Women of the Wall Splinter Group Takes Uncompromising Stance

'Original Women of the Wall' members believe negotiating the new egalitarian prayer space would spell a victory for the ultra-Orthodox groups.

A Women of the Wall splinter group is taking its first independent steps to mark its official break from the pluralistic women’s prayer group.

The splinter group, which rejected the board’s decision to consider moving Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service from the women’s section of the Western Wall to a new egalitarian space nearby, will be holding its first prayer service of its own at the Kotel this Friday. It has also assumed its own name: “Original Women of the Wall” or the abbreviated version ”O-WOW.”

The prayer service at the Kotel this week is scheduled to mark the holiday of Tu Bishvat, which falls on Thursday.

Several months ago, at the urging of its Chairwoman Anat Hoffman, the Women of the Wall board decided in an 8-2 vote to negotiate with the government the possibility of moving to the new egalitarian section, in exchange for acquiescence to a long list of demands. These demands included equal space and equal funding for the new section as well as representation on the new authority that would be charged with administering it. The government has yet to respond to these demands. Moreover, the special government committee that was created to present recommendations on resolving the ongoing conflict over prayer rules at the Western Wall, headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, has yet to publish its report.

O-WOW was formed by a group of several dozen women, among them founding members of Women of the Wall who believe that negotiating a move to the new egalitarian space would spell a victory for the ultra-Orthodox groups who have been trying to force the women’s prayer group out of the women’s section. The ultra-Orthodox object to various practices in which some members of the women’s prayer group engage, such as wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, and praying out loud.

Most of the members of the splinter group live in the United States.

Cheryl Birkner Mack, an Israeli-based representative of O-WOW, said she expected between 15 to 20 women to participate in Friday’s inaugural service, among them former Women of the Wall board member Aliza Berger-Cooper and Shulamit Magnus, one of the American founders of Women of the Wall, who is moving to Israel shortly.

“Just as Women of the Wall started as a small group and grew, so will we,” said Birkner Mack.

She said the O-WOW planned to continue convening in the women’s section of the Kotel, but not on a regular basis. “We’ll probably have our next service on International Women’s Day in March, and after that we hope to get together to mark yahrzeits [death anniversaries] and other events,” she said.

In response, Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce said: “There’s only one Women of the Wall. We’re a registered non-profit, and we’re the ones who have been fighting all the legal battles of the past 25 years. Coopting the name in this way is just an attempt to ride on the wave of our success. But we certainly have no objection to more women praying at the wall. In fact, the more the merrier. “

Michal Fattal