An appeal from an original Woman of the Wall

Send your young people and rabbis on hachshara to these schools. Forge deep ties; build broad, societal loyalty to your movements. Forgo the show.

The women of the Wall prayer group in April. They’ve struggled for decades for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The women of the Wall prayer group in April. They’ve struggled for decades for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last week we marked Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in 1967.
Much in this city is fraught. Among the unresolved issues is the deal for state recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism at Robinson’s Arch in exchange for changing the status of the Western Wall.
Under the deal, the Wall, a national holy site of the Jewish people, not a synagogue, would be made officially a haredi synagogue. This is the trade-off for making Robinson’s Arch, already a site of egalitarian prayer, a Reform and Conservative site. The haredi authorities would ban women’s group prayer at the Wall, every aspect of which has Supreme Court recognition as legal, and which a District Court pronounced also in accord with local custom there. Women who will not move to Robinson’s Arch would be arrested. This aspect of the deal is deliberately obscured by its backers, who trumpet the deal as enlightened and progressive, without mentioning the coercive, misogynistic aspect at its core.
The empowerment of the haredi establishment in this deal is the reason that the establishment agreed to it, until the fury of its street about recognition of movements it systematically demonizes drew it back. The haredi establishment is now making demands for a fundamental revision of the deal, which the Reform and Conservative movements say they will reject, threatening to take the matter to the Supreme Court, where they will demand accommodation at the Western Wall itself. We seem poised for bitter, quite possibly violent, confrontation.
There is another way, and I ask the movements to take a step back and consider. It is easy to understand the appeal of recognition at Robinson’s Arch. But there are tangible, powerful, facts-on-the-ground changes that the movements could set in motion, if they go another way with the clout, and the money that the deal they negotiated would give them.
Take the money, take the political payoff the state “owes” you for being unwilling to implement the deal against haredi demands, and invest it in schools that teach your version of Torah. This has none of the blaze of glory that accompanied your announcement of the deal a few months ago. But the long-term payoff will be far greater and will move you far closer to what you really want here: real impact on Israeli society.
Take that money and invest it in schools – not in the comfortable middle-class locations in which you currently have them, serving your current constituents, but in “the periphery,” among the have-nots of Israel, who have never heard of your movements or have only negative associations with them.
Build schools – in Yeroham, Dimona, Sderot, Afula. Give hard-pressed Israelis a robust alternative to 40-student classrooms in schools that do not offer afternoon clubs, enrichment that wealthy schools, or well-established parents give their children and that afford parents full work days and children inestimable advantages that play out generationally. Intervene in this dynamic, in which privilege begets privilege, and disadvantage likewise is passed on, perpetuating the social divide that plagues Israeli society and feeds right-wing politics and religion.
In 15 years you will begin to see cohorts who repay you and all of society with better education, broader horizons, and deeply embedded commitment to pluralism and respect for others. Not a symbolic site, but real social change. And votes.
Get your constituents in North America charged up about partnering with Israelis to open minds and hearts from the “bottom” up and changing Israeli society for the better, based on shared values and language. They can have egalitarian events right now at Robinson’s.
Let this deal, any version of it, pass away. It was a mistake. This is a Ben-Gurion moment, no less than the one in which that prime minister shrugged off the consequences of granting haredi exemption from national service. Empowering the fundamentalist haredi establishment; supporting banishment of the one non-haredi custom – women’s group prayer – that has been established at the Wall – is the last thing you should be doing. Duking it out in the Western Wall Plaza between vastly more retrograde custom at the Kotel and progressive practice at Robinson’s, for which proponents of the deal have thrown down the gauntlet, is puerile.
Defer gratification. Think Yavne – go for deep cultural change, and the time and hard work to bring that about.
Send your young people and rabbis on hachshara to these schools. Forge deep ties; build broad, societal loyalty to your movements. Forgo the show.
I recall in this connection the remark that the previous Lubavitcher rebbe made in the 1920s, while on a visit to the US from Europe. Taking in the US Jewish scene, he noted, “They will build temples, and they will be empty. We will build schools, and they will be full.”
Take a page from Chabad, from Shas: Invest in school systems.
Go to the Supreme Court, by all means. But as a veteran of time in the latter, where a case to enforce Jewish women’s already recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel languishes while the state wins delay after delay, any notion that you will get swift justice there is sadly mistaken. In the meantime, sow real change.
Having just celebrated Shavuot, commemorating the bringing of firstfruits to the Temple and the giving of Torah, now is the time to think about those fruits your labors can ripen, and about the transformative power of Torah. Invest in those.
The writer is a founder of Women of the Wall and a core activist in Original Women of the Wall, who seek to protect and promote Jewish women’s prayer at the Kotel. She is an award-winning author and professor of Jewish history and thought, teaching at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.