Anat Hoffman, local rabbis discuss impact of Western Wall compromise

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli government commission convened to consider how to be inclusive of more forms of Judaism at Jerusalem’s Western Wall — the Kotel — which has long been the domain of the Orthodox.
March 16, 2016

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli government commission convened to consider how to be inclusive of more forms of Judaism at Jerusalem’s Western Wall — the Kotel — which has long been the domain of the Orthodox. The commission’s report represented, for many, a victory in the decades-long struggle for pluralism, as it recommends the creation of a new, egalitarian prayer plaza adjacent to the current Orthodox one. 

The issue of what pluralism at the Kotel means was the focus of “Separate, but Equal?” a panel event held March 9 at Temple Beth Am, featuring four rabbis from different denominations as well as Anat Hoffman, co-founder of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and Israel Consul General David Siegel. It was the first in a new “Crucial Conversations” series, designed by the Jewish Journal to bring together the community for vital discussions addressing contemporary Jewish life and concerns. 

Jewish Journal Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim moderated the event, dedicating the conversation to the memory of Taylor Force, an American graduate student stabbed to death in Tel Aviv that week. 

Offering welcome remarks, Siegel noted that “compromises are never easy, never not messy, never perfect,” but urged Hoffman and the assembled to understand that “we are one people.” He charged the audience to “always be involved in what’s happening in Israel,” and to “never give up.”

“Our vision for the future is a big tent,” Siegel said, to make Israel a place “where every Jew feels at home.”

Hoffman, for many the main draw of the event for her frontline engagement on this issue over the decades, attributed progress on the issue in large part to American Jews. 

“You were willing to stand up and fight … in support of finding a solution for this problem,” Hoffman said. “There must be more than one way to be Jewish in Israel. Zionism is not a spectator sport. You are willing to roll up your sleeves and do something about it.” 

Lauding the decision as “a great achievement,” Hoffman admitted that implementation will be challenging. As an example, she reported two seemingly conflicting remarks by Netanyahu — that he was completely committed to the report and was also giving the rabbis three weeks to identify their reservations. “I can save Netanyahu the three weeks,” Hoffman said. “The words ‘gender equality,’ ‘pluralism’ and ‘egalitarianism’ — that’s the objection.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, visits Israel regularly, but admitted that he rarely goes to the Kotel, because “every time I go,” he said, “there’s always some kind of argument or division taking place.” He also challenged Hoffman, saying that the egalitarian area means that “you essentially were relegated to a corner, and told that’s where you can go. … I don’t understand how that’s a victory.” 

Bouskila shared a story about his hero, Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who had gone to the Kotel to pray on the occasion of his inauguration. “There was no minyan,” Bouskila said. “He was not wearing a tallit, there were women walking right by him and there was no barrier, because that was what the Kotel always was. The Kotel HaMa’aravi (the Western Wall) was never a synagogue,” Bouskila said. “The Kotel should not be a place that reflects denominational divisions,” he said.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, shared his disappointing Kotel experiences and his realization that the Temple Mount — topped by the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock — is no longer the center of Jewish life. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go to the Kotel again. The Kotel is not the holiest site of Judaism,” he said. “It’s a symbol of our shame and disgrace.” 

“To me, this argument about who can daven where and how is like a divorced couple arguing over teacups,” Dunner said. “I just don’t get it. We should all be getting together and every single day, sit at the Kotel and sing kinot (songs mourning the destruction of Jerusalem). Because despite the fact of how fantastic it is that we have the Kotel and Jerusalem and the State of Israel, we’re not there yet, Mashiach hasn’t come. Let’s not treat it as a tourist site or a synagogue when it is a symbol of the fact that the geulah shleimah (full redemption) is not yet here.”

“There is more than one way to be a Jew,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, “That’s ultimately what this conversation is about and what the struggle of the last 27 years is about.” 

“The Kotel should belong to all Jews,” Geller said. “It’s like the National Mall, but on steroids. No one has the right to tell me that my voice doesn’t belong there. Women ought not to be invisible.” 

Geller admitted that the agreement “is a compromise and no one is happy. We gave up so much. That’s the point. It’s not perfect but it is incredibly important. The level of recognition for non-Orthodox denominations is the story and we need to recognize that.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am admitted that in rabbinical school, he didn’t feel the imperative to fight for equality at the Kotel. However, during his year in Israel, a Shavuot experience at the back of the Kotel plaza made clear to him that “I couldn’t be on the outside. … Even if I wouldn’t have claimed this place to wage this particular battle, my Jews were under attack, and I had to be with them.” 

Hoffman noted that the progress was because of American Jews representing “the most effective and large coalition in the history of the State of Israel about an issue of pluralism,” and she urged the crowd to stay involved. 

“If a quarter million Jews wrote the prime minister of Israel, ‘This is important to us, this is a beautiful, new idea, we’d like to have a choice’ — if we all said that loud enough, it will happen,” said Hoffman in her closing remarks. “I really believe it. So, may the best plaza win.”

After the event, audience member Sarah Gorney, 27, who works at Hulu and discovered the event on Facebook, took issue with comments by some of the rabbis that the Kotel doesn’t matter. 

“The fact is, it does matter. It’s an important symbol to many, it’s represented so much more and it’s from a place of privilege that you can minimize it,” she said, referring to the fact that men have had decades of greater access to the Kotel and could therefore more easily dismiss it. 

“As someone without equal right to the Kotel, what I see every time I’m there is the divider, of the men yelling at women and the homogenous population, because I’m a woman,” she said. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Journal and the panelists’ organizations and synagogues: the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Consulate, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the Sephardic Educational Center, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. 

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