As Women of the Wall continued to press Israeli officials to allow egalitarian and pluralistic prayer at Judaism’s holiest site, its chair was in New Jersey seeking support for their cause.
Speaking at the Jewish Center in Princeton April 7, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, described how an outcry from the Diaspora helped reverse a recent edict that prohibited women from reciting Kaddish at the Wall.
Such voices, she said, were critical in moderating the influence of the fervently Orthodox over religious life in Israel.
Hoffman has been at the center of efforts to expand prayer opportunities for female minyans and women who wear tallitot and carry Torah scrolls at the Wall — both opposed by the Wall’s Orthodox authorities. Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency, is proposing a compromise that would create an area for egalitarian prayer in the Western Wall plaza (see separate story, page 26).
Hoffman opened her Princeton talk with a litany of Israel’s successes followed by a question: “Where has Israel failed? In something that should have been our biggest success — in Judaism,” she said.
Secular Israelis know little about Judaism, said Hoffman, because they won’t allow Orthodox rabbis to teach in their schools. Meanwhile, graduates of seminaries of other Jewish denominations are not recognized as rabbis. Conservative Judaism’s Jewish Theological Seminary, she said, “is not recognized as an institution of learning — it is recognized by the pope, by [Hebrew Union College]; it is recognized by everyone except the Israeli government — and this is chutzpa!”
Hoffman said her organization, IRAC, is trying through the legal system to undermine the hegemony of the fervently Orthodox over religious life. “We want Israelis to have access to another way to be Jewish,” she said.
Pointing to her movement’s successes, Hoffman said that IRAC won a suit to gain a salary for Reform Rabbi Miri Gold, establishing a precedent for non-Orthodox “municipal” rabbis.
IRAC has also addressed separate seating for men and women in buses that service fervently Orthodox neighborhoods. After IRAC’s successful suit against the practice, a government minister refused to implement the results. IRAC sued him for contempt, and invited “freedom riders” to sit behind the driver. Drivers who enforced segregation were sued for damages.
But mutual respect between the denominations is possible, said Hoffman, citing the creation of a Rosh Hodesh prayer book by the multidenominational Women of the Wall; although the women argued over every word included in the siddur, they were able to come up with a text. Their motto when praying together, Hoffman told NJJN, is Notnim r’shut zeh la zeh, “‘We give permission to each other to stray away or mentally move away when it doesn’t fit, and women return when they can.”
If Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, chair of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, “wants to learn how to run the Wall in a way that everyone will feel at home,” Hoffman said, “we will give him lessons.”
Debbie Gerber, who came to the event — the 25th annual Amy Adina Schulman Fund lecture — from Highland Park, told NJJN before the talk that she was a participant in the first women’s prayer service at the Wall. The group decided to meet monthly on Rosh Hodesh to pray with a Torah, and Gerber described the reactions of fervently Orthodox worshipers at the first such service.
“They were screaming and throwing chairs…. Then we went to the [nearby]archeological gardens, and they threw bolts, nuts, and sometimes feces,” she said.
A newspaper falsely accused the women, who had come into the women’s section quietly in twos, of “singing and shouting so no one could pray” — which, said Gerber, shocked her son, then eight years old, who was astonished that newspapers would lie.