Women of the Wall appoint liberal Orthodox director

Yochi Rappeport-Zierler says she hopes that WOWs goals will be realized in next ten years, hopes to change perception of organization and of pluralist Judaism in Israel during her tenure.

Yochi Rappeport-Zierler (center) at a Women of the Wall prayer service at the Western Wall (photo credit: HILA SHILONI)
Yochi Rappeport-Zierler (center) at a Women of the Wall prayer service at the Western Wall
(photo credit: HILA SHILONI)
The Women of the Wall prayer rights organization has appointed a new, liberal Orthodox Executive Director to head up the group’s operations, who is set to begin work on Wednesday.
Yochi Rappeport-Zierler, 29, began work for WOW as its Director of Education and Community Outreach in 2016, and will now take over from outgoing director Lesley Sachs who has served in the position for the last 10 years.
Although several of its founders were Orthodox, WOW is often perceived to be a movement of progressive Jewish women, a perception that the new director says is among her central goals to change.
Rappeport-Zierler was born and raised in an Orthodox family in Safed, grew up in the religious-Zionist community of the holy city.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, she said however that she no longer sees herself as part of the religious-Zionist community because of the fierce struggle conservative elements in the sector have waged against religious pluralism in general and WOW’s campaign for prayer rights at the Western Wall in particular.
Nevertheless, Rappeport-Zierler  says that her “halachic world” is Orthodox. She prays in a liberal Orthodox and “semi-egalitarian” community in Jerusalem which uses a mechitza to separate men and women during prayer services but in which women are called up to, and read from, the Torah, and lead segments of the prayer services.
She says that she puts on a prayer shawl and tefillin when she prays during the week, including at the Western Wall, a practice that is extremely rare, if not frowned upon, in the Orthodox Jewish world, especially in traditional communities.
Rappeport-Zierler nevertheless points out the Talmud never prohibited women from donning these prayer items, and even permitted it if such practices bring them pleasure, adding that many religious women perform other religious commandments which are not obligatory for women, such as hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana.
THE NEW WOW director refuted the suggestion that she may be an Orthodox fig-leaf, albeit a liberal one, for WOW, which despite the presence of some Orthodox women is still predominantly comprised of activists from, and supported by, the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
“Is it a bonus that I’m Orthodox? Perhaps. But this is not an organization that would put someone in a position as a fig leaf just to say ‘we’ve got someone Orthodox,’” she said, adding that her appointment was done not by instruction of senior officials but through a democratic vote of the board of directors.
“WOW always had members from Orthodox, Reform and Conservative streams. That we had a Reform director was excellent. Has the time come for an Orthodox director? Yes. Can I bring other things to the organization? Yes. I am good at what I do, and I can bring the organization to new and good places and that is why I was appointed.”
Rappeport-Zierler says her goals for the organization are essentially to put it out of business within the next ten years, either by securing the right for women to read from a Torah scroll at the women’s section of the Western Wall or for the now-frozen 2016 Western Wall agreement to be implemented by the government.
“We achieved the goal of praying as a group [at the Western Wall] and we will continue to pray there, but there won’t be a need for WOW as an organization because there wont be anything to fight over because we will have won,” said Rappeport-Zierler.
Over the 30 years of WOW’s existence it has gradually secured the right to pray as a minyan of women at the Western Wall, and to put on prayer shawls and tefillin.
Its ultimate goal, which it is still denied, is for women to be able to freely read from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall during prayer services, something currently denied by Western Wall administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
The 2016 agreement would allow women to pray in accordance with their customs and read the Torah at the Robinson’s Arch section of the site at its southern end and give management of the area to WOW and the progressive Jewish denominations, but would revoke the rights won by WOW at the women’s section of the main Western Wall plaza.
OTHER WOMEN’S prayer rights groups have petitioned the High Court of Justice against the agreement and petitioned to be granted the ability to read from the Torah at the women’s section of the main plaza, but the court is yet to rule on these suits.
Asked if she would prefer that the court allow women to read from the Torah in the main plaza or for the 2016 agreement to be implemented, Rappeport-Zierler said that it was “an extremely difficult question” and that ultimately she would want a favorable decision on both petitions.
“The big dream of WOW was for women to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall, but we know reading from a Torah won’t happen, there is too great an opposition to it as the conservative Orthodox elements are fighting to maintain their monopoly,” she said.
“The Robinson’s Arch prayer area is also a solution for Reform and Conservative Jews, and they also need a respectable place of their own to pray at the Western Wall,” she noted.
The new director says that she also intends to bolster WOW’s educational efforts, to bring about “a change in Israel’s social consciousness” regarding the organization, and regarding “what Judaism is and who is Jewish in the State of Israel and who has rights here.”
“I am in favor of religion, I am in favor of students learning about Judaism, but they cannot learn just about one side, just about conservative Orthodox Judaism, we have to teach them about the diversity in Judaism, they need to understand that there are other alternatives in Judaism and that there are 70 faces to Judaism,” she said.
“I want to talk about the diversity of Judaism, and of Israel as a home for all, Jews in Israel and abroad so that everyone feels that they have a place, that the Kotel – which is a symbol for the Jewish people – wont only be a wall but will also be somewhere which allows a place for all.”
And she is also keen to change perceptions and preconceived notions of WOW particularly in the Orthodox community.
“Many Orthodox people think WOW are all from the Reform movement and provocateurs, but when they hear about WOW from someone who is one of them, from someone Orthodox, who speaks about WOW as something holy, it changes things for them.”