The WOW Factor: Women of the Wall

[came in late]


Jackie Koch Ellenson: The rules would change from month to month. Sharansky started to talk with leaders from all of the movements to discuss the possibility of a new way of thinking about the Kotel to be more inclusive, and to prevent constant harassment. At that time, it was clear that the adoption of the other section of the Kotel wouldn’t be acceptable to WOW, it felt as though it was giving up the ship at the point when it seemed that perhaps other issues concerning gender separation, like the situation of women in Beit Shemesh and bus segregation, were coming to front of Israeli media that contributed to the sense of movement here.


In the aftermath of Sharansky, which kind of fell like a lead balloon despite the fact that so many people met with him and discussed this with him, another initiative developed that was comparable to Sharansky, but with more smarts and wisdom and awareness of pitfalls. Negotiations are taking place as we speak between the board of WOW, which includes three Orthodox women, two of whom are involved in Kolech, and four who identify as Conservative/Masorti. We voted to enter negotiations not without difficulty and controversy, because the reality is that from the beginning, at the time when the High Court case decision was handed down which basically did not come through in support of WOW practice, it expected that there would be an additional section to be determined and prepared so WOW could pray there, but such a section was never prepared. The government was given a year to prepare this section, but they did not, so the right of WOW to pray in the women’s section was maintained. This is comparable to what’s going on now. Sharansky made a proposal but it didn’t go far.


The decision by the district court was very significant, to permit WOW to continue to pray in its custom, that it had the right to do so, and the foundation that Judge Sobol utilized was the 2003 High Court decision in which he states that WOW needed to pray in another section and until that’s prepared their rights to pray in the women’s section are secured. The decision to enter negotiations with Mandelblit are the result of the reality that this section will be built in the archaeological gardens near Robinson’s Arch, and because that section will be built liberal Jewish denominations agreed to be part of the negotiations, so that section will be built.


The process is moving forward and because of that, the decision to enter negotiations is to make sure that the rights of women who pray will be ensured in this section. Once it’s created WOW will have no legal leg to stand on to pray in the women’s secton of the Kotel, and that’s the reason why I currently see this as a revolutionary opportunity to enter negotiations with the government. The fact that the government sees WOW as a significant movement and group in Israel, so significant that their views and conditions for this new section need to be taken into consideration, as hard as it feels to men, it gives a sense of enormous advancement of this as a movement and as something which addresses our desire to pray at all. We’re working on and working with our peers and colleagues to get a difference and bigger understanding of what praying at the Kotel means.


Cheryl Birkner Mack: What is the Kotel? Is Robinson’s Arch the Kotel or just the traditionally set-off site of prayer where our ancestors wanted to be at?


I’ll also follow up with Jackie’s summary, the board of WOW sat with Sharansky in the spring, we also sat with Mandelblit before yom tov (the holidays) this year, and at each meeting we were clear in telling them that Robinson’s Arch isn’t acceptable and never was to WOW because it’s not the Kotel, it’s the back of the bus, and we won’t accept that. What changed was the fear that legal opinion would not uphold our decision, as far as I understand this is after hearing the lawyer who represented us in the Sobol case. She says it’s a 50-50 shot, a guess what’ll happen, we don’t know, so to say that WOW won’t have a leg to stand on, as far as I know from other legal sources, isn’t necessarily true.


Also about the Supreme Court decision of 2003, I understand that the original decision that was made by the justices favored WOW, but government pressure allowed an unprecedented procedure where the court reheard the case and made a new decision and decided 6-5 against us, which was not overwhelming, so it was clear to everyone and Anat Hoffman that if a vote was taken today it would not go against us.


There’s intimidation and harassment, bullying of those who oppose us, and it’s primarily Haredi. If we yield to them on this issue, the Kotel and plaza will become a Haredi synagogue, a national shrine will become a local synagogue where none of us will be welcome.


Rachel Jaskow: I know plenty of religious women who used to love going to the Kotel, praying quietly, but they’ve all stopped going. I remember hearing this. It came on a few years after and I remember that when WOW was first founded, authorities mainly tried to push them out of sight, like saying, “go do what you do but don’t let anybody see you.” I remember hearing that among the areas suggested for WOW at the time was Kotel HaKatan, which is the Herodian Wall, part of the Kotel toward the north kind of tucked away. Another site suggested was the secret synagogue built in the 1980s at the initiative of Rabbi Getz, who was at that time the government-appointed rabbi administrator of the Kotel. He rescinded the offer, I don’t know why, but the common denominator here is get out of sight, we don’t want to see you.


I feel like the Robinson’s Arch thing is more of the same. Plus, I have a personal issue with davening (praying) at Robinson’s Arch, which I’ve done many times because WOW used to have Shahrit and Hallel in the women’s section and Torah reading and Mussaf at Hatzar Miriam, the archaeological gardens and remains of a Crusader hostel. That area was sold off and closed to the public, so then we went to Robinson’s Arch for Torah reading and Mussaf. Month after month I found myself confronted with this. If you’re there, you can see the stones that Romans hurled from the Temple Mount itself. The archway that’s now called Robinson’s Arch used to have a bridge and steps, it was how people got to the Temple Mount itself. The Romans destroyed it and when the stones fell, they threw them into the drainage canal, and you can see the holes and indentations. Herman Wouk served in World War II and when he writes about Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Romans he refers to it as the Jewish Pearl Harbor, but I look at the stones and think of the Jewish 9/11. That’s Ground Zero. Emotionally I have a hard time praying there, looking at the destruction and stones. I’m confronted with evidence of the hester panim (hiding) of Hashem. One might say it’s a huge tikkun (fixing) to daven there, but it’s very hard for me to direct my prayers in a place where hester panim happened so harshly.


Moderator: Why is this an important issue for Orthodox and non-Orthodox women?

Birkner Mack: As Rachel pointed out, we have gone to Robinson’s Arch, but recently decided not to leave the ezrat nashim (women’s section). When I spoke earlier of increased numbers of women who joined us in 2009 and forward, I didn’t mention the increased number of men. It’s wonderful and supportive to have men there, who stand behind the prayer section at the end of the ezrat nashim. WOW has always stood at the back of the Kotel plaza, as far away from the mehitzah (divider) as possible, not to disturb and make it possible for people to walk past us and have their prayer. Men stand behind us and when there’s enough of them they stand along the mehitzah, so anyone who wants to throw something at us has another barrier.


The problem is that when we move to another site like Robinson’s Arch there’s no mehitzah and these men who come to support us are multi-denominational and many respect that this is a women’s Torah reading and many have no idea what that’s about, so we have had difficulty in keeping the site a women’s reading, we’ve asked men to step back and sometimes have found that people are offended by this request. They tell us that a new site, erected at Robinson’s Arch, will have portable mehitzot, but it won’t solve the problem because there will still be crowding-in. The government continues to call this site at Robinson’s Arch a site for non-Orthodox Jews, but if we want to be pluralistic and include Orthodox women we can’t go to a site for non-Orthodox women.


Koch Ellenson: He doesn’t refer to it as a pluralist section and in my mind, the only way it’ll work is if the way we talk about it is for the reality we see there, the possibility of constructing a mehitzah there and have single-sex prayer. I can speak for myself as a member of liberal movements and leader in the Reform movement that this is something we believe is essential to success. I can also say that WOW has a list of conditions that we walk into negotiations with Mandelblit with and this is significant, that the ability to create a mehitzah is possible and if it’s not affirmed as a pluralistic space then WOW won’t agree to go along with it, it’s one of many conditions WOW will insist upon.


I’ll also say that as a liberal woman Reform rabbi. Rivka Haut, Blu Greenberg, and I were on a panel after the arrest in 2009 and the same question was posed, why would someone like me who doesn’t live a halakhic lifestyle but is committed to Jewish practice care? I can pray wherever I want, with tefillin (phylacteries) or tallit (prayer shawl) and feel a part of a prayer group, I don’t have a need to identify except as who I am. And yet for me, my involvement in WOW and my activism was definitely increased by being there in November 2009 with my daughter. I really believe strongly there are few places in the Jewish world where it’s “let’s stay with women, all denominations together.” As a participant in the Jewish conversation I appreciate this as so important and feel really strongly that women leaders feel that they are part of that conversation. Last month, 15 women, Reform and Renewal rabbis and colleagues, brought 100 of their community members and we were met by many more people.


Any Israeli will tell you they feel no connection to the Kotel, they don’t go and don’t want to go, they’re separated from the Orthodox rule of the site. My understanding is that the conditions of the new section would be that this new section is visible when you walk in, passersby can see an entire other area where they could go to and pray at and be enormously visible. This way, people can recognize that there’s a choice to choose to pray at what we call the Kotel and at this other newly developed section with the cooperation of WOW and liberal movements in Israel. That conveys my values of what always brings me to pray with WOW.


Jaskow: I’ve noticed that with time, whenever WOW was bound together with the progressive movements of pluralism, whenever there was a question between women and pluralism, women without exception were sold out.


Q: No matter what approach to davening is used, WOW davening is out loud. Haredi leaders won’t accept any Modern psak (ruling) on kol isha (the prohibition of men hearing women singing.) How can women’s tefillah (prayer) continue if others complain that they can’t accept hearing any of the tefillot?

Birkner Mack: It’s simple as far as I can see, they have to. Why do they get to set the standards? Although for most of its history WOW has gone to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh mornings, there have been times and explicitly in the last year that we went on days that were not Rosh Hodesh, the group went on yahrtzeits and when people were in the country and on Purim, and we davened with tallit and tefillin and with voice, but we don’t get harassment we get on Rosh Hodesh. Harassment is when they know we’re coming, they’re not bothered when we pray, they’re bothered when they know we’re coming.


[I think Rachel Jaskow might have actually said the following paragraph, but I didn’t mark a change of speaker in my notes.]

Another quick example, I had never been to the Kotel on Shabbat, so I said to my husband let’s go on Friday night. We walked over and it was beautiful and wonderful but that Friday night there were several groups of young women singing out loud, and in fact one group of young women included at least one hayelet (soldier) actually screaming “Shabbos kodesh!” In fact it did disturb my tefillah because I was so attracted to what they were doing and watching them. But what did I do? I didn’t tell them assur assur zonot reformim! I sat quietly and admired their enthusiasm and melody and tefillah, and waited until they got to Amidah and then I could daven.


Q: If the concept of minhag hamakom (law of the land) applies to the Kotel, has this concept been used as an obstacle to WOW?

Jaskow: And how. If anyone has seen the film about WOW that released a decade ago by Yael Katzir, there’s an interlude that says that whenever we do Torah readings during off times, nobody says a word. Once during the Torah reading a woman teacher complained to us, but we had a dialogue and conversation with her. Minhag hamakom involves time, Jews have only been there since 1967, so how long does it take to get entrenched? And there’s change going along anyway. In 2004 during Rosh Hodesh a woman came with sheets of paper and asked if we would not begin our tefillah but instead sit with her and learn the laws of minhag hamakom. She was an opponent, of course, and was sent by same people who are backing Women for the Wall, which was back then called Kolot HaKotel. This woman tried to disrupt our tefillah, and when we refused she actually laid hands upon our Torah scroll and tried to steal it, it was all caught on film, and the entire time she’s holding onto the Torah scroll you can see and hear her say “this isn’t minhag hamakom!” She was using a halakhic concept to commit theft. So yes, the answer is that minhag hamakom has been used against us.


Moderator: Could you comment on the connection between WOW members and anti-Israel organizations?

Birkner Mack: Irrelevant.

Jaskow: The same people making those comments are behind Kolot HaKotel and Women for the Wall. Even if the leaders of WOW were card-carrying members of the most far-left or far-right organizations you could think of, the antis would figure out a way to use that against the group. It doesn’t matter. Irrelevant.


Moderator: Are Israeli women as involved as Americans?

Birker Mack: When Jackie spoke about increased support, there’s definitely increased support from Israel as well. For a number of months, I acted as gabbait of the organization and I got calls from women in Kiryat Tivon, Rehovot, Ra’anana, Be’er Sheva, all over the country. We do have increased Israeli support and the arrest of an Israeli-born woman helped us in that case, our opponents continue to give us ways to increase our numbers and support.


Moderator: Riki Shapira is an IRAC lawyer, and JOFA invited her to share some thoughts.


Shapira: I’ll clarify that the last verdict from the district court of Sobol, which deals with WOW arrest, is not a constitutional verdict. This is an important point from a legal view because if you’re looking at the legal rights of women in Israel, through the Supreme Court WOW unfortunately doesn’t have the guaranteed right to pray in the ezrat nashim, the Supreme Court said that the government must prepare Robinson’s Arch in a way that will satisfy WOW but not clearly that they have the right to pray in the ezrat nashim unfortunately. What Sobol said in his last verdict last spring is important because it enabled WOW to pray in the ezrat nashim and changed the atmosphere. WOW has the legal right to pray in the ezrat nashim, they can’t arrest those women. And that’s why when we consider what WOW should do now – the negotiation between Mandelblit and the Reform and Masorti to prepare Robinson’s Arch that will satisfy other people that want to pray differently, it’s hard to go now to the Supreme Court and expect the Supreme Court to say “no, they need the ezrat nashim,” it’s a very big thing to expect because the Supreme Court is not to interfere in those issues of state and religion, but there are political pressures from different sides in the political map of Israel.


Q: What do you think prayer at the Kotel will look like in 20 years?

Birker Mack: I hope it’ll look like what I tried to describe earlier. With respect from all sides that the prayer section of the ezrat nashim will be filled with people who come to pray from all streams, with respect and acceptance and police protection if need be. One thing that I want to use in my summary is that Anat Hoffman, the chair of WOW, has said many times about Mandelblit that we must compromise. I have seen and can’t imagine what compromise she’s seen from Haredi opponents. Compromise doesn’t mean giving up essential principles, also in regard to the court case that Riki spoke about and the legal situation. For 25 years we’ve prayed at the Kotel without legal protection, for 20 years since the legal decision since 2003 our prayers have been in the ezrat nashim, for four years we faced detention and harassment and everything described here and that hasn’t stopped us. The current government, in my experience, this is our best chance to get the support of the government. To give in now to intimidation and harassment of those who oppose women’s prayer seems poorly timed at best.


Jaskow: I can’t say how it’ll look in 20 years, but I’d like to see increased access for women not only in the women’s section but to have two sections of equal size, possibly even three sections as a trichitza. The bee in my bonnet is general accessibility to indoor spaces. Many years ago on Har HaMenuhot, there’s a cemetery at the entrance to Jerusalem, I was reading gravestones on my way into the city and one was of a woman that said she had collapsed and died while praying at the Kotel. That gave me pause. I looked closer and saw she died in the month of Sivan, during Shavuot, which is when the long, hot, dry Israeli summer begins. If you go to the Kotel at any time except after dark, there’s lots of radiated heat from the stones, and I know people who have dehydrated there. I was thinking to myself, could that have happened to this woman and what would have happened had she known there were indoor spaces she could have gone to? One indoor space didn’t exist until 2006. A space where women can take shelter from the burning sun and freezing rain and inclement weather of all kinds, these spaces are not publicized, what little spaces there are are strictly regulated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, women are made to feel unwelcome even when they are allowed to be there. So I would like to see awareness of indoor spaces and increased availability of those spaces to women so they can have protection from weather with the same degree of comfort and convenience as men do at Wilson’s Arch. For many years I’ve been saying this and there’s no one to listen, so just by rotating that door I think 90 degrees, the door that runs between the corridor and Wilson’s Arch, for the frum among us who need total separation it can be done. The women can have their own entrance, side by side with the mehitzah and the strict sensibilities are not harmed in any way but there’s a seriously increased amount of indoor space available to women so no other woman will collapse from dehydration.


Koch Ellenson: My dream for the Kotel is really a dream for the state of Israel, to begin to move forward towards the greater idea of what Jewish life will be. My own commitment to Israel, as a Zionist and as someone who goes to Israel as often as I can, and always around Rosh Hodesh because it’s a core experience of mine. When in Israel, I’d like our homeland to be one that is inclusive and takes the best of pluralism and democracy and implements it across the board. It’s about time that the strict, un-inclusive version of Judaism is not the one that rules public space. There’s a lot to have a conversation about there. There will be another session about marriage and personal status, I’d love to go to Israel and pray at a Wall that allows all of us to pray according to custom and if that means that some women want to pray in the ezrat nashim or in a pluralistic space, that Israelis don’t want to pray in the ultra-Orthodox part of the Wall, and they want to be part of the larger idea of what the Kotel can mean, that is something I believe in and truly believe we are all working towards those goals. I think women have always had their status improved when we talk about pluralism, I don’t see it as something that advantages us. I am strongly committed to WOW and it’s a privilege to daven with WOW when I go, it makes me feel like being part of a larger Jewish community. I am committed to maintaining activism and hoping to find a true sense of pluralism that allows all of us to pray with tallit. Rivka Haut and Physllis Chesler wrote a book about the history of WOW, and it includes women who were there that first time and there was an update to the timeline recently. We’re constantly moving. Keep the idea that women have a voice and the voice should be heard everywhere we go.