Women of the Wall protest.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
That the Women of the Wall’s (WoW) monthly visits to the Western Wall provoke
insults, spitting and sometimes worse from a group of haredim at the Western
Wall is old news. But there was another story last Friday that the media either
missed or botched entirely: the thousands of Jewish women and girls who filled
the area directly in front of the Kotel and almost to the back wall of the Kotel
plaza, completely dwarfing the group of 100 or so women associated with
(The figure of 400 to 500 WoW members given by some outlets is
patent nonsense.) When I arrived at the Kotel a little past 7 a.m., there were
about 25 (not 2,000 as reported by Haaretz) young haredi men standing on the
upper level at the far north of the Kotel Plaza shouting and ruining the prayers
for all those on the men’s side who had come to pray on Rosh Hodesh. (I had
already heard on the radio that police had arrested one haredi man.) What
surprised me, however, was that the most prominent video camera remained
exclusively focused on this small group among the many thousands then at the
The media showed absolutely no interest in the thousands upon
thousands of seminary girls and older women praying on the women’s side and not
raising their voices above a quiet whisper. Yet that sight brought tears to my
admittedly biased eyes.
There is a special purity about seminary girls
found no place else in the world today.
And this group was special in
another respect: It included women and girls across the national
The leading rabbis of the national religious
world had publicly given their support for the national religious seminaries to
participate as well. The Kotel thus united the leading rabbis of both the
national religious and haredi world.
Somehow the media managed to mangle
the presence of the thousands of girls, lumping them together with the male
hooligans – often in a single sentence (as in this paper’s front-page story on
Sunday) – as part of a single haredi protest. Yet Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman had
explicitly conditioned his permission for seminary girls’ attendance on there
being absolutely no violence. Yosi Deutsch, a haredi member of the Jerusalem
Municipality, lamented in a radio interview that the boys at the Kotel were
ruining the message, which was to juxtapose traditional women’s prayer with the
attention-seeking of WoW.
THAT MESSAGE was formulated by two friends
living in the settlement of Kochav Ya’acov – Ronit Peskin and Leah
Over the three weeks leading up to Rosh Hodesh Sivan, they
created Women for the Wall, employed their considerable skills in social media
to publicize their initiative, were interviewed dozens of times by both the
local and international media, and took on the WoW agenda in numerous blogs at
the Times of Israel. But for their initiative, there would have been no
organized women’s prayer gathering last Friday morning.
They are true
heirs of Sarah Schenirer, the divorced Cracow seamstress who founded the Bais
Yaakov movement, the most influential movement in the haredi world in the 20th
century. Without the approval of the Hafetz Haim and the Gerrer Rebbe, the Bais
Yaakov movement would never have grown as it did. But without Sarah Schenirer it
would never have come into existence, and she led the movement.
Peskin nor Aharoni is mainstream haredi. Peskin, 25, home-schools her three
young children, teaches women how to forage for edible food growing wild, and
runs a website called Penniless Parenting, on how to keep down the family food
budget, which receives 60,000 to 70,000 hits worldwide a month.
response to the boast of WoW founder Susan Aranoff that WoW seeks to liberate
haredi women so that they can “function religiously... without the help of men,”
Peskin describes her religious journey from her modern Orthodox upbringing in
Cleveland to “quasi-haredi,” including a rebellious teenage period of no
observance in between. Her religious search forced her to become financially
independent at 17.
Of her current life, she writes, “It was a path I
chose, and fought lots of obstacles to get there. I don’t live this way because
I haven’t witnessed alternatives. I’ve witnessed them and rejected them, and
made the choice to live as I do because I find it the most meaningful type of
life for me.
Implying that I’m doing what I do merely because I’m
subjugated by men is insulting to me, insulting my intelligence, insulting to
the men I love, and insulting to the entire population of Chareidi women... I
don’t need you to rescue me...”
Aharoni is firmly in the national
religious camp, and makes her living as a business consultant helping “female
business owners create more income doing work they love.”
traveled a long religious path from her native Soviet Union – a path that
started in a Reform temple and included a period in the congregation of Rabbi
Avi Weiss, a leading figure in Orthodox feminism.
She finds “the epitome
of misogyny” in WoW’s “rejection of the feminine Jewish
“There is nothing more demeaning to women than positioning
the male experience as the only one worth living and setting up women for an
ongoing game of catch-up,” she says. “I have liberated myself from the need to
predicate my identity on becoming ‘one of the boys.’” Peskin points out that
WoW’s mission statement does not mention God once.
WoW supporters speak
of the Kotel as a wedge issue for liberal Judaism in Israel (Rabbi Eliana Yolkut
in Haaretz); tell the BBC that Israel is no “Club Med for the Jewish soul”;
convince non-Orthodox Jews that they are hated in Israel and not allowed to
worship freely, even though they can pray as they want, almost any place they
want, including just south on the Western Wall at Robinson’s Arch, as
Conservative and Reform groups already do; and call for the Kotel to be declared
a national monument, as well as for the mehitza to be removed between 9 a.m and
3 p.m. and men barred (Anat Hoffman in the St. Petersburg
The omission of God is no surprise. For Hoffman, the
self-styled Rosa Parks of WoW, the Kotel has no sanctity and the return of the
Temple and its “sacrificial cult” is a repugnant thought. The Kotel is just the
best place to attract attention.
If God were the addressee of WoW’s
prayers, Aharoni points out, there is the tunnel on he women’s side just
opposite the Holy of Holies, where no paraphernalia is needed to be heard by the
One Above. A group of Jewish women has come there to recite psalms on behalf of
the entire Jewish people in the small hours of the morning every single night
since 1967. They come not to “liberate religion; they come to liberate
themselves. At the wall, they polish the lenses and attain clarity of
They know that marriage does not thrive in a glass house, and
service of God is not for TV cameras.
In a post after Rosh Hodesh,
entitled “Why Guys Are Thugs...” Peskin speculated that those who attacked WoW
suffer from low self-esteem. To compensate, they need attention and an illusion
of control. In that, at least, the haredi thugs and the Women of the Wall have
something in common.
■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has
written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the
author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.