Women of the Wall vs. Women of the Wall: Organization Splits Over Controversial Decision

Days after the pluralistic group's board votes to cede the demand to hold prayer services at the women's section of the Western Wall, a group of longstanding activists contests the decision, impugning chairwoman Anat Hoffman's leadership.

A group of a dozen longstanding activists of Women of the Wall, among them some of its founding members, are challenging the leadership of Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman, and her decision to consider ceding the battle to pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall.

On Sunday night, the board of directors of Women of the Wall, at Hoffman’s recommendation, voted in favor of moving the group’s monthly prayer service from the women’s section to a new egalitarian section on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge, subject to a list of conditions.

In a statement issued today, the dissenters wrote: “Now, Jewish women have been offered another version of the Robinson’s Arch proposal. The area will be altered. The name of the holy site will be appropriated and bestowed on the archeological site, also to be called ‘the Wall.’ You will be with other Jews whose prayer practice those in charge of the Kotel also do not tolerate. We reject this and remain committed to our original goals.”

Robinson’s Arch is the archeological site that had been offered to Women of the Wall years ago as an alternative venue for its monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer service. It had until now been rejected by the organization as amounting to being relegated to “the back of the bus.”

Among the signatories on the dissenting petition are Dr. Bonna Haberman, who initiated the first prayer service of Women of the Wall 25 years ago, and Dr. Phyllis Chesler, a founding member of the International Committee for Women of the Wall. The overwhelming majority of the signatories are based in the United States and about one-third are Orthodox women.

In response to this challenge, the spokeswoman of Women of the Wall, Shira Pruce, issued the following statement: “We respect all voices and they deserve to be heard. However, there is only one Women of the Wall. We are a registered non-profit and we voted in a democratic process to stay in the women’s section while also leading this groundbreaking change at the Kotel.”

Among the reasons the group had refused to consider a compromise in recent months was that quite a few of the participants at its monthly prayer service, as well as several members of its board, are Orthodox, and therefore, object to praying in the same space with men.

Women of the Wall had come under mounting pressure in recent weeks, particularly from the Conservative movement, to show some more openness to the idea of a new egalitarian section.

The pressure to compromise followed the construction in late August of a new temporary prayer platform for mixed services by Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. The platform, near the site of the archeological excavations by Robinson’s Arch, is equipped to accommodate about 450 worshippers and was designated for members of the Conservative and Reform movements.

Women of the Wall said the decision to vote for compromise was made by an overwhelming majority of its board members.

Early next week, the group plans to present the government committee currently putting together recommendations for changes in prayer arrangements at the Western Wall with a list of its demands for moving to the new egalitarian space. Among these is that women who wish to pray together in the new prayer space be allowed to do so and that they be provided access to a provisional mechitzah, or divider, separating them from the men.

In addition, it is demanding that there be one entrance and one contiguous national plaza for all three prayer sections – the already existing men’s and women’s spaces and the new mixed space – as well as full equality in funding. Women of the Wall have also insisted that Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Kotel rabbi, have nothing to do with the new egalitarian space and that equal representation be given to women on the board that runs it.

The dissenters, in their statement, urged the government to “reject any policy that demeans or degrades women in public space or that causes their removal from the Jewish sacred place because they adhere to our prayer practice.”

Haberman told Haaretz that the dissenters would finalize their plan of action for reversing the decision to compromise early next week.

Michal Fattal