Wall-to-wall support?

Well, not yet, but with negotiations under way for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, and relative quiet at Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary celebrations, a solution to the years of rioting and unrest is in sight.

Women on the Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women on the Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
On Monday, hundreds of women, native Israelis alongside Americans, occupied the women’s section at the Western Wall, conducting prayers for Rosh Hodesh Kislev. About 1,000 women, as well as a few dozen male supporters, were present according to Women of the Wall.
The gathering was also a celebration – 25 years since the group, originally formed by a few Orthodox, feminist American women, prayed for the first time at the site with a Torah scroll and tallitot. The riots that erupted in 1988 at the sight of women wrapped in prayer shawls and holding a Torah in their hands marked the beginning of a quarter of a century of prayers by the local group, later known as Women of the Wall.
All these years, repeated attempts to find a solution to the group’s request to pray aloud at the Western Wall with tallitot and Torah scrolls have not succeeded.
These involved arrests, haredi protests and petitions to the High Court of Justice. At the same time, increasing support across the Jewish world culminated recently with the understanding by the Prime Minister’s Office that the need for a peaceful and acceptable solution had become urgent.
Hence, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s plan, mandating a third section for all non-Orthodox prayer groups. More recently, Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit put forth a proposal to build a large third section with easy access, with a common entrance to all three sections, which would enable at least 500 worshipers to pray together and would be open throughout the year and be accessible to anyone.
The recent decision of the Women of the Wall board to engage in negotiations with Mandelblit’s commission to reach a final agreement, with eight of the 10 members in favor, has caused a split among the group. As a result, an opponent to the plan, Cheryl Birckner-Mack, resigned from the board. But all of the remaining members – three Orthodox, three Conservative, one Reconstructionist, one unaffiliated Mizrahi and one Reform (Anat Hoffman, the president) – admit to sharing the same concern as to the chances that their decision will turn out to be the beginning of a new era in women’s status in Judaism in Israel, or a mistake.
Following the prayer service, which apart from a short period in which huge loudspeakers displayed by order of Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz tried to disrupt the women’s prayer – and were shut down due to a miraculous electricity failure – went smoothly, ending with the spirited singing of “Hatikva.” The rest of the day included study sessions on the various aspects of women’s prayer and the future of the group, held at the Moreshet Yisrael Center, attended by more than 500 women of all ages.
The festivities culminated in a gala dinner organized by a large delegation of rabbis, cantors and leaders of various US congregations, mostly from the Reform Movement, led by Rabbi Karyn Kedar of Bnai Jehoshua Beth Elohim of Washington, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson from the Women’s Rabbinic Network in New York and Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth- El in Charlotte, North Carolina. The organizers invited some of the founding mothers of Women of the Wall, including Blu Greenberg of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. The guest of honor was US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who attended with his wife, Julie, who used to pray with the Women of the Wall in the 1980s, when the two were students at the Hebrew University.
“I have had many honors in my career... but none as great as standing in support of Women of the Wall,” said Shapiro.
All participants mentioned the fact that the Rosh Hodesh service that morning was a total success.
Despite repeated threats to bring in thousands of religious girls from the ulpanot of Bnei Akiva and the seminaries of Bais Yaakov to prevent the Women of the Wall from prayer, there were only a few dozen girls who, generally speaking, didn’t represent a serious threat to the Women of the Wall, who far outnumbered them. It should be noted that while the Bais Yaakov girls have been protesting the prayers for the past few months, this was the first time the leadership of the Bnei Akiva ulpanot called upon its pupils to participate, a move that was not supported by the wider Bnei Akiva leadership or large portions of the religious-Zionist sector.
“We outnumbered our detractors by a large margin, and we were able to finish our services in peace. I also thought about the thousands of our supporters around the world joining us in their own solidarity services, and that made today’s milestone even sweeter,” wrote Hoffman on the group’s Facebook page.
Hoffman explained that for her and the Women of the Wall’s board, there is no question that their major achievement is the feeling that for the first time in 25 years, the group’s women and their supporters are no longer on the sidelines of shaping policy for the Western Wall. Their hope is that the future of the site is one where “pluralism will be the norm.”