Local women put focus on campaign for equality at Western Wall

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Screaming. Shoving. Rock-throwing.

Sounds like something that might happen between groups of hard-line Israelis and Palestinians. But what about when both the angry mob and its targets are Jewish?

That’s the reality for Women of the Wall, a group of women who attempt to pray aloud and read Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. A new campaign aims to cast light on the irony of it all.

Lori Rosenthal

“The idea that a woman can read from the Torah everywhere in the world except in the one place where arguably it matters most is astounding,” said Beth Sirull, a board member of Women of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

Beth Abraham and several other local synagogues have joined an international campaign to inundate Israeli political and religious leaders with 10,000 photos of women teaching, studying, reading from and embracing Torah scrolls — all acts condemned by the ultra-Orthodox groups that exert authority at the Western Wall.

“The question is, what kind of Jewish values are at work here?” said Sara Yakira Heckelman, the guest speaker at San Francisco Congregation B’nai Emunah’s Sept. 26 photo session. “What we’re not seeing is tolerance, pluralism and openness to Judaism as it’s evolved all over the world.”

Heckelman is a member of Friends of Women of the Wall, a local group of men and women who stand behind Women of the Wall as a rallying point for religious pluralism in Israel.

By tapping into its e-mail list and posting information on its Facebook page, Friends of Women of the Wall helped galvanize local efforts to submit images to the Women of the Wall photo campaign.

According to the campaign website, uploaded images and a message of solidarity are being sent to officials in Israel, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Speaker of the Knesset Rubi Rivlin and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.  

Heckelman organized four photo shoots at her synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco, adding that Conservative congregations Beth Sholom, also in San Francisco, Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Kol Shofar in Tiburon are among those local synagogues that have contributed to the cause.

Sara Yakira Heckelman (photo/susanna goldenstein)

Women of Temple Beth Abraham showed the Women of the Wall documentary, “Praying in Her Own Voice,” in conjunction with taking photos. About 30 attended.

“The vehemence of the hatred against women who wear tallits and want to open the Torah and pray was just shocking,” said Lori Rosenthal, a Women of Temple Beth Abraham board member.

More than 65 women were recently photographed during two photo sessions at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The effort was sponsored by Beth Am Women, encouraged by Rabbi Janet Marder, and spearheaded by two Israeli women who have endured harassment at the Western Wall: Orna Morad of Palo Alto and her daughter, Sharon.

Orna, who has led several of Beth Am’s trips to Israel, joined Women of the Wall founding member Anat Hoffman and others at the Western Wall two years ago.

“It was a very sad experience for me,” Orna said. “[Haredi women] were shouting at us and saying bad things. I came back really shocked. I had never experienced anything like that. I grew up in Israel, but in a secular Israel.”

Before it was taken over by Orthodox authorities, “the Kotel belonged to everybody,” Orna said. “It’s not a private place and the [haredi] made it theirs. It’s not right.”

To send a photo to the Women of the Wall photo campaign, go to www.womenofthewall.org.il.

Correspondent Janet Silver Ghent contributed to this report.