Ask Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall/Nashot HaKotel a few questions, and her passion for making the Western Wall a worship space for all Jews sparks.
“It is not at the moment a place for everyone. Liberal people from Israel and from North America cannot pray in an egalitarian way, and that is the majority of Jews in the world,” she said in a Skype interview from Israel on a recent Wednesday morning.
The status quo regarding the women’s section at the Kotel infuriates Sachs, a liberal Jew who grew up in Haifa. As a founder of the Isha L’Isha-Haifa Feminist Center, she served as executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and became vice president of the World Union For Progressive Judaism.
She leads efforts to overturn rules, enforced by the Kotel’s Orthodox authorities, that prevent women worshippers from singing, wearing prayer shawls, bringing a Torah scroll, and performing other customs reserved for men. “The Kotel has been turned into a haredi synagogue,” she said. “You can only pray one way.”
But Sachs also expressed her delight in being a part of an organization that unifies Jewish women across the denominational spectrum. The group’s first service at the wall in 1988 was multi-denominational, conceived and founded by Orthodox feminist Rivka Haut.
“We are one of the only groups in the world succeeding in holding prayers for Rosh Hodesh as well as Selihot and Purim in a way everyone feels comfortable,” said Sachs. The group created its own prayer book in response to the need for women to be able to pray together. It’s the only one, according to Sachs, with an “opt out” clause that reads, “We lovingly enable each other to praise the creator each according to her belief.” Said Sachs: “It’s a brilliant solution. If a woman does not want to be part of the particular prayer, she can take herself out of the group emotionally and mentally.”
Women of the Wall’s current campaign focuses on the challenge of bringing a sefer Torah into the women’s section, and it will be the core of Sachs’s presentation on Wednesday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
The group received plenty of media attention when they snuck a tiny Torah scroll into a bat mitzva service last Oct. 14. Currently, the group is legally permitted to pray with a Torah scroll. But they face what Sachs calls a “Catch-22”: prohibited from bringing a Torah scroll to the Kotel plaza, women are also not permitted to go to the men’s side, where all the scrolls are kept, to get one.
“We have some other things up our sleeve,” said Sachs, hinting at action to come. “Our dream is for girls from Israel and women who have never had one, along with girls and women from abroad, to be able to have a bat mitzva with a sefer Torah.”
North American Jews have been instrumental in the struggle over the Kotel. When he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren (who grew up in West Orange) urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take on the issue or risk “losing the support of North American Jews,” she said. When anyone from Israel comes to speak, audience members should “ask about Women of the Wall,” Sachs said.
She is asking women to share selfies of themselves with Torah scrolls, which are posted on WOW’s website. They can buy Women of the Wall tallitot, celebrate b’not mitzva with the group, and pray with its members when visiting Israel.
Before the recent elections, the group was in the midst of negotiations with a committee headed by cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit. Their aim — criticized by some founding members of the group as giving up too much — was to extend the women’s plaza to the south to include a site known as Robinson’s Arch, where egalitarian prayer is permitted. “Had the elections not broken out, we would have continued and probably reached an agreement,” she said.
Sachs is uncertain what will happen now. “Will Netanyahu want and/or be able to continue with us from the point where we left off? Will the fact that Shas and ultra-Orthodox parties will be in the government affect his strong desire — he really was desirous — to find a way of including Women of the Wall and our way of praying — and the liberal movements — in a scheme to help the Kotel become a place for everyone?”
Sachs recently recovered from a bout with cancer and sports a head of cropped gray hair that looks distinctly different from her previous long blond locks. “Any woman who can look at herself in the mirror without hair can endure anything,” she said.