SAN DIEGO - There are many people who probably wish they could silence Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.
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But it took a bad case of laryngitis to actually do so, causing Hoffman to stand uncharacteristically speechless as she accepted the Women of Reform Judaism’s Jane Evans Pursuit of Justice Award at the Union of Reform Judaism’s Biennial on Saturday night,
The humor of the situation was not lost on Hoffman, whose speech was read by her IRAC colleague Noa Sattath, who opened the remarks by announcing “I have good news for lovers of irony. Anat Hoffman has lost her voice.”
In her remarks, delivered by Sattath, bracketed by extended standing ovations and interrupted frequently by applause, Hoffman rallied the room full of North American Reform Jews to continue to support IRAC’s battles on a long list of issues of religion and state, headed by the fight for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall.
‘Together we are negotiating a new reality for all of us at the Wall,” Hoffman said, promising that the new plaza and prayer space being planned “is not going to be a slightly cleaned up second-rate area for the misfits. It will be the first time that the Israeli government will offer everybody a real choice at the Kotel. I know Israelis are going to get used to the flavor of choice and they are going to demand freedom of choice in all other areas of religious life, such as marriage, divorce, conversion, and education. Once you have 31 flavors you can’t go back. For too long, the face and character of Judaism’s holiest site has been in the image of one extreme minority, but we are changing that.”
Hoffman added “our success in the Kotel must become the engine pulling the train of religious pluralism: the next car is an end of gender segregation in Israel and the exclusion of women, we bring you news of great achievements, but we also know that the rights of women in Israel are under attack, and it is unto us to provide the response. Other cars in the train are freedom of choice in marriage, in conversion, the full equality and recognition of our Rabbis and institutions.”
While she may be a highly divisive figure back home in Israel, in the San Diego Convention Center during the biennial, Hoffman was an unadulterated rock star. The mere mention of her name in speeches sparked applause, and as she walked the corridors, she was constantly approached by admirers.
In her speech, she said that many of the biennial attendees asked what they could do to help her. Her marching orders were as follows:
"First, you have to make a decision. Are you going to wring your hand about Israel or are you going roll up your sleeves and get to work, because you can't do both at the same time. Let's roll up our sleeves. Visit Israel, and make your visits count. Make time for the Israel Religious Action Center. Less Roman ruins and more freedom rides. Read - at least once a week read something about Israel which is not about security. Use your financial support to create an Israel that reflects your values and refuse to choose between your liberal values and your commitment to Israel.”
The award given to Hoffman was named for Jane Evans, who served as Executive Director of what was the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods and was renamed WRJ, for 43 years. Hoffman was chosen for the award, presented on the 100th anniversary of the WRJ for “her work on behalf of religious pluralism and progressive Judaism in Israel."
Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, WRJ Executive Director, said that Hoffman’s “unyielding demand that all of God’s creations be treated with dignity and respect, her love of Israel and Progressive Judaism, and her tireless dedication to improve our world reflect the same values that Jane Evans lived by and that inspired this award.”
In a humorous moment at the end of her speech, Hoffman was told by her presenter that “some have said that hell would freeze over before men and women would visit the Kotel together” and a huge picture was projected of Hebrew Union College students in Jerusalem at the Wall standing in a group in the snow in a photo shot earlier that day, “living your dream.”