November 20, 2018

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.”