JERUSALEM — Former Rutgers student and East Brunswick resident Shira Pruce holds a pivotal role in negotiations that may change the face of the Western Wall forever.
As director of public relations for Women of the Wall, the women’s rights organization, Pruce is actively involved in discussions with Israeli cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit over the creation of a third prayer section at the Kotel that will accommodate women’s and egalitarian prayers.
Until the new section is implemented at the Western Wall, Pruce told NJJN, the organization will continue to be allowed to pray and read from the Torah scroll in the existing women’s section.
Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh prayer services at the Kotel have sparked international media coverage, protests, and arrests. Being at the center of a heated debate is a position that Pruce, now 32, has been cultivating since her first year at Rutgers.
Pruce had spent her gap year before entering the university on the Conservative movement’s Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel. She returned to the States and began her freshman year just weeks before the 9/11 attacks. “Everyone was really traumatized by this horrific event that had just happened. And then a Rutgers student wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper stating that Israel was to be blamed for the attacks,” said Pruce, who made aliya in 2004 and lives in Be’er Sheva.
She is the daughter of Marilyn and Barry Pruce of East Brunswick.
Pruce and a few other freshmen approached Rutgers Hillel for advice on how to respond to the op-ed. “We were looking for leadership. After all, it was only our first month in college.” But executive director Andrew Getraer, who still holds the position, “gave us the challenge of stepping up and doing something about it,” she said.
Pruce sprang into action, writing op-eds, organizing a student group for Israel, and helping create the Israel Inspires rally, which drew thousands of people.
“It opened up an avenue for me that I am still exploring today — which is organizing for social change. I am very grateful for Rutgers Hillel for shaping who I am today and what I am able to do in Israel,” Pruce told NJJN.
A lifelong member of Highland Park Conservative Temple, Pruce holds a degree from Rutgers’ Douglass College in woman and gender studies, with a minor in Jewish studies, and a certificate from the Institute for Women’s Leadership at the university.
Pruce epitomizes a Rutgers Hillel student leadership and Zionist success story, said Getraer. “Shira is a source of great pride to Rutgers Hillel and to me personally. We have alumni who have become leaders in many Jewish organizations and causes, left, right, and center,” he said.
“Hillel is truly a big tent, and Shira is a quintessential example of everything Hillel stands for in supporting Israel and developing the next generation of Jewish leadership.”
‘Safeguarding the democracy’
Pruce became involved with Women of the Wall in 2009, after holding posts at the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (the LGBT community in Jerusalem), and MASLAN-the Negev Center for Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
“I’ve always been proud of being a pro-Israel activist,” she said. “I have a personal stake in keeping public spaces in Israel free — free for women’s equal rights, and the LGBT community’s right to demonstrate free of discrimination.
“At the Kotel, I have a vision of a space where all Jews can find themselves, free of discrimination. These are the essential rights promised to us in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
If approved, the new section of the Kotel will be situated at the southern end of the Western Wall, overlooking the area now known as Robinson’s Arch, Pruce said. “I feel really honored to have front row seats to this process, which I believe will create a much friendlier and more hospitable Kotel for women and girls, where they can pray free of any discrimination or judgment. The Kotel is a space that belongs to all of us and should reflect the diversity of all Jews.”
Pruce has learned to develop a thick skin amid the heated opposition directed at Women of the Wall. Even some fellow feminists have been critical: Calling themselves Original Women of the Wall, a splinter group believes moving their prayers to a designated section is a surrender to fervently Orthodox opponents.
On the other side, a Brooklyn newspaper serving the fervently Orthodox community accused Pruce’s group of being linked to “anti-Israel” groups — an accusation she said she and Getraer had a good laugh over.
“By now, I am probably considered the grandmother of pro-Israel activism at Rutgers,” said Pruce. “I am a proud Israeli who believes in safeguarding the democracy in Israel, but I am not afraid to criticize Israel.
“My opponents claim that this delegitimizes Israel,” she said. “But when my sisters are being threatened for the way they pray in a public space, it reinforces my belief that the struggle for pluralism and women’s rights is the basis for a strong democracy in Israel.”