Women of the Wall Launches Campaign to Gain Access to Hanukkah Ceremony at Kotel

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
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Reform Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (with an empty Torah scroll left) and Women of the Wall board chair Anat Hoffman right at the Western Wall.Credit: Joan Roth
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

Women of the Wall, the feminist group that promotes women's prayer rights at the Kotel, is embarking on a new campaign to win access to Israel's national Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.

With a campaign called “It’s My Right to Light,” WoW is calling on leading male figures to boycott the traditional Orthodox Hanukkah ceremony at the Western Wall.

Each night of Hanukkah, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Kotel, presides over an official candle lighting. Someone in a position of influence — typically a member of Knesset or other prominent official — is invited to kindle the flame, which recalls the triumph of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers over Israel, who had banned Jewish practice in Jerusalem’s Temple.

But those honored are always men. Last year Israel Supreme Court Chief Justice Asher Grunis was honored with an invitation to light a candle one night. This year, the Supreme Court’s chief justice is Miriam Naor, a woman, almost certainly will not be.

In response to a request for comment about the group's campaign, Rabinowitz wrote in an email: “These days when we are looking for what unites us, we should do everything possible so the Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony will symbolize the light of unity, and not a fire that separates us. I will do everything to find a way that the positive light of the Hanukkah candles reflect on all of us.”

He did not reply to questions about permitting women to light the national hanukkiah, or moving it from the men's section to the back of the Kotel plaza so that women, as well as men, can be part of the ceremony.

Reform Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellinson dances at with Women of the Wall, empty Torah scroll in hand, as a symbol for women's inability to read from the Torah at the WallCredit: Joan Roth

WoW members — some wearing a prayer shawl and tefillin, some not — hold a monthly ceremony at the Wall to welcome the new month with prayer and song, sometimes trying to the smuggle in a Torah scroll into the women’s section of the Kotel and reading from it – an action Orthodox Judaism reserves to men.

They are regarded by Israel’s Orthodox establishment as provocative, but a 2013 Israeli Supreme Court ruling stated that the women have a right to pray at the Kotel according to their beliefs, and that their approach, though different than the majority of those who make religious pilgrimage to the Wall, does not violate local custom.

Both men and women are obligated to light the Hanukkah lamp, according to Chabad.

“The issue of Hanukkah halachically is 100 percent agreed that women can and should light the hanukkiah,” said Anat Hoffman, WoW’s board chair, who also works as executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“We’re hoping to reach out to whoever is being honored at the wall, if it’s the president, chief of police, mayor of Jerusalem, the prime minister, we’re saying ‘please don’t come unless women can also light,’” Hoffman told Haaretz.

The group sent a letter asking to boycott the ritual to those likely to be invited: the Chief Rabbinate’s executive director, Jerusalem police commissioner, the police chief in charge of the Kotel area, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

They quickly heard back from Barkat’s office, and were told that he will be in New York during Hanukkah, said Shira Pruce, WoW’s director of public relations. So far they have not yet received a response from any of the others.

Their letter said Women of the Wall approached Rabinowitz last year with a request to conduct a ceremony in the women's section, to which leading women in Israeli society would be invited to light the Hanukkah candles.

"Our request was denied, based on misguided motives that result in silencing women and excluding them from the public sphere," it read.

“According to Jewish law (halacha) women are required, as are men, to light Hanukkah candles. The ‘mitzvah’ is larger the more people light the candles.

The letter calls on the recipients to reject Rabinowitz's invitation and call on "your fellow party members to boycott this ceremony and speak out publicly against the discrimination and the exclusion of women."

American Reform rabbis Jacqueline Koch Ellenson and Sydney Mintz are spearheading WoW’s effort, which is also a fundraising campaign, in the United States.

Ellenson began going to WoW’s monthly Rosh Chodesh prayers at the Kotel years ago, and since 2009, when she witnessed the arrest of participant Nofrat Frenkel for holding a Torah scroll, has become more actively involved. Ellenson directed the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network for 12 years, until she stepped down from the position this year.

In 2013 she organized trips for American rabbis and synagogue members to join WoW in celebrating its 25th anniversary. Seven hundred and fifty women attended that Rosh Chodesh worship, Ellenson said.

Today, she told Haaretz, religious pluralism, which was a focus of American Jewish organizations in the recent past, has been diverted by the focus on security in light of recent terrorist attacks, she said.

“A lot of the conversation around religious pluralism got put on the sideline,” Ellenson told Haaretz. But even during the height of the recent terrorism in Jerusalem, when pedestrians and bus riders were being randomly stabbed and most Jerusalemites stayed at home, nearly 50 women still gathered out in the open at the Kotel on October 14th, praying together to welcome the month of Heshvan, Ellenson said.

In a typical month, 150 women participate, said WoW’s Pruce.

“As American Jews we have a role to play in supporting the institutions that attempt to manifest the values of pluralism, democracy, and a vision of an Israel which is not determined by religious coercion,” Ellenson told Haaretz.

“I see Women of the Wall as a manifestation of those values. It is one significant way I’ve chosen to show that commitment to Israel.”

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