Women of the Wall keeps pushing for b’not mitzvah at the Kotel

When Alina Brenner began to plan her daughter Dana’s bat mitzvah, she considered throwing a party at a synagogue near their home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod HaSharon.

Then Brenner had second thoughts. 

“We wanted Dana to feel a connection to Judaism,” and having only a party felt like something was missing, she said, noting that her family is secular and unaffiliated but that being Jewish is important to them.  

Then Brenner heard that the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall (WOW) organizes b’not mitzvah in the women’s section of the Western Wall. 

“We wanted the bat mitzvah to be special, and coming to Jerusalem and having an aliyah to the Torah at the Kotel is very, very special,” Brenner said, using the Hebrew term for the Wall.

It also can be unnerving, given that, since WOW was established in 1988, ultra-Orthodox worshippers at the Wall often have staged protests against WOW’s monthly prayer services, where many of the female participants wear prayer shawls and sometimes tefillin and kippot

While the group has experienced periods of calm over the years, some Charedi Jews who oppose the group’s practices at the Kotel have disrupted WOW’s prayers by throwing rocks, plastic chairs and water bombs. Charedi women have been known to shout at WOW participants or blow whistles during services. 

Although there were several years when WOW held morning services at the Wall and then moved to nearby Robinson’s Arch (the southern Wall) to read from a Torah, the group has conducted both services at the Wall’s women’s section since late 2012, sometimes with a smuggled Torah scroll and other times with a Chumash, a book containing the Five Books of Moses and the weekly Torah portions. 

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who dictates policy at the Wall, has long banned Torah scrolls from the women’s section, arguing that women’s Torah reading violates longstanding “local custom” at the holy site and offends Charedi worshippers. Last year, a group of feminists petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to order Rabinovitch to allow women to have Torah scrolls at the state-funded holy site. The case is pending. 

WOW has vowed to continue to pray in the Kotel’s women’s section until the Israeli government follows through on its January commitment to create an official, government-funded, pluralistic prayer space. The plans for the prayer space — which follow two years of negotiations between the Israeli government, representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. and Israel, and WOW — may not become a reality because Charedi lawmakers have threatened to bring down the government if the plans move forward. 

Irena Lutt and her daughter Sasha Lutt display the certificate WOW gives to all girls and women who have their bat mitzvahs with WOW. Photo by Miriam Alster

Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman, said that until three years ago, Israeli police sometimes detained and even arrested some WOW activists for wearing prayer shawls, which the group sells to raise funds, and tefillin. Not surprisingly, she said, “Most parents didn’t want their children exposed to this and requests to have a bat mitzvah with WOW naturally subsided.”  

That changed on April 25, 2013, when the Jerusalem District Court ruled the government has no authority to arrest women for breaching local custom at a holy place. From then on, the police have protected WOW during its monthly Rosh Chodesh  (beginning of the month) prayers. 

The court’s ruling was just in time for the bat mitzvah of Devorah Leff, whose American-Israeli parents have been bringing her to WOW prayer sessions from a young age. Barry Leff, Devorah’s father and a Conservative rabbi, acknowledged there was “a huge amount of tension” the day of the bat mitzvah. 

“It was right after the court’s decision and the Charedim were really trying to take on WOW. They had bussed in thousands of yeshiva girls that day, into the women’s section,” to try to prevent WOW from praying, he said.

The women’s section was so packed, the group was forced to hold services, including the bat mitzvah, in the plaza behind the women’s section. 

Ultra-Orthodox leaders bussed in thousands of Charedi schoolgirls to prevent WOW from praying in the women’s section of the Kotel, so Devorah Leff read from the Torah in the plaza behind the women’s section. Photo by Tanya Hoffman 

“The police set up metal barriers to protect us. Some Charedim threw water bottles, but Devorah thought it was kind of exciting. She believes women have a right to pray with a Torah at the Kotel and felt having her bat mitzvah with WOW, at the Kotel, made a statement,” Leff said. “We have some unique bat mitzvah photos.” 

Devorah, who also participated in a 2014 WOW advertising bus campaign that encouraged women and girls to have a bat mitzvah at the Wall, said she wanted to pave the way for other Jewish women “in the struggle for religious freedom.” 

“I feel like I made a difference by fighting for women’s empowerment,” she said. “Women have as much right to pray at the Kotel as men do.” 

Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi and longtime American-Israeli WOW activist, said her daughter Ashira’s WOW bat mitzvah earlier this year “held two worlds in one.” 

When Ashira read from the Torah, “She was surrounded by a loving community, people of all ages, that guided her along with such joy. It made me so happy, with such a sense of belonging to the place, as if all the Jews who had stood there before were called to this place and time and buoyed us all. A moment I will not soon forget.” 

At the same time, Silverman said, Charedi women in the women’s section stood near the group with signs denouncing the group and blew whistles so loudly that at times it drowned out Ashira’s chant. 

Rabbi Susan Silverman hugs her daughter Ashira during Ashira’s bat mitzvah with WOW earlier this year. Photo by Hadas Parush

“I do not raise my children to hate, but I cannot protect them from people who do, and their children,” Silverman said. “So from without this circle of Torah and shared loving purpose came the pain that we must heal. So the joy of Ashira becoming bat mitzvah, and the heartbreaking need to heal hate and hurtfulness, met in that moment.” 

Shira Pruce, who handles WOW’s public relations, said girls who have a bat mitzvah with the group at the Kotel enjoy a unique experience. 

“Every time a girl, her mother, her sister, her grandmother, say, ‘This is important enough for us to come to Israel, to Jerusalem, and plan a bat mitzvah at the Wall with Women of the Wall,’ they’re working toward social change,” Pruce said. 

She said WOW tells prospective bat mitzvah families, “We cannot promise there will be a Torah scroll at your bat mitzvah, but we will try. If not, there will be a Chumash.” 

Brenner said WOW was honest about what to expect. 

“They said people may shout at us but that Dana would be in the middle and surrounded by women, and it was true.”  

Sometimes, Brenner said, “You need to perform an action to show yourself you can do it. Dana did that. She was very brave.” 

War vets swap stories at Wendy’s

Pictures of fighter jets and war memorabilia aren’t the typical decor you expect to see on the walls of a Wendy’s restaurant, but after an early Monday visit to its Canoga Park location, the ornamentation starts to make sense. That’s when approximately 100 men and women, many dressed in matching blue shirts, jackets with military insignias and hats adorned with military pins, convene 52 weeks a year to share war stories and some coffee. 

Packing the restaurant are members of Wings Over Wendy’s (WOW), a club for military veterans that’s been going strong since its inception in 2002. That’s when Fred Blechman, a Corsair fighter pilot in the United States Navy, and Mickey Epstein, an aviation engineer, happened to meet while eating their senior 99-cent lunch specials. After exchanging stories about World War II, they decided to meet again. Soon, more veterans joined them, and within three months, 12 guys were getting together every Monday to swap books, magazines and stories about flying. 

After a 2003 article about them appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, the casual meeting grew quickly. The group started to impede the restaurant’s lunchtime business, so franchise owners Diane and Ron Ross of Thousand Oaks offered to open early and provide free coffee (it’s since been raised to $1.65 for coffee and a doughnut or bagel). 

“I get goose bumps every time I see them,” Diane Ross said. “They are what America is all about. They are about our freedom.” 

WOW now includes 200 members who have served in all branches of the military in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The group hopes to bring in younger people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as submarine vets — the only group not yet represented. Members come from as far away as Pasadena and Valencia, with the oldest participant being 97. 

At one time, WOW included three World War II German fliers who had become American citizens (they have since passed away). One of them, Mike Karatsonji, an ME-109 pilot, reluctantly joined the Luftwaffe when he was forced to choose between flying for the Germans and going to a concentration camp. 

“It’s the nature of the beast,” said WOW member Michael LaVere, a former B-24 navigator. “Wartime makes people do a lot of things they don’t want to do.” 

As with many of the men, LaVere, 89, knew exactly what he was fighting for. “As a Jewish person, [I believed that] a man like Hitler didn’t deserve to exist in this world. What he was trying to do was something that I wasn’t going to let him do. Every bomb that we dropped, we put little signs on them — this is for you, Adolf,” he said.   

The leader of the pack is Art Sherman, 93, a B-24 bombardier, intelligence officer and self-proclaimed frustrated comedian. His levity and humor are infectious, making him a natural master of ceremonies and setting the lively, fun tone for the meetings. 

Members spend most of the meetings sharing stories, and they have a lifetime of them. WOW member Allyn Lewis was a 21-year-old first pilot with the Army Air Corps when he flew a B-17 over eastern Belgium on April 5, 1945. The weather was bad, and his plane, carrying a crew of eight, had a spectacular midair collision with another U.S. B-17, tearing off the entire nose of his plane. Three other men in the cockpit bailed out, but Lewis stayed at the controls for 45 minutes. With heavy snow flying directly inside the plane and only minimal controls, he safely landed his plane near Brussels. 

“I wasn’t scared,” Lewis said. “I had a job to do, and luckily the emergency training came in handy. I was very fortunate, and it’s a miracle that all the members of both crews survived. Twenty days later, I was back up flying.” 

WOW members also perform community service together, believing that you’re never too old to serve your country and make it better. They visit food banks and other charities, and often speak at local schools. Members are particularly proud of the many volunteer hours they spend making packages of toiletries and snacks for service personnel around the world through the nonprofit Operation Gratitude. 

“We try to do our best for the public and are honored when people come and thank us for our service,” Sherman said. “When we speak to kids at schools, I tell them that the real heroes of World War II are in the cemeteries over in Europe and the Far East, because they are the ones that did the most and gave their lives so that the kids today can have their freedom.”  

One of those “kids” is certainly impressed: teenager Bradley Gerber, who is by far the youngest WOW member. His interest in war tactics and weaponry was initially sparked by his grandfather’s experiences during the Korean War; Bradley has collected hundreds of military books and VHS tapes. When his Temple Aliyah youth group was organizing a veteran’s lounge, Bradley was introduced to a few members of WOW, and since then, he’s been going to meetings whenever he can, even if it means missing school. 

“I have read so many books, but you don’t understand the true meaning of war until you talk to them in person,” Bradley said. “These vets are so amazing. They’re the greatest generation.” 

The kind of bonding that takes place through WOW serves a core need, according to Jonathan Sherin, executive vice president for military communities and chief medical officer at Volunteers of America. 

“Because of their repeated trauma of being moved around and then being exposed to life-threatening experiences as a group, that need for fellowship is significant. … It can only be provided by other veterans, as it’s not something that your family or a clinician can understand and communicate.” 

The strong bond among the group’s members is like a lifeline.

“The amazing thing,” Sherman said, “is that we become fast friends. We give everyone a reason to live; it’s a joyful place. People can let their hair down, if they have it — and not too many of us do.”