Anat Hoffman Is Hopeful, but Cautious, Over Deal That 'Liberates' the Western Wall

The chairwoman of Women of the Wall welcomes proposal to expand Jerusalem's Western Wall plaza to accommodate non-Orthodox worshipers but expects opposition from many sides.

NEW YORK - There may be no one who is at once happier and more apprehensive than Anat Hoffman about what Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky plans to propose to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a solution to the long-running conflict at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

Hoffman is chairwoman and unofficial chief strategist for Women of the Wall, the organization that has been praying at the Western Wall once a month since 1988 and has become a lightning rod for tensions over religious practices at the holy site.

She and other group members - some of whom are Orthodox, while others are Conservative or Reform - have been arrested with increasing frequency over the past several months, for wearing prayer shawls and for praying out loud. Both are breaches of accepted religious custom at the Western Wall, where practices are controlled by the Orthodox rabbi running the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

On Tuesday, at a meeting in New York, Sharansky told the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements and other Jewish groups, that he will propose the Western Wall plaza space be more than doubled, with a large section dedicated to egalitarian prayer, all of it sharing an entrance and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He also reportedly said that practices in the egalitarian section will not be controlled by an Orthodox rabbi.

"This is huge," said Hoffman in an interview in her father’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. "This is a very ambitious program he is suggesting."

Women of the Wall was "absolutely against any kinds of compromise sending us to 'the wall of the misfits'" - a reference to Robinson’s Arch, a section of the wall that is outside the Western Wall plaza and currently the site of an archeological excavation.

Robinson’s Arch is where Women of the Wall have been required to go to read from their Torah scroll on Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the start of a new month in the Jewish calendar. In its current state Women of the Wall has rejected this location.

"But this is a package deal that liberates the Wall for everybody," Hoffman said.

She and others warned of impediments that, even after Netanyahu presumably approves the plan, will remain obstacles to making it a reality.

Sharansky "claims it will take a year and a half to two, and 100 to 200 million shekels. It sounds to me like it will be 10 years and 100 to 200 million dollars. And I foresee some huge opposition, but it’s not going to come from Women of the Wall," Hoffman said.

The Jerusalem resident, who has observed conflicts over many, less-controversial projects in her city, said she expects opposition to come from "the Jordanians, the archeologists of Israel, the Muslim Waqf" - the Muslim religious trust - "the ultra-Orthodox and the treasury of Israel. It is solving a political problem with huge amounts of money," Hoffmain said.

Sharansky’s plan would appear to involve altering Mugrabi Bridge, the ramp leading from the Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount ‏(which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and is the site of two major Muslim holy places, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock‏). And no religious site in the world is more sensitive for more people with divergent interests than this one.

"In 2004 when there was snow and Israel tried to fix the Mugrabi Bridge so it wouldn’t collapse on the women’s section, there were pan-Islamic protests all over the world. It’s not going to be easy to touch it," Hoffman said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting with Sharansky, "The plans are still without the refinement of many, many details. There are many obstacles that still remain, both financial and political. It will take an enormous amount of effort to make this imperfect plan one that can move us forward in an extraordinary way."

According to Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, "there are a lot of details that need to be worked out, including short-term strategies while the long-term resolution is coming to fruition."

Hoffman attributes much of the shift by pressure brought to bear by Diaspora Jews, she told Haaretz.

She initially planned her trip to the United States in order to speak on April 14 at a Brandeis University conference on sex segregation in religious spaces. But it has burgeoned into a 19-day tour of appearances at synagogues in New York, New Jersey, Boston and Florida.

Everywhere she goes, Hoffman said, more people come to the event than the synagogues expect. The support "is grassroots. There have been lots and lots of people."

Women of the Wall has run out of the products it sells to raise funds, including a tallit designed by Israeli artisan Yair Emmanuel and its prayer book. Eager supporters are pressing the organization to accept advance orders of a T-shirt that it hasn’t even produced yet, Hoffman said.

Modest donations pour in accompanied by "wonderful notes" from people who feel a sense of solidarity with the group, she said. The reason so many American Jews have come to identify with Women of the Wall is their own experiences at Judaism’s holiest site, she said.

"It seems like the big recruiter to Women of the Wall is the individual experiences of people feeling like a lesser Jew when they visit," Hoffman said.

One man at a recent talk "was asked [by someone seeking donations to a religious cause] to give money as he was sobbing for his dead father on the Wall," she said.

A California rabbi went to visit the Kotel with his wife and two young daughters and was told that they needed to put a shmata" - Yiddish for rag, in this case lengths of fabric provided at the Wall for visitors deemed to be revealing too much skin - "on the 6-year-old. He and his wife thought a minute then turned around and went home. They wouldn’t explain to a 6-year-old why she needed a shmata," Hoffman said.

Many Israelis, too, "don’t feel at home" at the Wall, she said.

Women of the Wall will celebrate the new month on April 11. It will be the first Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Wall that Hoffman has missed in many years, she said.

Even with all of the obstacles yet to surmount before Sharansky’s vision for the Kotel area is realized, Hoffman said she feels hopeful.

"We want to pray at the women’s section wearing our tallitot, praying out loud, saying Kaddish," she said. "We’ll pray hard for this to succeed for a long, long time. This really is liberation. It’s liberating for everybody."

Michal Fattal