Friday, April 19, 2013
The new Orthodox face of Women of the Wall
The only problem is that Women of the Wall is by no means made up entirely of Reform Jews. It has many Conservative activists and supporters, and even more surprisingly -- Orthodox activists and supporters, a growing number in fact.
Many Israelis would probably be surprised to learn that two of the eight board members at Women of the Wall are, in fact, Orthodox women, one of whom assumed her position just a week ago. Negotiations are now under way to bring another two on board.
Aliza Berger-Cohen, an Orthodox woman who has sat on the board for the past 10 years, finds it amusing that Israelis still can’t figure her out. “I have a colleague at work who has known for years that I’m Orthodox, but last week, when I got back from the Women of the Wall service, she says to me, ‘But you’re Reform – right?’”
“There is a strong contingency of Orthodox women who now feel it’s their duty to be in attendance with us,” says newly installed board member Leora Bechor, an Orthodox lawyer who grew up on Long Island.
Among the Orthodox participants at the Rosh Chodesh service held earlier this month, where five women were detained by police for wearing tallitot, Bechor says she recognized students from Yeshivat Talpiot, an egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem; members of Shira Chadasha, an Orthodox feminist congregation in Jerusalem; activists in the campaign for women’s rights in Beit Shemesh; faculty from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies; and representatives of Kolech, the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization.
Although Women of the Wall is widely associated with the Reform movement, it is very much based on an Orthodox model, says Elana Sztokman, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, an international organization based in New York.
“At its core, it is a woman’s prayer group,” she says. “Women’s prayer groups are an Orthodox invention. They’ve been around since the 1970s in the United States, and you find them in almost every major Orthodox community there. This is why JOFA has always been in favor of Women of the Wall.”
Berger-Cohen was active in such a prayer group in Brooklyn before she moved to Israel in 1995. “The minute I made aliyah,” she says, “I ran to Women of the Wall, because it was really important for me to join a women’s prayer group in Israel.”
Several weeks ago, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky announced his plan for resolving the ongoing dispute over prayer at the wall, based largely on the establishment of a third section of prayer for egalitarian services. The plan has been hailed widely as a victory for Women of the Wall and its struggle to allow Jews to pray as they wish at the wall.
Ironically, though, the Sharansky compromise does not make any accommodations for those women’s prayer groups that were the inspiration for Women of the Wall, notes Sztokman. “I’m fully supportive of egalitarian prayer,” she says, “but we need to make sure the needs of Orthodox women are also taken into account. That’s really important – that our needs not be forgotten.”
Hoffman, the Women of the Wall chairwoman, was quick to welcome Sharansky’s compromise plan. A bit too quick, however, for some of her Orthodox cohorts on the board, who can’t quite figure out what’s in it for them.
Berger-Cohen doesn’t mince words. “I think it’s terrible, absolutely awful,” she says.
A matter of gender discrimination
Israeli Orthodox women have long viewed the struggle of Women of the Wall with ambivalence, notes Rachel Keren, a senior lecturer at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, a post-high-school institute of Jewish studies for women. One reason, she explains, is that praying as men do with tallitot and tefillin -- a practice very much identified with Women of the Wall -- has never been a top priority for them.
“This is a practice that came very much from the world of Conservative and Reform Judaism,” says Keren. “It is not very accepted in the Orthodox world, even though there are no specific prohibitions against it.”
Still, Keren, a leading voice in the Orthodox feminist world, says she whole-heartedly supports Women of the Wall and their cause. “As a matter of principle, nobody has the right to judge anyone else about how they conduct themselves before God.”
In the past, the controversy over prayer at the Western Wall was largely perceived by Orthodox women as a battle between different streams of Judaism, specifically non-Orthodox against Orthodox, which may explain their initial reluctance to take a stand. Lately, however, in the aftermath of the police crackdown on Women of the Wall, the controversy has become increasingly identified with gender discrimination, making them feel more comfortable about getting involved.
Bechor, the latest Orthodox recruit to Women of the Wall’s board, became active in the organization only about half a year ago. “If I wanted to daven, I wasn’t going to go to the Kotel because I never felt comfortable there,” she says. “It kind of felt like being in an ultra-Orthodox shul. But once the arrests and detentions started, I said to myself, ‘Enough already. This is my struggle, too. Those women are fighting for my right, too, as a Jewish woman to pray at the Kotel. And that’s when I joined.”
It was back in October, when Hoffman was detained by police and locked up overnight that Ayelet Wieder-Cohen, the chairwoman of Kolech, decided it was time to get off the fence. “That was the event that shocked me into action,” she says, “and I understood that after years of staying away, I had to come back to the Kotel.”
In October, Wieder-Cohen wrote a public letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing outrage at Hoffman’s arrest, and earlier this month, as a personal expression of solidarity with their cause, she joined Women of the Wall at their monthly prayer service with a contingent of about 10 other women from Kolech.
All they want is to pray
Tova Hartman, a professor of gender studies and the founder of the Shira Hadasha congregation, says praying with Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh is not her thing, “but it doesn’t mean I don’t completely support them and what they’re doing.
“These are women who came to pray at the wall, that’s all they wanted,” notes Hartman. “They didn’t come to antagonize. They only started becoming louder when there was an attempt to silence them. The same thing happened when women asked for the right to vote.”
While she’s impressed with the organization for forcing a compromise on the government, it’s a compromise that’s not entirely to her liking. “I’m not sure that the answer is to provide every group with a separate space,” says Friedman. “In my ideal world, it would be one big common space for everyone, which would require each group to give up a little in order to fit in.” That, she says, is the true meaning of pluralism.