Women of the Wall a crucial voice in fight for equality

When I joined a delegation traveling to Israel for the 25th anniversary of the Women of the Wall earlier this month, I thought I was going there to perform a simple mitzvah: helping to win the right for all Jewish women to pray according to their custom at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

As an active member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, I take for granted that I can chant Torah, sing out with gusto during services and wear a tallit. I found it outrageous that the Women of the Wall had been trying for 25 years, with only limited success, to do the same at our people’s most significant historical and religious site.

Upon my arrival in Jerusalem, I quickly learned that my presence — and that of approximately 90 other North American Jewish women — actually supported a much broader agenda of policies increasing religious pluralism and gender equality in Israel. I also learned that our involvement was not only welcome but considered essential to winning more religious freedom for Jews in Israel.

Over and over during our 10-day trip, we heard from both secular and Modern Orthodox Israeli leaders, including members of the Knesset, about the importance of the Women of the Wall. They explained how many other issues — including the right to a Reform or Conservative wedding, recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and equal access to divorce — form an unbroken line extending from the goals of the Women of the Wall, because all of these policies require breaking the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over matters of religion in Israel.

It took nearly 25 years, but the arrest of women trying to pray audibly, wearing tallit and reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel finally brought these issues of religious pluralism into active debate. The indelible images created by Women of the Wall, and covered by the Western media, captured the attention of Jews in the diaspora. Israeli media and policy-makers were forced to take these issues seriously, in large part, because we in the West care about the Women of the Wall.

Hundreds of women gather at the Western Wall to mark the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall on Nov. 4. photo/jta-miriam alster

If I was a little surprised to learn the broader significance for Israelis of our mission to Israel, I was astonished to discover the potential impact and importance of expanding religious pluralism in Israel for Jews everywhere. Jewish religious leaders around the world tend to base their rules on those established in Israel. For example, Reform and Conservative rabbis in the United States must tell people studying for conversion they may not be considered Jewish in Israel.

But, as liberal Jews living in the diaspora, there is an even greater, long-term consequence of leaving the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly intact in Israel. Perhaps the best way to describe this slowly evolving crisis is in terms of what actually happened when our group of 90 joined roughly 400 Israeli women at the Kotel on the morning of Rosh Hodesh Kislev.

We gathered in a huge circle in the women’s section, our cantors perched on chairs throughout the group so we could hear them lead us in prayer. As we raised our voices in song, men on the other side of the mechitza spoke through a loudspeaker, some blew whistles, and others shouted taunts at us — literally trying to drown out our voices.

Drowning out liberal Judaism is what the ultra-Orthodox would like to do. And, with the help of Israeli tax dollars, they are subsidized to train an army of rabbis who are being sent around the world to promote a version of Judaism in which our daughters and granddaughters will have no voice at all. Meanwhile, we are failing to inspire our young people to affiliate and support Jewish institutions. If both of these trends continue, liberal Judaism ultimately will be reduced to a tattered, unsustainable remnant.

The Women of the Wall have demonstrated it takes perseverance and dedication to make even small changes. After 25 years of showing up month after month on Rosh Hodesh, women are now permitted to wear a tallit when praying at the Kotel. This is progress, but there is much more to accomplish, and the time to act is now. For the first time since their establishment, the ultra-Orthodox parties are frozen out of the Israeli government. This is a moment of unprecedented opportunity to advance the cause of religious pluralism in Israel.

For our own sake, we should take every opportunity to support the Women of the Wall and the other groups whose goals align with theirs. When it comes to Jewish religious freedom and gender equality, what happens in Israel does not stay in Israel.

Laurie Leiber lives in Oakland, where she teaches Pilates and bagel-making.