The struggle for women to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall will be the focus of High Holy Day sermons at congregations across the United States, as part of an organized campaign to galvanize support for greater religious tolerance in Israel.
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The campaign is being spearheaded by Jewish Voices Together, a New York-based organization established several months ago to demonstrate solidarity with Women of the Wall, the pluralistic women’s prayer group that has been at the forefront of the battle to wrest control of Judaism’s holiest site from the ultra-Orthodox.
In March, after close to a dozen women were detained at the Western Wall for praying out loud and wearing prayer shawl and phylacteries, Jewish Voices Together, founded and headed by Iris Richman, a Conservative rabbi and attorney, organized rallies in support of Women of the Wall at various locations around the U.S. The organization comprises rabbis of all denominations.
The title of its latest campaign is “100 blasts of the shofar/100 rabbinic voices for justice! Speak out for religious tolerance in Israel and Women of the Wall” – and its goal is to get 100 rabbis in the U.S. to devote their sermons over the upcoming Jewish holidays to women’s prayer rights in Israel. According to Richman, the effort has already surpassed that milestone, with 127 rabbis, as of this writing, agreeing to participate in the campaign, including congregation leaders outside of the U.S., in Canada, Australia and Israel. Among the participants are 64 Conservative rabbis, 38 Reform and two Orthodox.
Richman estimated that anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 worshippers would be attending services at the participating congregations.
Asked to explain the timing of the initiative, she said: “The High Holy Days are a time of great Jewish unity in the U.S. The summer is over, people come back to their communities, they join together for meals with families and friends, and if they will participate in a synagogue at any time during the year, they will certainly do so at this time. Especially with the developing events in Israel, this is a propitious time to all come together and learn together about what we can all do to support Israel and help build a better Israel.”
Are you hoping to pressure on the government of Israel through this initiative?
“A theme of this campaign is ‘many voices, one heart.’ It's important for Israelis to understand the depth and urgency of the desire of U.S. Jews to feel welcomed in Israel and to have a place at the Kotel and not be shunted aside or abused. It's important for U.S. Jews to express that we support Israel as our Jewish homeland and dedicate ourselves to actions that contribute to building a better Israel.”
What is your view of the recent decision by Israel's Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett to set up a provisional platform for non-Orthodox services at the wall?
“Any increased space or accommodation by the government for non-Orthodox Jews is a positive development, if it is free from conditions. However, Minister Bennett's statement in his press release that as a result of building a platform at Robinson's Arch, non-Orthodox worshippers would be barred from the Kotel, if endorsed by the Prime Minister, would have to be regarded as a ‘Trojan horse’ and deemed entirely unacceptable. Judge Moshe Sobel ruled in April that the prayer practices of Women of the Wall were entirely legal. I'm not an Israeli lawyer, but I don't understand how Minister Bennett can properly overrule Judge Sobel's decision when the government never even appealed that decision.”
You're aware, I'm sure, that there are no more than a few hundred Women of the Wall activists in Israel, and this is one of the reasons government and other officials feel there is no reason to come up with a plan to address the needs of this one special group.
“I've heard similar views expressed before and I find that troubling and naive. In the U.S. today we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The march was attended by ‘only’ 250,000 people of the then-total U.S. population of more than 189 million. Should they have been dismissed as irrelevant too? Polls in Israel have indicated that a majority of the Israeli population supports the religious rights of Women of the Wall. As I understand any experience of change, any time even a few hundred activists have the support of a majority of the population in a democracy, the government needs to respect and act in accordance with the will and needs of the majority.”