Orthodox Feminist Group Breaks Ranks With Women of the Wall

Joins other dissenters in opposing move to new mixed prayer section.

The Israeli Orthodox feminists organization has joined forces with a group of dissenters within Women of the Wall, the multidenominational women’s prayer group, in voicing fierce opposition to a new government plan that would effectively prevent women from praying as they see fit at the women’s section of the wall.

The directors of Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum sent a letter this week to Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit informing him that they reject any attempt to force women like themselves to pray in a new egalitarian section among men.

“The compromise being formulated in your discussions with Women of the Wall, according to which women’s prayer groups would be forced to leave the women’s section and move to Ezrat Yisrael [the new egalitarian section] could deal a heavy blow to Orthodox women, and we will not be able to agree to this this,” the letter said. “We see ourselves as part of Orthodoxy, and our prayers have already become part of the local custom as interpreted in Judge Sobel’s ruling.” This ruling, handed down by the Jerusalem District Court last year, found that it is not a violation of local custom for women to pray out loud, to wear prayer shawls and phylacteries, and to read from the Torah in at the women’s section of the wall.

In their letter, the directors of Kolech requested an urgent meeting with Mendelblit in order to voice their concerns face to face. The Orthodox feminist group has until now been a strong supporter of Women of the Wall.

Last week, Haaretz reported that Women of the Wall was on the verge of an agreement with a committee headed by Mendelblit to move its monthly prayer service to a new egalitarian space located on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge near the archeological site known as Robinson’s Arch. This agreement became imminent after the Mendelblit committee agreed to several key demands of the women’s prayer group, including the provision of portable dividers in the new egalitarian section so that women could hold prayer services on their own there, should they wish to do so.

“Attempts to move us over to Ezrat Yisrael represent a blow to our religious identity,” the Kolech letter said. “Since we observe Halakha strictly and belong to the Orthodox stream [of Judaism], we are not willing to forfeit our right to pray as we see fit in the women’s section of the Western Wall.”

Meanwhile, the dissenters within Women of the Wall have hired a lawyer to represent them in their case against the upcoming plan to move all progressive women’s prayer groups to the new egalitarian section. The lawyer, Gideon Koren, sent a letter this week to Mendelblit informing him that his clients have no intention of leaving the women’s section. “My clients believe that the proposed plan infringes on the freedom of women to pray and ousts them unfairly from the women’s section,” Koren wrote. “This plan is a major blow to their basic rights, among them, their freedom of expression, freedom to organize and freedom of religion.”

The letter says that his clients, who call themselves Original Women of the Wall, or O-Wow, see no reason to abide by any agreements reached between Women of the Wall and the government, as Women of the Wall does not represent them. The letter accuses Women of the Wall of “hurting (to put it mildly) the interests of Jewish women in Israel and around the world.”

Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce said in response: Women of the Wall are the proud pioneers of the diversity of women's prayer at the Western Wall. For 25 years we have defended the right of all women to pray at the wall, each according to her tradition. We struggled to have our voices heard and now we have taken our place amongst the leaders re-envisioning the future of the holy site."

"In our vision of the Kotel there is no place for the exclusion of women in the public, holy sphere in Israel," she added. "Debate, dissent and disagreement are integral parts of a dynamic and relevant feminist, Jewish movement like ours.
We are happy to hear the voices of Kolech and the Orthodox women, many of which pray with us each month. These are important voices; voices that must be heard and voices which we have been representing already for many years."

The dissenting group has several dozen members, among them some of the founders of Women of the Wall. Most of the supporters of this opposition group do not live in Israel.

Tali Meir