Uniting wall?

Natan Sharansky tells 'In Jerusalem' there must be a section for "egalitarian prayer," confirming rumors of a third section at Judaism's holiest site.

Women of the Wall521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Women of the Wall521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘There must be a section for egalitarian prayer” at the Western Wall, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told In Jerusalem last Tuesday.
Speaking by phone from New York after a meeting with representatives of the various religious denominations comprising American organized Jewry, Sharansky confirmed rumors that he is pushing for the addition of a third section at Judaism’s holiest site.
The Women of the Wall activist group has of late stepped up its campaign to change the current prayer arrangements and bring attention to what it describes as “an unjust law.” A High Court decision forbids performing religious ceremonies “not according to local custom” or that “may hurt the feelings of the worshipers” at holy sites, including the Western Wall, which the police interpret as meaning anything deviating from Orthodox practice.
In practise, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, administrator of the Western Wall, decides what is allowed.
Practices observed by men in Orthodox communities, such as wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah, are therefore forbidden by law to women at the Western Wall.
Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the Western Wall has become a flashpoint over the past 18 months, with women regularly detained at the site for wearing tallitot. The police claim that what are forbidden are the large, black-and-white prayer shawls they classify as “male-style” tallitot, though some of the women arrested were wearing “female-style” tallitot – smaller, colorful prayer shawls generally worn around the neck, rather than over the shoulders.
American Jewry has taken an intense interest in the matter and in December, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tasked Sharansky with finding a compromise deal to end the internecine conflict over the holy site.
Sharansky told In Jerusalem that there was no reason not to implement a solution in which “all the Wall will be accessible 24 hours a day... there will be the opportunity to touch the Wall on all its length” and “there will be one entrance through which the people are coming.”
After consulting with ministers and MKs along with both Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders in Israel, Sharansky said he decided to test the waters in the US.
“I hope that we can really come to a very broad consensus,” the Jewish Agency chairman said, indicating he felt “encouraged” by the reception his proposal garnered.
“It’s true that in 1968 there was a decision to keep part of the Western Wall for prayer and part for excavations, but the excavations finished long ago,” he said, noting that the Mughrabi Bridge, which leads to the Temple Mount, could serve as a “natural divider” between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections of the Wall.
However, while that is the “basic idea,” he said, “the important thing is details” and implementation.
Sharansky would not comment on the exact composition of the group convened for Tuesday’s meeting in New York, but did note that Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidim and other Orthodox groups were represented.
“Without going into details,” he said, “everybody has his or her objections, but I think in the end everybody understands that here is an opportunity to make the Western Wall again into the place and symbol that unites all of us, and not divides.”
WOMEN OF the Wall, which is usually conflated with the Reform and Conservative movements, identifies itself as a non-denominational organization. While leader Anat Hoffman has expressed cautious optimism over the Sharansky proposal, members of the group’s board have indicated they do not want an egalitarian solution, only the right to conduct their women’s-only service in peace. After all, one board member pointed out, their group includes Orthodox women as well.
For over two decades, Women of the Wall has been coming to the Western Wall to pray, and for years the only people who seemed to care, aside from the women themselves, were Diaspora Jews. Their cause did not seem to resonate with Israelis.
A partial explanation could lie in Israel’s religious composition.
While there is a range of observance that can be seen in the country, from totally secular to ultra- Orthodox, with variations on traditional and nationalreligious in between, there are few Israelis who identify with non-Orthodox streams such as Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. These streams have never really caught on as popular expressions of Judaism.
Non-standard forms of prayer, at least by Orthodox standards, and the feeling among Israelis that it was natural to have an Orthodox rabbi run the site, fed into the indifference felt by many Israelis for much of the time that Women of the Wall has been active.
However, with freshman MKs such as Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg recently making visits to the Western Wall to show solidarity with Women of the Wall, and Netanyahu’s appointment of Sharansky to find a compromise solution for prayer at the site, Israeli perceptions of what should be permissible at the site seem to be changing. A major event bringing the Women of the Wall’s struggle to public prominence was the arrest of 17-year-old Hallel Abramowitz Silverman, the niece of comedienne Sarah Silverman, at services earlier this year.
There are several theories as to why this change is occurring. One, voiced to In Jerusalem by several American communal leaders, is that pressure from organized American Jewry, which is much more attuned to issues of religious pluralism, is having an effect.
According to Mindy Stein, chairman of the board of the women’s religious Zionist organization Emunah of America, “there are many American Jews and Jewish leaders who are not Orthodox, who are giving substantial amounts of money and time to Israel. Israel is central to their lives and they feel alienated because they cannot pray in a manner consistent with their beliefs.”
“Obviously there is American pressure, which has increased,” she says. “At a time when Israel is being delegitimized more than ever, Israel’s need and desire for unity among all of its supporters has also increased.
I believe that the Israeli government feels that resolving this issue is one way to promote such unity and to ensure the continued support of all streams of Judaism.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, agrees. According to Jacobs, the “Jewish world” in the Diaspora “has been inspired and challenged by the courage and devotion of the Women of the Wall, and the group’s activities have awakened North American non-Orthodox Jewry to assert their collective strength to push for equality and just treatment within our Jewish state. Diaspora outrage turned to activism when Anat Hoffman was arrested and put in jail for the crime of saying the Shema [prayer] out loud while wearing a tallit.”
“During these last months there has also been a positive shift within the new Israeli government and the wider Israeli society to address issues of pluralism and fairness, leading us to this hopeful moment of change and possibility,” Jacobs says.
Another source from a prominent Jewish communal organization who declined to be identified, remarked that he believes that “in the last year there has been a far greater appreciation by Israelis and Israeli leaders of these types of issues, and a greater understanding of a more pluralistic and a more open approach to Judaism.” This includes the need to understand Judaism that is practiced differently not just in Israel, but in North America and throughout the Diaspora.
The source also added that even “more significant” is the new Knesset. “Almost all of the parties across the board,” he says, “are filled with people who really have a great appreciation and understanding of these types of issues, and they have brought these issues to the forefront of the public debate.”
There are even, he notes, “a number of people who come from the Orthodox camp, but are far more open and pluralistic and willing to hear, and understand and appreciate the points of view and the practices of others.”
“Basically, I think that we are entering an era of a far more open Judaism, a far more open Israeli society, one that increases respect for Judaism and increases respect for all streams of Judaism.”
One example of an MK with an appreciation of non- Orthodox streams is Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, who, while secular, is affiliated with a Reform synagogue in north Tel Aviv.
CHERYL BIRKNER Mack is a member of the board of Women of the Wall. She says that the reason the government has at this time involved itself in the issue may have something to do with the growth, both in numbers and in public profile, that her organization has enjoyed since 2009.
“It’s clear that our groups have been larger over the last three years – and the larger the group is, the larger the reaction is and the more arrests there are,” she says. “It’s a circle. One of the reasons that the groups get bigger is because of the arrests.”
Pressure has been mounting on authorities to deal with the issue due to “the press we have been getting, as well as perhaps some pressure from Reform and Conservative and other non-Orthodox groups, although I’m not sure how much they have been involved,” she adds.
Asked why the police have begun arresting members of her group after two decades of services, she muses that “it’s sort of like a vicious cycle that’s going on.
“The first arrest that I’m aware of was Rosh Hodesh Kislev 2009, the end of November, and before that date our numbers were typically 15 women, 20 women maybe, sometimes 12.
“Nothing was much bigger than that, in my experience,” says Mack. “That Rosh Hodesh we had had a beautiful prayer, it was really nice. And unlike most months, we also had had nobody – women or men – come to complain or throw things at us or whatever.
We were about 15 that morning and one of our members said, ‘Let’s not go to Robinson’s Arch, and just read the Torah here.
People aren’t paying attention to us, we aren’t disturbing, they won’t notice.’ “In those days we were allowed to bring our scroll into the women’s section and then we would go to Robinson’s Arch,” she recalls.
After taking out their Torah, Mack and the Women of the Wall were confronted by several men, who yelled at them that reading the Torah was forbidden to women and then called the police.
Before they could leave, she says, the police arrived and arrested the woman holding the Torah.
“That arrest really mobilized things,” Mack says. Nofrat Frenkel, the woman who was arrested, “was raised in a Conservative congregation in Kfar Saba and they got behind this.
“The women’s issue, discrimination against women, also came up around that time. People were beginning to get upset about this also, so I think that this fed into it,” Mack says, referring to the issue of discrimination against women and the nationwide protests against gender discrimination, the banning of women’s images on buses in the capital, and the segregation of public bus lines that ran through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
She also referred to the violence in Beit Shemesh over the building of a religious Zionist girls’ school, which involved spitting attacks on schoolgirls deemed “immodest” and “loose” by extremists living adjacent to the school.
As these issues gained steam, they galvanized public interest, both in Israel and abroad, on the issue of gender equality at the Western Wall, she believes.
Certainly, the increasing frequency of arrests over matters such as the wearing of a tallit, something American Jews take for granted, and the subsequent media storm, helped mobilize American support for the Women of the Wall. As Emunah’s Stein has said, Israel feels the need for the support of organized American Jewry very acutely in today’s global political climate.
In 2010, a year after Frenkel’s arrest, over 400 rabbis from around the world signed a letter to the Israeli police asking them to protect Women of the Wall. Such outspoken support was likely strengthened by concomitant, behind-the-scenes demands on the Netanyahu government by Jewish organizations like Stein’s.
Or, as Hiddush’s founder, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, says, “the government starts to care because American Jewry starts to care.”
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.