The Women of the Wall’s Struggle for Religious Liberty in Israel

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

When I prayed with Women of the Wall (WOW) in 1996, I never imagined that in 2010, women would still be prohibited from raising their voices in prayer at the Kotel—the Western Wall, the remaining wall from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, as much as ever before, the religious extremism of ultra-orthodoxy continues to hold authority and power over all Jews in the State of Israel–from school funding to liberal rabbinic recognition– and over all activity at the Kotel.  In November, WOW member Nofrat Frankel was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and for holding a Torah scroll. Two weeks ago, WOW leader Anat Hoffman (who spoke at RS a few years ago at our Joseph W. Rosenbluth Shabbat), executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was interrogated and fingerprinted by police. Her crime? Wearing a tallit, not at the Wall, but at a previously designated alternative overlooking the wall, where WOW has been holding services for years.

The soul of the Jewish State is at stake when the extremists keep women from wearing a tallit, holding a Torah scroll and even from praying outloud at the Kotel. To add your voice to the voices of justice, write a letter advocating pluralism (sample letter below).

As the struggle of the Women of the Wall continues, let us join their prayer: that all the women and girls of the people Israel may raise their voices before God in song and praise. May no one, in Israel or anywhere else in the world, be silenced. As it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness comes forth like great light and her salvation like a torch aflame.

Sample letter to to Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren:

On behalf of the Jewish people fighting for religious pluralism in Israel, I am outraged that one of our leaders, Anat Hoffman, was interrogated and fingerprinted by Jerusalem police on January 5th, 2010. Police told Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, that she may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct at what many consider to be Judaism’s most sacred site. Hoffman’s interrogation came less than two months after the November 18th, 2009 arrest of the Women of the Wall member Nofrat Frankel for wearing a talit and holding a sefer Torah. 

We will not tolerate this discrimination and abuse to continue. Women are treated as second-class citizens at a holy and historic place that has great symbolic importance for all Jews.  If this were to happen in any other country in the world, the Jewish community would be up in arms. Israel is the rare democracy today that tolerates and even endorses religious discrimination against Jews. 

Make no mistake:  What appears to be a growing religious crisis in Israel is as much a threat to Israel’s survival as are the external threats, and perhaps more so.   Israel has shown that she can protect herself from armies and terrorists.  Protecting herself from religious extremism may be Israel’s biggest challenge–a challenge that cannot and must not be ignored by those who care about Israel’s soul. 

Pass on our message to the Israeli government: the Kotel is the beating heart center for the whole of the Jewish people, and not an Ultra-Orthodox synagogue. The arrest and intimidation of women praying at the Wall must stop.  The Wall must become a place where all Jews can pray and connect spiritually to Israel.

Address for the Israeli Ambassador to the United States:

Michael Oren
Embassy of Israel
3514 International Dr. N.W.
Washington DC 20008