U.S. feminists find sisterhood at Western Wall


JERUSALEM, Jan. 30 (JTA) — It’s been 12 years since Women of the Wall began meeting to pray at the Western Wall, but a recent prayer session was particularly poignant for several U.S. Jewish feminist leaders reciting the morning blessings.

“Listening to these women sing together, it absolutely ran through me,” said former New York judge Karen Burstein of the Jan. 26 gathering. “Prayer was a very distant concept for me, but this has been a very opening experience.”

About 100 women attended last week’s America-Israel Dialogue in Jerusalem, co-sponsored by the American Jewish Congress Commission for Women’s Equality and the Israel Women’s Network. The weeklong dialogue took stock of the status of Jewish women and plotted a course of action for the future.

While the conference discussions on Israeli feminism, women’s health and domestic violence were spirited and meaningful, participants agreed that this grouping of women of all ages and backgrounds praying together on a wintry January morning was one of the week’s highlights.

“Religious pluralism has to become an elevated value in Israel,” Burstein said. “I want to bring equality here. I want to support women because this is a holy place.”

In the past few decades, awareness of the challenges facing women has increased among Israelis, said former New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, another conference participant.

But, she added, women still don’t have full equality — as evidenced by the dilemma facing Women of the Wall.

There is a court decision pending in Israel’s Supreme Court regarding the group’s right to pray at the wall.

The women meet at least once a month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, as well as during holidays and for their daughters’ Bat Mitzvahs.

They chant the morning Shacharit service together, clustered in a tight group at the back of the women’s section. When it’s time to read the Torah, they adjourn to a courtyard behind the Western Wall plaza, near Yeshivat HaKotel, some taking the opportunity to lay tefillin and take out their tallitot from under their coats.

Yet even this arrangement is currently being re-examined by the Supreme Court.

According to Jerusalem City Council member Anat Hoffman, one of the founding members of the group, the women’s right to pray together at the Kotel is not being declared illegal according to Jewish law. Rather, the court is concerned about protecting the women from the other religious factions that aren’t pleased with the group’s efforts.

One compromise suggested by the court is letting the women go to the wall with their Torah for one hour each month on Rosh Chodesh. The judges are also exploring the general wall area, looking for an alternative prayer space for the women to meet.

Neither option is acceptable, said Hoffman. “We’re modern Marranos,” she said, referring to the Jews forced to hide their Jewishness during the Spanish Inquisition. “We’re hiding here in this courtyard and we want to wear our tallitot and tefillin out in the open.”

There’s also a local yeshiva claiming ownership of the courtyard and threatening to prevent the women from holding their occasional gatherings there. In fact, several fervently Orthodox men hovered outside the courtyard gate last week, looking askance at the women reading from the Torah.

At the conference’s final session, the participants sponsored a call to action, pledging their support for freedom from religious coercion in Israel and the Diaspora. They also endorsed the right of all Israelis to civil marriage and divorce, urging the Knesset to enact legislation on those issues.

There’s room for improvement, admitted Orthodox feminist Rivka Haut, one of the group’s founders, but there have been drastic improvements in the last 12 years.

“We used to whisper, now we’re davening out loud. I consider that great progress,” Haut said.

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