Anat Hoffman (center) with Rabbi Beth Singer (left) of San Francsico's Congregation Emanu-El at a monthly Women of the Wall service in Jerusalem
Anat Hoffman (center) with Rabbi Beth Singer (left) of San Francsico's Congregation Emanu-El at a monthly Women of the Wall service in Jerusalem

Israeli religious freedom warrior Anat Hoffman coming to Bay Area

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Anat Hoffman thinks American Jews have the right and the duty to speak up about Israel.

“It’s time to stop silencing each other,” the Israeli rights activist told J. recently by phone. “Israel is way too important to be left just to the Israelis.”

That’s the message that Hoffman, director of the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center, will bring when she speaks Sept. 29 at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and Sept. 30 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. IRAC is the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.

Hoffman’s work largely focuses on pushing back against the ultra-Orthodox hold on many aspects of everyday Israeli life, from marriage to adoption to public transportation. She has been arrested numerous times at the Kotel for donning a tallit and reading from Torah as part of Women of the Wall, an organization she chairs that advocates for women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall. She also fights for civil rights for Israel’s non-Jewish minorities.

The notions of pluralism and religious freedom find receptive audiences in the Bay Area, but Hoffman wants American Jews to take it a step further by speaking up for these values not only at home, but in Israel as well.

And she wants to bust the idea that it isn’t the business of American Jews.

“Not only do you have that right,” she said. “You have a duty to dialogue with the Israeli state.”

She said North American Jews often hear from Israeli leaders or organizations that they should not interfere in Israel’s internal affairs, since they don’t fight in the army or pay taxes.

“We silenced you,” she said. “We made you feel guilty.”

But while the idea that American Jews shouldn’t criticize Israel is apparent on several fronts, including letters to the editor in Jewish publications, Hoffman vehemently disagrees.

Israel is way too important to be left just to the Israelis.

“That’s got to stop,” she said. “Our values are not an ‘internal affair.’”

For Hoffman, things like the recently passed nation-state law — pilloried, especially in the diaspora, as a racist law that aggrandizes the state’s Jewish identity at the expense of its non-Jewish citizens —show that Israel’s democratic and Jewish values are under attack. She likens asking American Jews for help in this to how the U.S. Jewish community responds with a generous hand during wars or natural disasters.

“Many Israelis want to hear your voice,” she said. “Hashmiyeni es kolekh. Let me hear your voice.”

A recently released survey seems to back her up. In a poll of 800 Israelis conducted by Hiddush, an agency with offices in New York and Jerusalem that advocates for freedom of religion and social equality in Israel, two-thirds of those surveyed expressed support for diaspora Jews “working to strengthen religious freedom and pluralism in Israel.”

“The Hiddush poll shows that I’m not alone,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman’s Bay Area hosts are eager to welcome her.

“This is the kind of opportunity that comes to the Bay Area very infrequently,” said Judi Sheppard, who is helping to organize the talk at Rodef Sholom, which is co-sponsored by the Osher Marin JCC’s Center for Jewish Peoplehood, for the congregation’s sisterhood. The idea for inviting Hoffman came after a group of women from the synagogue traveled to Israel in October 2017 where they met with Hoffman and prayed at the Kotel with Women of the Wall.

“It was, for me personally, a phenomenal experience,” Sheppard said. “Anat Hoffman is my living hero.”

It’s not the first time Hoffman has brought her message to the Bay Area. But she’s still on a mission to remind U.S. Jews that they have a duty to speak up for equality in Israel, especially in divisive times like this. And she wants to tell them that they have more influence on Israel than they think.

“I’m there to say, ‘Look how successful you are when you open your mouth,’” she said.

“Shabbaton with Anat Hoffman,” 3 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29 at Congregation Rodef Sholom, 170 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. $18-$36, includes talk, nosh, beverage and Havdalah service. or (415) 722-9398

Hoffman also will speak at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 30 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F., following 8:30 a.m. Yizkor service. Free. or (415) 751-2535

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.