Coming of age?

As Women of the Wall launches a campaign promoting bat mitzva ceremonies at the Western Wall and violence erupts in the capital, the issue of women’s prayer at the holy site is raised again.

Part of WoW’s struggles is against what it sees as haredi dominance of religion. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Part of WoW’s struggles is against what it sees as haredi dominance of religion.
At 7 a.m. today, Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, a group of women is scheduled to pray at the Western Wall. And while this is a fairly routine event, it will likely be anything but boring.
Women of the Wall has been campaigning for over 25 years to allow women to wear prayer shawls, put on tefillin, pray, and read publicly from the Torah at the Western Wall. The organization has faced fierce criticism from haredi circles, and there have been violent protests against its members at their monthly services.
Last week, the organization launched an ad campaign on Jerusalem buses, promoting bat mitzva celebrations for girls at the Western Wall, in a move that guarantees wider public attention – as well as the possibility of stronger clashes during the service.
The bat mitzva campaign features four girls between the ages of 11 and 14 wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and holding a Torah scroll in front of the Western Wall. The captions read, “Mom, I want a bat mitzva at the Kotel [Western Wall], too,” and “V’zot hatorah [This is the Torah].”
However, the prospect of a violent reaction became real on Monday night, when buses featuring the ads were vandalized in the capital’s Shabbat Square, reportedly by ultra-Orthodox men. Tires were slashed, the campaign ads were torn down, and spray-painted graffiti bore the message “An end to the abomination pictures.”
“It is sad to yet again see the ultra-Orthodox citizens take the law into their own hands and use Judaism as an excuse for the use of force, threats and violence against women,” said Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs. “We call on [the] ultra- Orthodox leadership to strongly denounce this act of violence and all others.”
All the girls in the campaign – Ashira Abramowitz- Silverman, Devorah Leff, Sasha Lutt and Alma Weiss-Abraham – are involved with Women of the Wall and either have already celebrated their bat mitzvas with the organization or are planning to do so. Lutt is scheduled to celebrate her bat mitzva today.
The campaign has caused quite a stir, and Women of the Wall has reported that half of the ads were torn down within a week. On the other hand, the organization has received more than 60 phone calls since the campaign began, mostly from people sincerely interested in the project. A few of the calls, however, were prank calls or harassment.
It is not widely accepted in the Orthodox community for girls to read from the Torah at their bat mitzvas, and in any case, a 2010 regulation prohibits women from bringing Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza.
“These brave young girls and others have the right to have their bat mitzva at the holiest site for Jews,” Sachs said at the launch of the campaign. “That is one of the things we are fighting for, and that is why we have launched this campaign – so that girls and mothers will call the number on the ad and find out more about how to join Women of the Wall. We will be able to tell them how to make this wonderful time in their lives into a meaningful, fulfilling bat mitzva experience.”
THE BUS campaign has two main and interrelated focuses, according to Shira Pruce, Women of the Wall’s public relations director. The first, she says, is the organization’s struggle to get a Torah scroll to the women’s section of the Western Wall, where its members pray.
The second is the bat mitzva celebrations at the site, in which Torah scrolls play a main part.
The 2010 ban, explains Pruce, is “enforcing a local regulation by a rabbi, not law.” Women of the Wall argues that its members have the “legal right to pray according to our tradition,” as upheld by Judge Moshe Sobel’s ruling from April 2013.
“The Torah is central in Judaism and binds all Jews, across denominations, religiously, spiritually, culturally and historically. To deny any Jew access to a Torah scroll, as has been done so many times before throughout Jewish history, is an affront to religious freedom,” the organization says. “To refuse women access to Torah has no basis in Halacha (Jewish law) and has no place in a public site in a democratic state.”
Rabbi Susan Silverman, Ashira’s mother, says her daughter is “very happy” to be part of the campaign.
Silverman says Ashira became involved with Women of the Wall after having witnessed the arrest of her mother and elder sister, Hallel, at the Western Wall over a year ago, and that she has continued to attend Women of the Wall gatherings at the holy site.
A staunch supporter of the organization’s mission, Silverman – who is involved in Congregation Kol Haneshama for Progressive Judaism in Baka – defines herself as an observant Jew and thinks of Halacha “as a way of living, a derech, not a prison.” Reiterating that Women of the Wall does not act in opposition to Halacha, she says such criticism is “just bigotry in Jewish garb.”
As to concern about vandalism to the bus ads in Jerusalem, where standard advertisements featuring women have been destroyed in the past, Silverman says that her family had talked about the possibility. She says Ashira understands that it is part of the risk of putting herself “out to the world” and spearheading such a campaign.
Ashira also has serious support overseas, where her aunt, comedian Sarah Silverman, is completely behind the family’s cause. When Susan and Hallel were arrested last year, the famous aunt tweeted, “SO proud of my amazing sister and niece for their ballsout civil disobedience. Ur the tits! #womenofthewall,” raising global awareness of the organization.
DEVORAH LEFF’S bat mitzva at the Western Wall with the organization last year attracted the attention of the haredi community, with thousands protesting at the event. According to her father, Conservative Rabbi Barry Leff, the contentious atmosphere did not faze his daughter, an enthusiastic believer in the organization.
The Leff family has a “fairly traditional Conservative home” and keeps kosher, Shabbat and the holidays, he says. Devorah’s interest in Women of the Wall, he explains, stems from her being “a big believer in equality, and that the Kotel belongs to all Jews, not just haredim.”
Regarding vandalism of the buses that bear her picture and those of her friends, as occurred on Monday night, Devorah “understands that there is intolerance; [it’s] part of what we’re fighting for,” her father says, adding that she had been warned it might happen.
Leff himself has been at the Western Wall during the organization’s services, and says that being separate from the group (since he can’t enter the women’s section) “gives a taste of what it might be like for women spectators” in more traditional settings. Some men, he says, support Women of the Wall’s vision, while some view it as a women’s issue.
The organization’s struggle, in Leff’s opinion, is about pluralism. He says the group doesn’t object to people praying in a manner that suits them, and it maintains that everyone should be able to do so. However, he says, there shouldn’t be a “mitzva police” telling people how to connect with God.
To many, Women of the Wall symbolizes the struggle over the desired status of religious affairs in Israel, and the battle against what a lot of people see as the haredi dominance of many aspects of religion in the country. On top of that, the organization, though Israeli, has strong ties to Diaspora communities and believes that it helps Jews abroad – who in many cases do not observe strictly Orthodox practices – find a way to connect with Israel and with Judaism.
According to the organization, the “increasingly ultra-Orthodox character of the Western Wall only hurts our relations with Diaspora Jewry” and pushes away Jews who do not identify with Orthodox beliefs. Women of the Wall aims to make the holy site “a welcoming space, a warm place, that doesn’t judge people upon entrance,” as well as a place that doesn’t limit women in the public sphere.
The importance of this has not escaped the attention of the country’s decision makers, the organization notes, adding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “also knows how important this issue is to Diaspora Jews” and that he frequently speaks abroad “about the Western Wall belonging to all Jews.”
The government has made efforts to find a solution to the situation at the Western Wall. Last year, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky proposed a plan for a third, egalitarian section at the site, though it has not yet materialized, and cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit is currently heading a committee that is attempting to negotiate between Women of the Wall and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
While the negotiations and plans haven’t yet taken physical shape at the holy site, Women of the Wall’s members are pleased that their cause is receiving serious government attention.
“They have really changed their attitude toward the exclusion of women in the public sphere, especially at the Wall,” says Pruce.
And it seems that it’s not only government attitudes that have changed, but public perception as well. Once viewed by many as a mainly Englishspeaking movement that was not particularly rooted in Israeli society, the organization reports that this is no longer the case. While Women of the Wall’s founders were mostly immigrants and visitors who brought their feminist ideals with them to Israel, “reality has definitely changed,” Pruce says: Today, more than 70 percent of the organization’s members are Israeli-born.
NONETHELESS, THERE has yet to be a widespread consensus regarding the organization’s aims.
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth – the rabbi of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana and CEO of Beit Hillel, a liberal Orthodox leadership organization – disagrees with Women of the Wall’s campaign.
“We very much support reinforcing the place of women in the world of Torah within the frame of Halacha, and view this as one of Judaism’s most important challenges in our generation,” he says.
“But the belligerence of Women of the Wall takes us back and causes most communities to have reservations about any change, even a change that doesn’t involve a halachic issue.”
Beit Hillel, which has supported women saying the kaddish for deceased relatives, reading from the megila on Purim, and dancing with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah, believes that the issue of women reading from Torah scrolls is more problematic according to Jewish law – which is why the organization hasn’t lent its support to Women of the Wall’s campaign.
“In order to influence the center of Israeli society, there is a need to act responsibly and not to be drawn into extreme places,” Neuwirth says. There is an international process of integrating women in the Jewish world, he adds, warning that patience is necessary for it to succeed.
But some Orthodox individuals do support Women of the Wall’s goals. Avigail Antman, one of the organization’s board members, defines herself as Orthodox. Not only does she not see any halachic problem with women reading from the Torah, she sees it as an opportunity to express her religious values.
Antman became associated with the organization over a year ago, when a friend of her son told her she’d had a meaningful experience at a Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh service. Curious, Antman went the following month and understood what the younger woman had gotten excited about.
Antman says that the issue of women reading from the Torah wasn’t discussed in the past simply because women weren’t asking to do so, and that the whole process is “a historical development.”
When women began wanting to express themselves in a religious manner, it became clear that there was no religious prohibition, she says.
“Any change is regarded as a threat to tradition,” she says, but the campaign is gaining ground because “it has to do with something very basic” that touches the hearts of Israeli parents who wish to see their daughters celebrate their bat mitzvas like boys get to celebrate their bar mitzvas.
Speaking on the eve of Simhat Torah as the campaign was unfolding, Pruce offered wishes that “we all carry the Simhat Torah [which translates to ‘joy in Torah’] all year. Let’s share it with all Jews, with women and girls. Let’s open the gates of Torah for women and girls at the Western Wall.”
It now remains to be seen whether today’s service and the bat mitzva campaign will be the opening that these women desire.