the Jewish denominational spectrum to pray together at the Kotel, serving as the inspiration for the creation of Women of the Wall.
Her legacy will live on in the continuing struggle for women’s rights to pray together and read Torah at the Kotel and in her dedicated work to help free the chains of agunot.
May her memory always be a blessing.
Please feel free to share memories and leave your thoughts here.
LISTEN HERE to Rivka Haut speaking about the first Women of the Wall prayer service, from the International JOFA Conference December 7, 2013 5th of Tevet 5774 in New York City
Rabbi Deborah Brin leads worship with wearing kippah and tallit and with her back to the Kotel. Above and to the left of Deborah is Rivka Haut. Near Rivka and wearing kippah and tallit is Shulamit Magnus. In front of Deborah with a light hair clasp on her dark hair and wearing a tallit is Rabbi Rayzel Raphael. Deborah led the first service and Rayzel led the first Torah service with the group that formed Women of the Wall.
By Rachel Cohen Yeshurun
Women of the Wall Board of Directors, Member
I don’t know how difficult it will be for Sephardi Jews to get their Spanish citizenship, but I can tell you a thing or two about getting British citizenship based on ancestry. It was a long, expensive and frustrating process involving complicated instructions, endless forms and the ceremonial presentation of notarized certifications of life cycle events.
Subsequently, as I was proudly showing off my shiny new burgundy and gold passport on a visit to London, one of my cousins asked the same question that so many had asked before and indeed I had asked myself: “Why go through all that bother to get a passport that you don’t really need?”
Then my Aunt Judith, with her sharp insight honed on years of representing women battling ugly divorce cases, cut in with a terse but brilliant answer: “Because she can!”
Yes! That was it. Because I can. When there is no reason to not do something, you don’t always need a deep and well thought out reason to charge ahead.
I now had a ready-made answer, not just for why I should get a third citizenship, but also for a whole slew of other activities that I had yet to even think about doing. I can only begin to tell you the mileage I have gotten out of those three words!
Like why get up at 5am every Rosh Hodesh to join a women’s prayer group at the Western Wall when I faced the possibility – or at times the probability – of violence or arrest?
Because I can! Because I know how to pray, because I believe in the cause, because I’m a morning person, because I live a half hour drive away from the Kotel, because my kids can get themselves out to school by themselves, because I’m strong enough to shrug off the verbal abuse… In short – because I can!
With my typical Orthodox upbringing and the social constraints involved, it did not even enter my mind until just a few years ago, that I could chant Torah or the book of Esther for a congregation. But I found out that I could – I can, and my community needs a reader. Sometimes you are the right person, at the right time, in the right place and there is a need that you can fill. If you can, then you have to. So here I am, having just chanted the book of Esther on Purim a few days ago– for the 4th year in a row!
About a half a year ago, a friend at work introduced me to running – long distance running that is. At first, my mantra was not such a great help. I couldn’t. Running 100 meters left me gasping for breath. Just walking up a hill would set my heart racing. I was a couch potato and didn’t see any reason to break into a sweat.
But then I realized that I may not be able to run ten kilometres, yet, but I can train. I can get up early in the morning. I have a nice trail running trail near my home in Ma’aleh Adumim. I have an untiring four-legged running partner. My joints and muscles still work! I have it all. And I had a goal – to form the Women of the Wall running team and lead a group of runners in the 10K race in the Jerusalem marathon.
So I started to run. First it was for 60 seconds and then 90 seconds and over the course of a few months I have gotten up to running for over an hour! The hills are still hard and I might win the medal for the slowest runner, but as all my friends know, Women of the Wall is a cause that gets me going -in more ways than one! And now I am running the 10K in the Jerusalem Marathon and I am heading up Women of the Wall’s Marathon Team, because I can!
On March 21, 2014 at 10 AM I will stand at the starting line of the Jerusalem Marathon with my brothers and sisters. We will know that we can do this and we will know why: for a great cause, Women of the Wall and this wonderful holy city, Jerusalem!
Please stand with us by getting involved! Join Women of the Wall, cheer us on at the Marathon and donate to sponsor my run (if you can!) Here is my donations page: http://my.jraise.com/en/rachelrunswithwow5774
Please pray for the health of my aunt Yehudit bat Zlata, a sharp wit and a great outdoorswoman, may she be granted comfort and a refua shelema.
Did you know?!
Women of the Wall has an active speaker’s bureau that is ready and waiting to speak to your community in the US, Canada, UK and Germany!
Speaker- Annice Benamy, NJ
One such event will be held on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 7:00 p.m., EST at Congregation Beth El Voorhees, 8000 Main Street, Voorhees, NJ 08043. Women of the Wall Speaker’s Bureau member Annice Benamy will be there to talk about WOW and her experience with us at the Kotel.
These events are a great way to gather your community, learn about the status of women at the Western Wall and support Women of the Wall in the process! To invite a speaker to your town, email us.
If you have been with WOW at the Kotel in the past and would like to join our speaker’s bureau, let us know.
SPOTLIGHT: WOMAN OF THE WALL
Occupation: Rabbinical student
1) Why did you come pray with WOW for Rosh Chodesh Adar?
I came to pray with Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Adar for the same reason that I have prayed with them for the past year and half: the public presence of women in every place especially in places of holiness and Jewish tradition are very important to me. The reality that existed six months ago, that the police were arresting women just for wearing tallit and ultra-Orthodox people were harassing and attacking the Women of the Wall, emphasizes the need for meaningful women’s prayer. Once I started going, I immediately felt that I belonged to the community, and I feel an obligation to pray with and support Women of the Wall each month.
2) What’s one positive experience you had at Rosh Chodesh Adar? All of the t’filah in the recent past has been wonderful. It was simply a beautiful service.
3) What’s one negative experience you had at Rosh Chodesh Adar? I didn’t have any.
4) What’s your wish for the future of the Kotel? I hope that there will be three sections in the Kotel plaza itself so that everyone will be able to pray according to his or her custom. Of course, I hope that each section will permit those who pray there to wear tefillin or read Torah if they so choose.
By Cantor Tamar Havilio
December 5th, 2013, Tevet 2, 5774
Every morning of Rosh Chodesh when WOW does not arrange a special transportation to the Kotel, I always arrive very early, on foot. Yesterday I arrived at 7:10am and services began at 8am. As a member of the Shlichot Tzibbur team, we always arrive early to create a prayer space at the back of the Women’s section. I stood there and prayed for a quiet and uneventful prayer for us. It was a good sign already that the women’s section was fairly empty. Standing there I felt a great peace and awe. I focused on the candles flickering on the Chanukiah on the men’s side, of course, and softly sang Maoz Tzur. I took a few chairs and sat them at various places to create a circle for us to pray within. Then I sat by a prayer stand (a shtender) and placed it in the center of the chairs. As I was “setting up” a flush of birds flew above me just like all of the prayers at the Kotel flew out of mouths and into the stones of heaven.
Slowly, a group of ultra-orthodox teenage girls began watching me. They were watching me set-up and take moments of silent prayer. Then one of their teachers approached me. We are told by all of the supporters of WOW not to confront our protesters. But, this was a very different approach. She asked me if I believed in the Torah and if I do, then why do I have to wear tefillin and tzitzit. I told her that my interpretation is different from hers, but that I can respect her beliefs if she can respect mine. Then the teenagers began asking me all sorts of questions. Some were just not worth repeating, but one asked if I believe in God and why do I feel the need to pray out loud with my voice. I told her that I am a cantor and that I feel this is my pure and honest way to pray to God with my full voice. I also explained that I believe the power of silent prayer and talked about Hannah in the book of Samuel. She looked at me and said, “Oh-you know your texts, I like you.” I told her that I look at her with the full respect that I can of another Jew and never want to cause her harm, but this is how I pray. She took some of the other teenagers and walked away, “let her pray,” she said. I cannot forget this girl and her beautiful face, and her words as she walked away…let her pray. We prayed yesterday with a Sephardic style shacharit led by an amazing woman from the piyut project and the Hallel was led by an HUC Israeli rabbinic student. They were beautiful prayer interspersed with an occasional protestor. All the while, I could not forget that ultra -orthodox girl who said, “Let her pray.” I prayed all of Rosh Chodesh for peace and freedom of religion in Israel and in all lands. It was that very moment that I understood the power of our presence at the Kotel. I walked back from the Old City on Rosh Chodesh Tevet with hope in my feet and determination and love in my heart.
A miracle of Chanukah had just begun as the stones heard our prayer and flew to heaven.
by Eliana Fischel, Women of the Wall Intern and HUC-JIR first year rabbinical student
As I enter my sixth month living in Israel, I realize that I am looking for family everywhere I go. My cohort at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion was the easy first pick. This group of like-minded Americans, many of whom are also separated from their nuclear families, has proven to be the warmest, most challenging, and most comfortable Israel-family I could have ever hoped for. However, as the months start feeling a little longer, I need more. Unfortunately, Chanukkah has not helped with this feeling of misplacement. This holiday is one of the few in our year that centers on the home, filling a family’s residence with light. It turns out, when the family is not present, the light is hard to find.
As I walked to the Kotel this morning for Rosh Chodesh Tevet services, this search for family and light was a sort of undertone in my head. Usually, I am full of energy before Rosh Chodesh: excited and impassioned to pray with such thoughtful and motivated women. But today, I was already feeling slightly out of place and was, honestly, not in the mood to be in an uncomfortable location with people yelling at me for praying the way I have always prayed. I walked onto the Plaza and saw the enormous hanukkiyah in the men’s section. It was taller than me, made from some sort of metal, and was simply daunting. It looked like something out of a medieval play, certainly not like a meaningful ritual object. The hanukkiyah seemed to laugh at me: if I was looking for light, I was not going to find it here.
Then I entered the women’s section and joined Women of the Wall. Of course, there were seminary girls yelling and photographing us as if we were caged animals, but, overall, everything seemed peaceful. I hugged some of my classmates and greeted women I hadn’t seen since last Rosh Chodesh. We started praying in Sephardic melodies, melodies I am not familiar with, but I learned. Then we moved into the Torah Service and women were honored by their generation. The first Aliyah was for the grandmothers, or the older generation, our pioneers. The second Aliyah was for the mothers, the current activists and role models who are paving the way. The third was for the daughters, the generation that will continue this work. And, finally, the fourth Aliyah was for those women who needed a little extra strength for the month to come.
I found family at the Kotel this morning as Women of the Wall. We stood together, the few against the many, embracing and strengthening each other. I was challenged by things I did not know, yet felt comfortable to try and learn them. Although my grandmother and my mother were not part of these Aliyot, the collective grandmothers and mothers made me feel at home. Finally, the innocent face of a young girl standing under a tallit, reciting the blessing for studying Torah was exactly the inspiration I needed.
Thank you, Women of the Wall, for not only fearlessly working towards an Israel that accepts pluralistic prayer for women, but, specifically today, for providing a community of women that makes me feel challenged and comforted, that lets me find the light.
“A little bit of light pushes away the darkness”, Rabbi Nathalie Lastreger reflects on the beautiful, peaceful prayer Women of the Wall completed this morning at the Western Wall, in the women’s section. Women of the Wall shared a spirited prayer, many with prayer shawls (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin), and celebrated Rosh Hodesh Tevet and Hag Habanot, Festival of Daughters. The attempt by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Pindrus to arrange buses of protesters and ultra-Orthodox rabbis who called for protest against the women’s prayer, less than ten women stood in opposition. Several men screamed and yelled, harassing women during their prayer and one man was detained for throwing a chair at police officers. The prayer was the most peaceful in recent year, showing a true shift in the acceptance of the Western Wall as shared space for all Jews.
Throughout the prayer, Hallel Silverman, age 18, who was arrested last year for wearing a tallit held vigil with the Women of the Wall Torah scroll. Entrance with a Torah scroll is prohibited and women are refused use of one of 100 scrolls held at the Kotel by the Western Wall heritage foundation for “public” (male only) use. This Catch 22 was created and passed in an ordinance by Rabbi Rabinowitz in 2012 and serves to discriminate against women in the public, holy site. Silverman, who will be recruited to the Israel Defense Forces in March 2014, said: “I protest the ultra-Orthodox control over my life and my Jewish expression”.
Women of the Wall celebrated the Festival of Daughters today with special Sephardic melodies. Groups of women were blessed under a canopy- a tallit, prayer shawl- during the Torah service. The Torah was read from a humash, a book, as women are still forbidden access to a Torah Scroll at the Kotel.
For twenty-five years Women of the Wall has struggled for religious freedom and women’s rights at the Western Wall. As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.
Shira Pruce Director of Public Relations +972(0)546898351 firstname.lastname@example.org
Rosh Hodesh Tevet is celebrated by North African Jewish communities as Hag Habanot- the Festival of Daughters ( Eid al- Banat ). According to tradition, observance of Hag Habanot includes giving praise and thanks to the female heroes who were responsible for many of the miracles of Israel- starting primarily with Yehudith. Yehudith beheaded Commander of the Persian Army, Holofernes, assisting the victory of the Jews over the Greeks. Similarly, the daughter of Yohanan, the High Priest, is celebrated for her courage, for killing the Greek bishop on her wedding night, thus contributing to the victory of the Maccabees over their enemies.
Customs of the Festival of Daughters’ include: Gifts, prayers and a special blessing in honor of women, recited by rabbis. We also have evidence of communities in which women would have an aliyah, bless the Torah. Another custom is to congratulate and bless all the girls in the community who have become Bat Mitzvah that year.
Welcome to a new segment on our blog, Spotlight: Woman of the Wall, where we will be introducing you to active members of our struggle from all different walks of life. This new segment is brought to you by Eliana Fischel, HUC-JIR Intern with Women of the Wall
SPOTLIGHT: WOMAN OF THE WALL
Why did you come pray with WOW for Rosh Chodesh Kislev?
I brought a group of travelers for the anniversary. We traveled Israel visiting sites and hearing speakers on subjects that relate to Women of the Wall: pluralism, democracy, women’s status, and more. The culmination of the trip was praying with WOW on RH Kislev.
What’s one positive experience you had at Rosh Chodesh Kislev?
The high of being with so many women on such a beautiful day. I very much felt, in the words of Hallel, “This is the day Gd made; rejoice and be happy on it.” The kavannah and energy were amazing. I was moved to see women there who were never much interested in WOW back in my day.
What’s one negative experience you had at Rosh Chodesh Kislev?
Missing some of the service because we were caught in a long line of hundreds of people waiting for security that stretched way outside Dung Gate. We didn’t realize at first that they were lined up for the Temple Mount, not the plaza!
What’s your wish for the future of the Kotel?
That women have the choice to pray freely in the Ezrat Nashim as well as any new section. A new section may be better suited to group prayer, but state-sanctioned gender discrimination in public space sets an ominous precedent, entrenching societal divisions and capitulating to violence. It’s unthinkable that pragmatic concessions on group practice at the Kotel be enshrined in law. And group willingness to compromise must not affect the rights of individual women who seek to pray in the women’s section with tallit and tefillin.
In response to question we have received in the past 12 hours from media and supporters:
Women of the Wall is not associated with the blog post written and published yesterday in the Times of Israel by Dr. Bonna Devorah Haberman, which contains language and a detailed metaphor that has offended many of our supporters. The use of the “N” word is oppressive and Women of the Wall does not support or sanction its use. Dr. Haberman contributed much to our early years at the Kotel; however she is not on the Women of the Wall board or leadership and she does not speak or write on behalf of Women of the Wall.
by Simone Schicker WOW Intern and HUC-JIR Rabbinic Student
Love your neighbor as yourself, You said
As You told us the laws by which we should live
Young boys are taught
That they have the right
That they are commanded
To taunt me on the street
When I wear my faith for you
On my head
With no sacred meaning
Except the one that Your people gave to it
My star around my neck gets no response
And my male friends
Who wear a covering but no tzitzit
Are not chastised for being reformi
But if I was to dare
In this city
To wear my love for you daily
On my head
Or on my body
I would be pushed and shoved
Not only at the Kotel
But on the street
For how dare I
Show my dedication to You
My Rock and my Redeemer
 Women of the Wall at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
By Batya Kallus
The calling card of Women of the Wall is our pluralism. We are religiously pluralistic, but also socially and politically
pluralistic. Our members include human rights lawyers and social change activists working for a more inclusive, democratic civil society, women who live in settlements and women who are active in fighting for women’s rights within the national religious community. You will find Knesset members from the Jewish Home party and Meretz advocating on behalf of women’s inclusion at the Western Wall. In the international arena, Women of the Wall also enjoys the support of a broad swath of the Jewish public reaching across the right-left divide. The miracle of this cross- cutting coalition is the shared recognition of the importance of religious freedom of expression for women.
This past week, leaders of the Women of the Wall, including Anat Hoffman and myself, were viciously attacked by some of our opponents who charged that we were actively involved in supporting or funding Israeli civil and human rights organizations which are, in their opinion, “Anti-Israeli”. We believe the instigators behind this attack were a group of ultra-orthodox and national religious men and women who oppose WOW’s presence at the Western Wall on Rosh Hodesh.
The true motivation underlying this attack is that only prayer conducted according to ultraorthodox custom is acceptable at the Western Wall. Given our opponents’ rejection of pluralism, they struggle against the presence of Women of the Wall at the Kotel every month. While I reject their position, such political struggles are legitimate.
What is not legitimate is to attack the leadership of the Women of the Wall as disloyal because of our political and social associations. By playing the anti-Israel card, our opponents hope to lessen public support and enthusiasm for the pluralistic vision of Judaism at the Kotel that our organization embodies through our inclusive prayer community.
What does this opposition to progress hope to achieve through this McCarthy-ite campaign against a staff member of committed foundation donors to the State of Israel, and the legitimate, state-recognized organizations they support? Obviously, they want to dampen support for Women of the Wall among its more right wing supporters. But will their underhanded campaign result in overturning the Sobell decision that recognizes the right of women to wear tallitot, sing out loud, and read from the Torah at the Kotel? Will it lessen government commitment to enforce the Sobell decision and its unequivocal ruling that ultra-orthodox custom is not the exclusive practice permitted at the Western Wall? Will it halt the mounting rage felt by the Israeli public toward ultra-orthodox demands for gender exclusion not only at the Kotel, but also on public buses and post offices? Will it stop the government from enacting legislation that compels ultra-orthodox to serve in the army?
The bottom line is that those who work to demonize Women of the Wall are just another mouthpiece for haredi and right wing rabbis and leaders who are threatened by the extent to which Jewish pluralism has become a legitimate social force, affecting even a site so central to our historical and spiritual narrative as the Western Wall. What they really want is to regain their political and social power and a monopoly on control of our holy places.
The Western Wall is, as Anat Hoffman so frequently says, “the tip of the trunk of the elephant” in the struggle for a pluralistic Jewish society.
Real changes are taking place within Israeli Jewish society. The government of Israel freely admits that today, the only form of Jewish practice recognized in state policy is orthodox, but they know this status quo is no longer sustainable.
This past week I endured deeply abusive written attacks in the media for my personal and professional commitments to building a democratic society based on principles of equality for all Israeli citizens and residents. These assaults questioned my motivations as a leader of Women of the Wall; stating that my underlying intentions are “anti-Israeli” and by implication, Women of the Wall’s struggle for pluralism was equally illegitimate. The people behind this campaign want to muddle the real issues through propagandistic slander tactics. Their charges are disingenuous and feel personally threatening.
My response: let’s talk about the real issue at hand; the challenge of pluralism to the orthodox status quo.
In the past days there have been accusations questioning the dedication and alliance of Women of the Wall to the State of Israel and Jerusalem. The “article” in which this main accusation was made has since been removed by the editor.
Women of the Wall’s sole goal is the free prayer of women at the Western Wall. We are proud that our work has become a beacon for the hope for pluralism in Israel. It is an honor to be a shining example of the struggle against the exclusion of women in the public sphere in Israel. As an organization, WOW has never been involved in any other political or partisan activity. Our participants and supporters come from all walks of life, political opinions, and Jewish denominations and we would never want to divide that by taking a political stand that does not directly affect free prayer at the Kotel. The leaders of Women of the Wall are individuals with lives, careers and opinions that span the political and personal spectrum- and it is these differences between us that make our particular brand of pluralism so special. WOW’s leaders are all employed by institutions which are Israeli institutions in good standing with the law. Each woman volunteers as an active independent citizen at the Western Wall.
Women of the Wall is proud to be significantly contributing to the future of State of Israel as a just and democratic Jewish state.
If Women of the Wall are accused of fighting for the rights of all Israeli citizens then we are guilty as charged.
By Cantor Tamar H. Havilio
In the story of Hannah, in the book of Samuel I, Hannah prays for a child as Eli, the priest calls her a drunkard. The Rabbis teach that this was the first initial form of prayer in the Bible. She is crying, her lips are moving and she is praying for the absence in her barren womb to be filled with new life. This may also be the first proof of a woman being demonized as “other” and “possessed.” Eli assumed that she must have “lost her mind” by being intoxicated.
I teach my students at Hebrew Union College, future cantors, educators and rabbis; the first prayer that we initially have comes from inside, deep within the soul or the voice of our belly. Like Hannah, we pray to be filled, to be freed and to be whole. That silent, most intimate prayer is where we find longing and truth from our own bodies. We cry out in sorrow, we rejoice in laughter and we finally sing, we SING.
After being called a drunkard, Hannah must be on the defense and then she cries out more and God hears her prayer and grants her Shmuel. This prayer of the belly is heightened when the voice can ring out in song and essentially dance. The first time I prayed out loud at the Kotel was Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5773, 2012. I wrote then how I felt liberated by this prayer group called “Women of the Wall.” Since then I prayed many services with them and many different scenarios have played themselves out at the Kotel. I never felt defensive at the Kotel because I was always praying from my belly. As a mother of three sons, I always pray for them. I pray for peace in Israel, especially from within the people of Israel. I pray for the healing of loved ones and the hunger that still haunts our world. I pray for redemption to come when all of us will look into each other’s eyes and see the other and between us know a longing for God. I pray for all of the women who are tortured, beaten, unloved, prostituted, battered and barren…and I sing out with all of my being.
Some people, like Eli the priest’s first impression of Hannah, think we are crazy, perhaps even “witches.” However, if we all sat down at a table and talked about prayer and what we pray for, we probably have similar prayers deep within our bellies. We probably just want to be accepted and ultimately loved.
I do not go the Kotel to provoke and politicize, really and truly…I go to pray. I go to pray with my voice, my God given voice at a place where I feel a holiness in my …belly-a gut feeling that does not let me go. I run to the Kotel to pray…both my silent prayer, and since praying with the Women of the Wall…my singing prayer…I sing my prayer and truly feel that this is what is good for women. Women should cry out and feel empowered by the voices around them and their prayers deep in their bellies.
The Chassidim believe that there are three stages of mourning: First we are silent and in shock, then we cry out, and finally we SING. We are not silent anymore, we may still cry, but now our prayer has reached song. We pray in song, we pray from the belly and we pray that we are all standing at the wall, at Sinai and we are one. We dance, we cry and we feel an empathy towards the other and a desire to what anthropologist Victor Turner called, “Spontaneous communitas.” This happens when we do not really know everyone around us but we all feel deeply connected…in our bellies.
On this Rosh Kodesh Kislev, and the 25th Anniversary of Women praying through song, let us pray, let us pray, let us pray. Let our kavanah, our focus be on prayer and not justification, legal battles and who is right or wrong. Come all, please and let us pray and bring forth our lights from within.
I am writing to you to share a dramatic moment in Women of the Wall’s struggle for dignity and equality at the Kotel. Last night the WOW Board voted eight to two in favor of beginning negotiations with the Government of Israel on a third section of the Western Wall complex. This vote came after intense debate between WOW’s board members, WOW’s activists, and other committed stakeholders. It was not an easy decision, but we finally agreed that this was the best way forward.
Many of us have been engaged in this struggle for years, and our demands have always been clear. We want to pray at the Western Wall in our own way, and we will never abandon that goal. At the same time we need to be guided by more than our hearts. We need to recognize when there is a chance for real political change. In the past we talked with everyone accept the people in a position to change the facts on the ground. It is time to sit down with the Government and find a solution. This is the reason for the broad support for last night’s vote.
Change is difficult. Just as we have been demanding that government officials, Rabbis and public opinion change, we need to be willing to change as well. For years we said that a separate section was like being thrown to the back of the bus, but we have a chance now to redesign the whole bus that treats all its passengers equally.
This is a process that will not be completed overnight. Until we reach a just agreement with the government that is implemented fully we will continue to pray in our current location. Without the strong support from all of you we would not be here today. We are entering the most exciting, but also the most difficult part of the process. In the months ahead we will be negotiating with the Israeli government on the exact makeup of the new section. We will not accept any compromise that does not accord us the dignity we deserve, and you will be involved every step of the way.
We are opening the door to an opportunity and we will be the architects of real change at the Kotel.
Chair, Women of the Wall
October 7, 2013
Women of the Wall Vote to Lead the Jewish People towards Change: Three Equal Sections at the Western Wall
Anat Hoffman, “We are not leaving the women’s section right now and we reserve the right to prayer freely as a public holy site. However, we are prepared to be the catalyst and leaders of building a new, equal third section for all Jews to pray and celebrate at the Western Wall. When that is completed to our satisfaction, we will pray there.”
After going through a comprehensive and emotionally trying decision-making process, Women of the Wall’s multi-denominational Executive Board has voted in vast majority to create a future in which, under the right conditions, the women’s prayer group would pray in an equal and fully integrated third section of the Kotel. The new area will be governed not by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz but by a board of Jewish leaders, including equal representation of women, who value women’s prayer and reject all forms of violence. The process to create an equal, third space for prayer at the Western Wall will be lengthy and Women of the Wall maintain that until all of their conditions and specifications are met for the third section, women’s prayer stays where it belongs: in the women’s section of the Western Wall.
Hoffman said, “It is with great pain and sadness that we began to consider this new strategy, but we must be agents of change. We have decided today to stand on the tips of our toes to look into the future. We must rise above our internal conflict in order to build the future we want for our daughters.”
A far cry from the area known today as “Robinson’s Arch”, Women of the Wall have a very clear vision of the potential future. This vision includes but is not limited to: one entrance and one national plaza for all three sections, as well as full equality between the three sections- from budget to topography. A space where women are allowed to govern and lead, where girls can read Torah freely and celebrate their bat mitzvah with great joy and pride, the new section promises to reflect the makeup and spirit of the Israeli people and the Jewish people. Women of the Wall continue to demand change from Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who will have to loosen his grip in order to share the holy space. Likewise, the women have required change of themselves, to lead the charge for this vision.
While the conditions for this process are still being hashed out among the group and will be presented within the week to the Prime Minister’s Commission led by Avichai Mendelblit, the wheels have indeed been put in motion for the women to take their rightful seat at the architects table, to create a national space for Jewish and Israelis to pray free from persecution and religious coercion.
For twenty-five years Women of the Wall has continued to fight for religious freedom and women’s rights at the Western Wall. As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.
Director of Public Relations