Bonna Haberman created and ran Women of the Wall (WOW) for years and remained active in our core mission literally until the day she died.
The idea for a religiously diverse group of Jewish women to pray together in a group service, with Torah reading, came from the late Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Talmud scholar from Brooklyn.
She was in Jerusalem in December 1988, along with about 1,000 other women, for the first International Conference of Jewish Feminists when she suggested the idea. You can read background and details and the experience of participants in the book Rivka co-edited with another founder of WOW, Phyllis Chesler: Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.
Bonna, who lived in Jerusalem, asked herself why it took women coming from the Diaspora to have and execute this idea, when the Kotel, as she said, is in our back yard. Bonna being Bonna, she then launched Women of the Wall as an Israeli group, going regularly, on various days of the week, both when the Torah is read and days it is not. I was in Israel that year (1988- 89). I was at the planning meeting for the first women’s group service at the Kotel, with Rivka Haut, and read Torah there that first, incredible time, and I was a member of WOW during that first year, with Bonna.
There was appalling violence for months; haredi men charging through the partition between the men’s and women’s sections of the Kotel plaza to attack us, even attempting to overturn the table on which we had the sefer Torah – yes, an unimaginable sacrilege. Bonna, then hugely pregnant, caught the Torah scroll against her belly lest, God forbid, it fall to the ground. When the police stopped men from coming through to attack us, haredi women turned on us with stunning violence, sending several of us to the hospital.
In that year, the Religious Affairs Ministry issued rulings criminalizing women’s voices being heard anywhere in the Kotel precincts, on pain of fine and imprisonment, and also us having a Torah scroll.
We sued before the Supreme Court. By this time, an international group of supporters, called the International Committee for Women of the Wall, Inc. (ICWOW), had formed. That group raised consciousness abroad about the cause and raised funds; we commissioned and purchased a Torah scroll for the women of Jerusalem and, in order to gain standing in the Supreme Court case, brought the scroll to Jerusalem, inaugurated it in festivities, and then brought it to the Kotel area, where we were blocked from bringing it to the Wall.
Bonna led the many-yearslong dealings with lawyers, commissions and court hearings, while continuing to lead group prayers at the Kotel and Torah readings at a nearby archeological site.
The Supreme Court ruled on our case in 2003, stating that in principle all we were asking was legal. It cited political considerations and gave the government a year to prepare an alternate site, the nearby archeological site Robinson’s Arch, to accommodate prayer services. If that were not done within that time frame, the court said we had every right to be at the Kotel in the manner we wished.
The government did not make Robinson’s Arch (RA) suitable within that time frame but in any case WOW, and ICWOW, resolutely rejected any suggestion of an alternate site and continued to insist on the right of Jewish women to the same full religious expression at the Kotel that men have enjoyed since 1967. We continued to hold women’s services at the Kotel, departing to RA for a number of years in order to read Torah, but never accepting the legitimacy of that arrangement and continuing to press for the above-stated rights, which I have labeled “t-4”: women’s group tefilla, with voice; tallit; tefillin; and Torah.
In 2013, after women had been detained by police for donning tallitot at the kotel, claiming this disturbed the peace and violated custom, WOW won a stunning victory in the District Court of Judge Moshe Sobel. Sobel ruled sweepingly, on the basis of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling and evidence presented in court, that Jewish women praying in our manner in no way disturbs the peace, that it was protesters against us who did that while overwhelming evidence established that we, like other worshipers, only of the male variety, were just – praying. But Sobel also ruled that, after a quarter of a century, our custom was as much part of the custom of the place as any other, and that we violated no custom, either. He said explicitly that all we seek to do there is legal and not to be barred.
From that point on, the police, who had been harassing us at the behest of the rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, started protecting us instead. It was a remarkable turnaround and testimony to the rule of law. Bonna was in Moshe Sobel’s court the day he heard the case; she participated in parsing the ruling that swiftly came, and in acting on it, by continuing to participate in women’s tefilla at the Kotel.
Rabinowitz, however, issued a nohal, a pronouncement, stating that no one could bring a Torah scroll to the kotel. Since he also refuses to allow women to use any of the dozens of Torah scrolls held on the men’s side, this effectively bars Jewish women from reading Torah at the Wall, a restriction we have gotten around several times, including most recently just a week-and-ahalf ago, when I organized a service to pray for Bonna’s health, and we got a Torah scroll in, and read from it at the Kotel (see all the details on our Facebook page: “Original Women of the Wall tefillat nashim bakotel”). However, we cannot do this openly, easily, which is a violation of the court rulings on this matter.
Bonna has been an active member of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), established by original founders of Women of the Wall in October 2013, when the current leadership of WOW made a decision we are challenging on procedural as well as overwhelming substantive grounds, to negotiate with the government, along with the Reform and Conservative movements, to ban women’s prayer services at the Kotel and turn the Kotel officially into a synagogue under haredi control – a status it does not now and never has had – in return for official recognition of those movements and preparation of RA as a grand new plaza for egalitarian prayer.
Recognition of religious pluralism and proliferation of prayer sites and styles are worthy goals, which some of us may support individually, but absolutely not at the cost of giving up the whole purpose of Women at the Wall and the historic gains we have made.
Bonna was adamantly opposed to this and resolutely continued to support and promote our original goals. She participated in every step of our challenge to the scheme to give up women’s inclusive, pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.
She wrote about it, published about it, spoke about it, and strategized actively with us, coming to planning meetings even when weak from her illness and its treatment, in typical Bonna heroic manner; speaking with our lawyers, consulting with us, here in Israel and in North America, who run OWOW. Bonna was utterly committed to egalitarianism in all aspects of life and in religion in particular, yet like all of us in OWOW, she understood the importance of and need for women’s prayer, that is, of the need for feminism, as well as egalitarianism, in Judaism.
She was enormously buoyed by our prayer at the Kotel, with Torah reading, in her honor just last week. This is what she wrote to me after I emailed that we had succeeded in getting a Torah in, and reading from it at the Kotel: “Shulamit! OWOW!! Words cannot express how grateful I am to you all for this tefilla. I learned of your success when I returned from the hospital in the early eve [sic] after a grueling day. You made my heart soar! Much love and brakha [blessing], B.”
Our hearts, minds, spirits, have suffered a tremendous loss. Bonna was one of a kind: brilliant, astonishingly creative; steadfast, adamant in her convictions, and without limit in her commitment. She combined all this with deep Jewish learning, to which she contributed with immense creativity and integrity. And humor, irony, joy, song – she so loved to sing, to lead in prayer, her whole body swaying, her face radiant with joy and connection.
The void her untimely death leaves is unfillable. We mourn her deeply and grieve with her passionately loved and loving family.
Bonna made immense contributions to contemporary Jewish life. Her brilliant, courageous passion and love-filled life are her monument.
With great sadness I write: yehi zikhra barukh. May her work and spirit continue; they will if we make it so.The author is Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College, author of four books, and winner of a National Jewish Book Award.
She was a founder of Women of the Wall and is now living in Israel.