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Let them pray

 

Women seek equality at Kotel

Pluralism is a very foreign concept in Israel,” said Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman. “There isn’t a word for it in Hebrew.”

Hoffman is fighting to bring pluralism into Israeli language and society. Earlier this month, Jerusalem police questioned Hoffman about her group, which regularly shows up to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Late last year, one of its members was arrested for donning a tallit at the Kotel, considered an offense by the Orthodox rabbis who oversee the holy site.

“Separate but equal doesn’t work,” Hoffman said during a teleconference last week organized by Meretz USA. “And at the Wall it’s not separate but equal, it’s separate but unequal.”

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Anat Hoffman

Jerusalem is the battleground in this fight for what WOW calls women’s equality, but here in America — where egalitarianism and the ordination of women is more acceptable — the issue has struck a chord as well.

“The battle they face is hard for us to imagine here, where we have comfortable Jewish lives that enable people a degree of religious expression that isn’t possible right now in Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Jarah Greenfield of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County in Maywood. “The fight they’re taking up is in my mind for Jews everywhere.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes has been involved with WOW for some 15 years, and this latest confrontation illustrates a growing recognition in Israeli society that a problem exists, she said.

“There is a perversion to the ‘religious’ claiming this part of the Wall at the Temple Mount as a synagogue — and as an Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “Women of the Wall has done a great deal to promote this issue publicly.”

In 2005, WOW lost a 17-year Supreme Court battle that would have granted women legal protection to don tallitot and read from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall. The group continues to pray at the Wall every Rosh Chodesh, but in order to hold services with Torah readings and tallitot, the organization must go to a nearby archaeological site called Robinson’s Arch. The disadvantages of the site include an entrance fee, Hoffman said. Entry to the Western Wall is free.

“We are not enjoying all the different services that people enjoy at a holy place,” she said.

WOW isn’t looking to do away with gender separation at the Kotel. According to Hoffman, the organization seeks equal rights for women to pray — with all of the accoutrements — within the women’s section. The organization is halachic, she emphasized, and wants to expand women’s rights within the boundaries of Jewish law, not to abrogate that law.

Supporters agree that there is room for co-existence.

“Any reasonable or thoughtful voice calling for creation of an Israeli society in which religious pluralism can flourish is a voice that would recognize a need to afford Orthodoxy the same privileges,” said Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar in Demarest.

At the center of the debate is the Orthodox grip on Israel’s religious institutions and regulations. It’s an issue that goes back to the very foundation of the state, Lewittes said.

“As the Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist and even secular Jewish movements are gaining more and more ground in terms of communities being developed in Israel,” Lewittes said, “maybe what we’re seeing is the pushback.”

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first premier and himself a secular Jew, placed Orthodox institutions in charge of the country’s religious institutions as a way to encourage Orthodox support for the fledgling state, said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor, New York Times religion columnist, and author of the 2000 book “Jew vs. Jew.”

“They needed Orthodox allies,” he said of Israel’s founding fathers. Many Orthodox circles were against the creation of the state at the time and this was a way to draw them in, he added. Now, the religious parties have become a powerful political force within Israel.

“They bring a lot of bloc votes to the elections,” Freedman said. “It makes it difficult for a center-right government to stand up to them. They bring more votes and more political clout than the Reform and Conservative movements and Jewish feminists do.”

Women’s prayer at the Wall is not a religious issue but a political one, Frishman said, acknowledging the clout of the religious parties. Because of this, the solution for WOW is going to come one step at a time. She pointed to Yotzma, Barnert’s sister congregation in Modi’in, which was the first non-Orthodox synagogue in the country to win partial government building funds.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is change people’s attitudes,” she said. “This issue will actually draw more Jews to Judaism because it opens doors.”

 
 

Must women die before truth will out?

 

Israeli boys become bar mitzvah with help from local friends

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Rabbi Yehuda Borer assists Ohr with the blessings.

A white dove alighted in a crevice of the Western Wall on a hot Monday morning in July. Families from Israel and abroad were gathering for sons’ bar mitzvah ceremonies.

A guest pointed out the bird to the women around her. “A dove of peace! It is a good sign.”

Dina certainly needed a good sign. A mother of six, Dina was at Jerusalem’s holiest spot with her son Yarin and daughter Danielle, who will turn 13 in August. They are not twins, but two of triplets. (Last names have been omitted to protect the families’ privacy.)

Dina and Danielle stood on chairs looking into the men’s area as Yarin put on the tefillin that the third triplet, Tamir, had requested when he was only 11. He had been too young to start wrapping the ritual leather straps around his arm and head during prayer, but not too young to understand that cancer would kill him before his bar mitzvah.

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Yarin is flanked by Rabbi Yehuda Borer and Chaim Shalom. Abigail Klein Leichman

As Tamir’s close-knit Moroccan family dealt with the child’s progressive illness, an Israeli educator in Teaneck called Tamir regularly to pray with him. Rabbi Uzi Rivlin sent the tefillin that Tamir wanted, and he saw to the family’s needs through his Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Children in Israel (Keren Milgot le-Kiddum Yeladim be-Yisrael).

Last September, Rivlin told The Jewish Standard that the fund was expending about $100,000 per year to provide food, clothing, school supplies, and furnishings to some 500 Israeli 5- to 18-year-olds in difficult straits. The clientele now number closer to 1,000.

Keren Milgot arranged the celebration at the Wall this day, as Yarin — in keeping with tradition — donned tefillin for the first time, a month before his birthday. It was also the first time for Ohr, a 12-year-old Ethiopian boy aided by the fund. Ohr’s widowed mother and grandmother watched with broad smiles from the women’s section.

Rivlin’s wife, Jenny, was there as well. A teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, she told Danielle that a photograph of Tamir hangs in her Teaneck home. The Rivlins forge a bond with many Keren Milgot kids; one teen boarded with them this year while attending the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Sometimes the connection is so close,” said Uzi Rivlin. “When Tamir passed away two years ago, I was not even able to work. It was like my own son had died.”

Exactly three years ago, Rivlin had arranged transportation for Tamir and his family to come to the Wall to pray. A kabbalist had added another name to Tamir’s. “We hoped the gates of heaven would open,” said Rivlin.

That moving scene was not far from Dina’s mind as she watched her surviving 12-year-old mark this milestone. Her husband died just one year after Tamir, apparently of a broken heart. In his stead next to Yarin were Chaim Shalom, chairman of Rivlin’s fund in Israel, and Rabbi Yehuda Borer, an active participant in the project. Dina strongly felt that Tamir was at Yarin’s side.

“I plainly see him,” she said with a mixture of pride and grief. “He is always standing next to us. I was privileged to be his mother, and I am privileged to bring up these children,” she said, nodding at Danielle and her siblings in attendance. “They keep me strong.”

Later this month, Danielle, Yarin, and Ohr will fly to America accompanied by two older beneficiaries of the fund. They’ll spend some time with the Rivlins and attend a session of Camp Moshava in Pennsylvania. On Aug. 13, Rivlin will take them to Cong. Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn for Yarin’s bar mitzvah Shabbat. They’ll return for Ohr’s bar mitzvah just before going home.

“Ohr’s bar mitzvah should be in September,” Rivlin explained, “but his mother is not able to do it for him. She works night and day [at an Eilat hotel] to support her family. So we’ll make his bar mitzvah, a little early, in Fair Lawn. He had no Jewish background, so we arranged with a [volunteer] rabbi to educate him.”

Jack Bickel, the synagogue member coordinating both events, is expecting an emotional experience as Yarin recites Kaddish for the first time for his brother and father. “Then, two weeks after that, we’ll have the kids back and Ohr will discuss what it was like for his family to come from Ethiopia to Israel.”

Ahavat Achim has been hosting Keren Milgot children for three summers. “People here view it as a privilege,” said Bickel. “We try to find Hebrew-speakers to host them.” The shul will sponsor a kiddush and pay for activities while the children are with the Rivlins.

During the Jerusalem service, Ohr’s older brothers and Yarin’s older brother — all in Israel Defense Forces uniforms — were called to chant blessings over the Torah scroll. Both families afterward went to meet Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and enjoyed a picnic in Sacher Park.

 
 

Women of the Wall head arrested at Kotel

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Anat Hoffman

JERUSALEM – The leader of the Women of the Wall was banned from the Western Wall for 30 days after being arrested for holding a Torah scroll at the site.

Jerusalem police arrested Anat Hoffman on Monday morning following the monthly women’s Rosh Chodesh prayer service. She was taken in for questioning and held for five hours before she was released, the organization said.

Women of the Wall said Hoffman was ordered to stay away from the Kotel for the next 30 days.

A Supreme Court ruling prohibits women from reading the Torah at the wall; the group said in a statement issued Monday that she was just holding the scroll.

According to the organization’s account, Hoffman, holding the Torah scroll, was leading about 150 women from the women’s section of the Western Wall in a procession toward Robinson’s Arch, where they are permitted to use the Torah scroll. Police tried to remove the Torah scroll from Hoffman’s arms and arrested her for not praying according to the traditional customs of the Western Wall.

“The arrest of a woman on the first day of the month of Av is a harsh reminder of the price that Israeli society may pay for its religious intolerance and fanaticism,” Hoffman’s group said in a statement.

Police have not commented on the case.

JTA

 
 

Mirror, mirror on the Wall: Striving for pluralism at home and at the Kotel

 

Who can pray at the Western Wall?

JCC program highlights the struggle of a women’s prayer group

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Panelists discussing a screening last week of “Praying in Her Own Voice” are, from left, Rabbis Barry Schlesinger, Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, and Lawrence Zierler. With them is Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, the moderator. courtesy kaplen jcc on the palisades

For women who are used to being counted in a minyan, the ongoing struggle of Women of the Wall to gather and pray at the Kotel once each month is both powerful and poignant.

Not surprisingly, then, “Praying in Her Own Voice,” screened last Wednesday evening at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, elicited a strong reaction from Reform Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

The Reform leader — whose international network includes women Reform rabbis and rabbinical students — is vice-chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall and prays with the group whenever she is in Israel.

Following the film, a documentary by Yael Katzir, she joined Rabbis Lawrence Zierler and Barry Schlesinger in a panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, Judaic scholar-in-residence at the JCC.

While the film depicted only verbal abuse of the women’s group, Ellenson stressed that some attacks have been violent as well.

“I’ve been with the group when nothing has happened — when we prayed and it was wonderful and no one paid attention,” she said. But she’s also been there when hecklers, both men and women, have maintained “a constant level of yelling,” making it difficult to pray.

According to its website (womenofthewall.org.il), Women of the Wall, founded in 1988, strives to “achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

In 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for the women’s group to hold prayer services and read Torah in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza. But shortly afterward, the Knesset countered with bills that would overturn that ruling and make women who prayed in non-traditional ways at the Western Wall liable to imprisonment.

While the bills did not pass, in 2003 the court reversed its decision, holding that the group’s actions constituted a threat to public order. It also held that the government had to provide an alternate site, Robinson’s Arch — at the southern section of the Wall — for the women to pray.

In recent years, two Women of the Wall members have been detained by the police: Nofrat Frenkel in November 2009 and Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader, in 2010.

Kimelman, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and a senior associate at CLAL–the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told The Jewish Standard on Friday that while the movie was clearly sympathetic to the women’s group, it did “a good job of reflecting the complexity of the issue and making sure that different voices were heard.”

Referring to the issues surrounding the Women of the Wall, he said that democracies must balance competing interests, addressing issues such as “keeping social order and the conceptions of majority opinion, precedent, and rights. As far as I know, democracies don’t legislate on rights [concerning] places of prayer,” he said. “The American government won’t legislate where people can pray. We would oppose involvement in these issues.”

Kimelman said the Women of the Wall issue resonates with American Jews because it combines three elements — women’s issues, denominational issues, and an opportunity for “Orthodox rabbi-bashing. I’m distressed that this issue resonates so little with the Israeli public,” he said, suggesting that the movie — with scenes of group leaders speaking in English — did a real “disservice. You got the feeling that this was a bunch of non-Israeli women there to cause trouble.”

Noting that Israeli political demonstrations usually attract large numbers of people, he said he was “befuddled at the lack of resonance in Israel for Israelis who have not had American experience. I saw only 15 to 20 [women] when I was expecting 200 to 300. No politician will get involved when it looks like a bunch of foreigners causing this.”

Kimelman said that while some panelists focused on the history of the Kotel in addressing the problem, “who cares what it has been historically? Today it is one of the central places in Jewish consciousness… [It is] the centerpiece of historic Jewish consciousness.” The issue is neither historical nor halachic, he said. The “real beef” is that if the government requires that the women — and other non-traditional prayer groups — pray at Robinson’s Arch, “It should provide equal amenities.”

Ellenson disagreed with Kimelman on the issue of foreign involvement, noting that the core group of Women of the Wall members is made up of native Israelis and those who have made aliyah. And, she said, while some comments in the film were made in English, many others were in Hebrew.

“I don’t see that as discrediting the cause,” she said. If the movement hasn’t developed a “strong, gigantic core of Israelis, it is because they feel the ultra-Orthodox are pushing them away.”

Zierler, too, took issue with the claim that the women’s group was a foreign import.

“If you’re living in Israel, you’re an Israeli,” he said.

“Americans should be concerned about how Jews — and everyone else — are treated in Israel,” said Ellenson. “If we can’t find a way to have equal access for any Jew, then there’s something missing, something wrong.”

“The [Kotel] has basically been turned into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “There have been many examples of mixed groups coming down to the Wall singing and walking together, and of them being harassed and intimidated. It doesn’t only happen to the Women of the Wall.”

Zierler — religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem — said the film, while moving, might almost be considered a “period piece,” since new proposals have been offered to deal with the problem.

He mentioned, for example, the Knesset’s 2010 proposal to redesign the Western Wall plaza, creating “a general common space” and virtually eliminating the men and women’s section.

Still, he said, he has been inspired by the issues that surround this situation to “do an environmental scan,” taking note of what else is happening at the Kotel. The rabbi lamented the “commercialization” of the site, noting that the Israel government has provided some $16 million to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation over the past seven years. Bemoaning what he called the “deification” of the site, he also said that there is an overemphasis on its holiness.

Administrators have managed “to alienate the public from the symbolic site of unity,” he said. “It speaks to former Jewish sovereignty. It resonates because it is a piece of architecture and a locale that brings us back” to the days of Jewish rule.

“It’s not just a religious place,” he said. “They care because it brings them to an association with a better time” for the Jewish people.

The rabbi noted that mixed-gender services do occur at the Kotel on occasion, such as for Birkat Kohanim, which takes place during chol hamoed Sukkot and Pesach.

Kotel administrators “pick certain battles,” he said. “They’ve made [Women of the Wall] a symbolic issue about the honor of the community.”

Jewish life is “constantly evolving,” he said. “The more you empower people through education, the more you will find a desire for them to express themselves in a differentiated way. [Women] are looking for a way to express themselves in a liturgical context.”

The rabbi said he would have liked to have seen more men attend the screening.

“It’s important for men to understand what’s happening in women’s lives,” he said, adding that he champions a “holistic understanding of Jewish life.”

Since men still hold sway in the religious community, their help is needed to bring about change, he said. “Men must be willing to open doors.”

Schlesinger — who holds a pulpit at Kehilat Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood — hails from Englewood and is serving as rabbi of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom. He recently completed two terms as president of the Israeli branch of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Unlike Ellenson, Schlesinger, who organizes mixed-gender prayer services for the Masorti (Conservative) movement at Robinson’s Arch, said he accepts that he must pray in that area. However, he expects the Israeli government to provide equal resources.

“I want to promote maximum kavanah,” intention, “with minimum conflict,” he said, but he calls upon the government to “give us equal space and equal treatment.”

In a 2010 article in the Jerusalem Post entitled “Don’t Be Right, Be Smart,” the rabbi argued that the Israeli government “must serve Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, whether they like it or not.”

He suggests a three-tiered plan of action.

First, the Western Wall Plaza should be under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality and not subject to gender segregation or the halachic rulings of the rabbi of the Wall; second, the northern section of the Western Wall should continue to serve those who feel that a separation between women and men is required; and third, the southern section of the Western Wall should be opened to all Jewish men and women who wish to pray together without separation.

He also asks that the Ministry of Religious Affairs provide worshippers at the southern section with the religious articles required for public prayer: arks, tables, Torahs, prayer books, and Bibles

Kimelman said he was gratified by the diversity of opinion displayed among panelists.

“The JCC is involved in the clarifying of Jewish issues,” he said. “It’s not our job to advocate for them” but rather to provide a platform for representative opinions.

The film screening and discussion were co-sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section; Temple Sinai of Bergen County; the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey; and the Community Relations Committee of UJC of MetroWest New Jersey.

 
 
 
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