Stacked in the corner of Anat Hoffman’s office are a bunch of cardboard boxes packed with memorabilia chronicling a quarter-of-a-century struggle. They contain press clippings, some already yellow and frayed, drafts of petitions to the High Court, correspondences with supporters overseas, the first bulk order ever made in Israel for women’s prayers shawls, and countless other documents and artifacts.
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“Wow, that’s me blowing the shofar there,” says Hoffman pulling an old black-and-white photo of herself out of one of the boxes. “It must have been taken before I had my own tallit.”
In another box, there’s even a bloodstained bandage that once dressed the wound of a woman who had a chair thrown at her 20 years ago while praying out loud at the Western Wall.
“The whole history of Women of the Wall, 25 years of it, it’s right here,” says Hoffman, the long-standing chairwoman and undisputed public face of the multi-denominational prayer group, as she hauls yet another box to her desk.
Next week, on November 4, the feminist organization that has been fighting for the right of women to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, will be marking its jubilee with a special Rosh Chodesh prayer service that more than 400 women from Israel and abroad plan to attend. But instead of this being a joyful time, the mood within the ranks of the organization has been marred in recent weeks by deep divisions, specifically over whether to abandon the women’s section of the Western Wall in favor of a new egalitarian prayer area on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge.
Earlier this month, Hoffman convinced the Women of the Wall board to vote in favor of negotiating an agreement with the government to move the group’s monthly service to the new prayer area, subject to a list of conditions. That list will be presented on Monday morning to Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who heads the government committee charged with overhauling existing prayer regulations at the Western Wall.
A key condition on the list, Haaretz has learned, is that the Kotel rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, maintain his authority only over the gender-separated prayer areas adjacent to the wall. That means that control of the upper plaza would be transferred to a soon-to-be-established authority – jointly run by the government and the Conservative and Reform movements – to be headed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
But a group of long-standing Women of the Wall activists, among them several of the organization's founders, reject any form of compromise. In their view, Hoffman has sold out by agreeing to even consider the possibility of leaving the women’s section.
She, obviously, sees things differently. “I’m sure that when Ben-Gurion was offered the partition plan, there were also voices out there that said all or nothing,” she says.
In the 25-year history of Women of the Wall, the past year has undoubtedly been the most tumultuous. It was in October 2012 that Hoffman was arrested at the wall for wearing a tallit and praying out loud, sparking an outcry among leaders of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism outside Israel. In the following months, participants in the Women of the Wall monthly prayer services were routinely arrested for violating a 10-year-old Supreme Court decision interpreted by police as preventing women from engaging in such practices while praying in the women’s section of the wall. But then in March, Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that it was not a violation of “local custom” for women to wear tallitot and tefillin (phylacteries) or to pray out loud at the wall. That decision, while putting an end to the arrests of Women of the Wall activists, has sparked angry counter-demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox in recent months.
Anat Hoffman, what would you describe as the most critical moment in the history of Women of the Wall?
“We haven’t experienced it yet. That moment will come when we are able to offer Israelis a choice at the Western Wall, when the Western Wall will be a place where Israelis come in a very dignified way and have a choice where they want to go. Either they can go to the Haredim and be subject to the modesty squads and all the regulations of Rabbi Rabinowitz or they can go to another site which we imagine will be friendly, open, equal and pluralist and a whole different experience with Judaism. And may the best plaza win. That would be a dramatic contribution that Women of the Wall have made to the State of Israel and to Judaism in Israel because in every other aspect of our lives, there is no choice -- not in marriage, not in divorce, not in burial, not in anything.”
Until now, you’ve pretty much pooh-poohed the idea of leaving the women’s section. So what happened to convince you otherwise?
“We always said that the original Sharansky proposal for setting up a third prayer area was an excellent idea but just not relevant for us. After our second meeting with Mendelblit, just before Rosh Hashana, it dawned us that the government is going to set up this new plaza with or without us. Yes, the Sobel decision is terrific, but it needs to be read carefully. What it says is that the government has never made it clear what ‘local custom’ is at the wall and that the government has never offered Women of the Wall a proper and dignified alternative place to pray. So what do we do then if the government does decide to make clear what ‘local custom’ is and it does decide to offer us a place that’s dignified? If that happens, then Sobel’s decision won’t protect us any longer. So we had a choice: Are we going to be part of the negotiations or are we going to be led there?”
But Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett did try to introduce new regulations that would have overturned the Sobel verdict, and he was stopped in his tracks by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who needs to sign on any such regulations. Couldn’t you have relied on her to continue sticking by you?
“The answer is numeric. It’s six. She has six seats and Bennett has 12. She is as reliable as anyone can be with six members in the Knesset. Her party joined the coalition to do peace with the Palestinians and everything relies on that.”
But the charter of your organization specifically says that your mission is to fight for women to pray out loud with tallitot and to be able to read the Torah in the women’s section. So maybe your dissenters do have a point when they say you’ve sold out.
“It’s interesting, when we fought for tefillin for the past four years and women were detained for wearing tefillin – well, that’s not in our charter either. You’re right. But I’m not about to change the charter. We’re still fighting to be at the women’s section and we are staying at the women’s section until there is another option. When another option does exist, we may then change one word in our charter, so instead of it saying the “women’s section of the Western Wall,” it’ll say the “Western Wall.”