There were a lot of rabbis at the Western Wall last Wednesday – mostly on the women’s side.

The monthly gathering of the Women of the Wall (WOW) for morning prayer services on Rosh Hodesh Elul included religious leaders from the entire spectrum of Jewish life – Reform rabbis, Conservative rabbis, rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Yeshiva, and scholars from New York’s Drisha Institute.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.

“I came today because it is important to show that we all belong here,” said Rabbi Na’ama Kelman, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem campus. “The Kotel is not the personal property of ultra-Orthodox men. It belongs to the entire Jewish people.”

Dina Najman, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox synagogue Kehillat Orach Eliezer on New York’s Upper West Side, was also in attendance. “Some people mistakenly say we’re not Orthodox,” Najman said about her own congregation, with implications for the WOW group, “but we are definitely Orthodox.”

Najman’s insistence on Orthodoxy illustrates the remarkable achievement of Women of the Wall. The fact that leaders of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism pray together in a regular pluralistic women’s service is virtually unparalleled in the Jewish world.

This example of women’s harmony has been overshadowed by clashes with some haredim. The prayer group was surrounded by angry attackers – women and men – shouting epithets such as “Abomination!” “Christian lesbians!” and “Have you forgotten how to be women?” The cantor, Natalie Lastreger, a rabbinical student at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, nevertheless managed to maintain a melodious, uplifting service despite the shouting around her.

“Expressing gratitude to God amid such hostility is just beautiful,” she said. “We forget to say thanks sometimes, but today one could not help but feel it and mean it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch-Ellenson, the executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, concurred. “I felt that we maintained a good level of energy and strength in the face of some enormous verbal harassment.”

Tensions between WOW and haredi visitors to the Western Wall came to a head last month when Anat Hoffman, director of WOW, was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll in the Western Wall plaza and was placed under a restraining order forbidding her from entering the main square. This month, Kelman and Hoffman waited outside the security gate, holding the Torah, and met the group for Torah reading and musaf services, which were held at Robinson’s Arch.

For some, the challenge of maintaining harmony amid the hostility brings about its own spirituality. “It was an incredibly powerful experience,” said Guila Franklin Siegal, former director of the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Washington, DC. “I learned how hard it is to try to pray meaningfully when you are being screamed and cursed at from all sides. I learned how empowering it is to stand with other women in defiance of such hatred…. And I saw the enormous kavana [intent], courage, determination and mutual support in the face of everyone who participated in the service, both men and women, and in their faces and their voices, I felt the Divine presence.”

Despite the attacks and despite the diversity of the group, WOW is, for the most part, an Orthodox organization. Founded at the 1988 conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), WOW follows guidelines for women’s prayer groups as they are practiced in the Orthodox community. Women do not count for a minyan (prayer quorum), they do not recite blessings that require a minyan such as Kaddish, and they do not recite the repetition of the Amida prayer.

“This is definitely an Orthodox gathering,” said Hanna Ellenson, 24, a recent graduate of Tel Aviv University. “The core members are Orthodox, and as a group they stay within Orthodox boundaries.”

In fact, the Orthodoxy of the service is problematic for some participants.

A contingent from the Conservative youth group Noam that had participated in the first half of the WOW service split off into their own service for the Torah reading. “I came to support WOW because what they’re doing is very important. But it’s hard for me to participate in a service that does not believe in egalitarianism,” explained Matan Glazer, 24, a Noam counselor. “My dream would be to hold an egalitarian service at the Kotel. But I know that we are very far from that dream.”

Other participants value both egalitarian and single-gender prayers.

“I’m an ardent feminist,” said Emily Jurman, 24, a rabbinical student from Toronto, who is in Israel on the one-year program at the Leo Baeck Institute. “I’m here to show my support for women and women’s gathering.”

For Jurman, an all-women’s gathering like this is not a compromise but a powerful event in itself.

Meanwhile, although some participants think that the prayer is not egalitarian enough, others are unfailing in their commitment to Orthodox standards.

“Everything we do is within Halacha,” said a member of the WOW board. “We are a pluralistic group, but our practice is strictly Orthodox, and our board is predominantly Orthodox as well. The few women who are not Orthodox – like Anat [Hoffman] – accept that. We would not do anything against Halacha. The same way we would also not do anything against the law.”

The concern about not being acceptable enough to the Orthodox establishment, as well as to the strictest reading of civil law, has some unexpected supporters – even from within Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Einat Ramon of the Schechter Institute has publicly condemned Women of the Wall, in an op-ed in Ma’ariv and in interviews elsewhere. “Sending our daughters to be wrapped in a tallit at the section of the Wall that is run according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law is a violation… of our agreement with the State of Israel,” Ramon has said. “It violates the moral-legal principle of minhag makom – respect for the customs of a certain place – and for the rabbi and community that adheres to him.”

A 2003 Supreme Court ruling determined that WOW members who want to wear tallitot and kippot and read from the Torah must do so at Robinson’s Arch.

“Critics should learn the history,” counters Shira Pruce, WOW publicity coordinator. “We have been meeting every Rosh Hodesh since 1988, and our prayers have stayed exactly the same. We are not challenging the status quo. Jerusalem is just becoming more extreme.”

It seems that 22 years of regular practice may constitute minhag makom as well.

Ironically, Ramon is perhaps more Orthodox than the Orthodox, and her moderate stance has come under criticism from within feminist groups, even within Orthodoxy. Ofira Krakover, coordinator of the Modi’in branch of the Orthodox feminist group Kolech, said, “Yes, it’s a provocation, but it’s a good provocation. You need to provoke sometimes to make the necessary change.”
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share