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After 15 Years Fighting to Pray, Women of the Wall Are Seeing Gains

October 19, 2004
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The women’s harmonized prayers grow steadily louder as the sun rises in the early morning Jerusalem sky. They stand in prayer before the Western Wall as they do at the new moon of every month, their presence speaking as loudly as the liturgical words they sing: the Women of the Wall are here to stay.

But then a fervently Orthodox woman shakes her finger at the group — some of whom are wearing tallitot — and begins to shout. “It is forbidden. The men can hear your voices, you will disturb their prayer,” she says, referring to the belief in some religious Jewish circles that it is immodest for a woman to pray out loud.

A group of policemen tries to separate the woman from the group and eventually threatens to kick her off the grounds of the Western Wall Plaza.

“This is a huge step,” said Bonnie Haberman, one of the original founders of the group, which began in 1989, as she looks on. “In the past, it would have been the police telling us to be quiet, now they turn and face the people who are interfering with us.”

For almost 15 years, Women of the Wall — a prayer group that includes women from all streams of Judaism — has been struggling to break the Orthodox hegemony at Judaism’s holiest site, fighting for both legal and social acceptance, hoping to be able to read from the Torah, wear tallitot and pray out loud next to the venerable retaining wall of the Holy Temple.

Although their presence challenges an Orthodox tradition that only men are allowed to take part in these practices, the Women of the Wall insist there is no prohibition in Jewish law against what they are doing, even if it is not customary for women to do so.

Anecdotal evidence appears to show that their struggle is beginning to bear fruit.

In addition to police threatening to remove the woman who scolded the group, Haberman notes another positive incident from this day of prayer, which included Reform rabbinical students and Orthodox, Conservative and Reconsructionist women: a different fervently Orthodox woman passed by the ruckus and told the woman who was yelling, “Because of your shouting I could not pray, not because of their voices.”

Still, the battle goes on. The rabbi in charge of the Western Wall has ruled that the Women of the Wall are disrupting minhag hamakom, or the custom of the place. Some argue that their action do not respect the tradition of the holy site.

“It is a very, very great variance to the normative,” said Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, a member of Voices of the Wall, a group of Orthodox women seeking to preserve what they call normative Jewish practices at the wall.

“When you start to come as a group, to sing out loud and wear tallitot and come with a Sefer Torah and start to read it, it is a great public disturbance.

“It is not minhag hamakom.”

Schmidt said that even most liberal Orthodox rabbis say women’s Torah reading groups should not gather in primary worship areas.

For Women of the Wall, the path has been a long one and has included court triumphs and defeats, as well as the fighting off of insults and blows.

Most recently, the Israeli government — under court order — completed work on an alternative prayer area for the group at the adjacent area known as Robinson’s Arch.

The new prayer space is the outcome of a March 2003 Supreme Court ruling holding that the Women of the Wall must use the arch area for their services because they would offend other worshipers and could cause public disturbances. The ruling overturned a previous decision that allowed the group’s members to pray as they wished at the site.

Despite the new prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, which the Supreme Court argued could be considered an extension of the Western Wall, the group is refusing to pray there.

“We want to be here with the Jewish people. Every Jew who comes to the wall comes to this part of the Kotel,” said Haberman, a professor at Brandeis University currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem. “It’s the appropriate place for Jewish women to express their Jewish commitment.”

In another attempt to stymie the Women of the Wall, the religious political party United Torah Judaism introduced a bill several years ago that would send women to prison for seven years for wearing a tallit or reading aloud from the Torah by the Western Wall. The legislation was recently killed in a Knesset committee.

Anat Hoffman, the head of the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of the Reform movement, and a former Jerusalem city council member who is among the original members of Women of the Wall, said she has been taken aback by the amount of furor the group has stirred.

“A halachic group is considered so subversive that the Knesset and Supreme Court is up in arms? That the wall will tumble down and fall if we have one hour a month there?” she asked.

Hoffman said that the group has already made its compromise by limiting their gatherings to Rosh Chodesh, the new moon.

A documentary film currently being produced about the group shows members removing a Torah from a closet in one of the member’s apartments and bundling it carefully into a canvas duffle bag. The bulging bag is then carried through the metal detector near the Western Wall and unzipped to reveal the Torah, which the group then opens and reads from.

“What is happening to the Torah is happening to the group,” Daniella Bernstein, an Orthodox Jew who has been praying with the group since 1996, says in the film. “It is looking for its place as we, too, look for ours.”

Bernstein said that despite future uncertainties, she sees positive change and progress on the ground.

Those that used to hurl insults at them, she says, now simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Here they come.”

“We are now part of the landscape. That is a victory,” she said.

On the personal level, Bernstein says that she prays her best with women at the Western Wall. “It is the most active prayer, it is the prayer I am most involved in.”

Over the years the women who come month after month, year after year — in rain storms and in blistering heat — have forged a special bond.

The older, more experienced group members gather the younger women before the prayer session starts and tell them that they will handle any problems that might arise.

“We’ve been at this for 14 years. We are sisters, unbelievable sisters,” says Hoffman.

Among the younger women who are now regular participants in the monthly prayers is Haviva Ner-David, 35, a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University who has sought Orthodox rabbinic ordination.

“It’s important to reclaim the Kotel for all Jews,” Ner-David says, adding that the Western Wall should represent the Jewish people and that the Women of the Wall praying there can show women that there are different ways to practice Judaism.

“The only way for women to know it is possible is to see it.”

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