In St. Louis visit, activist Anat Hoffman talks about fight for equality at Western Wall

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and chair of Women of the Wall, served as scholar-in-residence recently at Shaare Emeth.  View video from the interview at Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Anat Hoffman, one of the leading proponents for changes at the Kotel, wants Jews in St. Louis and other parts of the world to push for breaking down walls at the Western Wall. 

The director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, an organization that promotes pluralism in Israeli society, has been working for 27 years to allow women to wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah at Judaism’s holiest site.

The Women of the Wall, a prayer group that Hoffman chairs, reached an agreement in January with the haredi Orthodox establishment that controls the site to increase accessibility at and expand an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall. The deal has since stalled because of the Orthodox group’s opposition to a shared entrance to both sites — egalitarian and the part where men and women pray separately — and to non-Orthodox representation on the committee that oversees the new space. 

Now on a tour of the United States to promote her cause, Hoffman spent Shabbat and Shavuot in St. Louis, and urged Jews in the diaspora, where the Reform and Conservative movements have a much larger presence, to advocate for equality at the Wall. 

“Israel is way too important to be left to the Israelis,” Hoffman said in an interview with the Jewish Light at Congregation Shaare Emeth. In short, American Jewry must lead the charge, Hoffman said. 

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“If someone from Israel says, ‘You don’t pay taxes here. You don’t send your children to the army. What right do you have to tell us how to run our holiest place?’ Here’s your answer: It’s not your holiest place. It’s the holiest place of every Jew on the planet,” said Hoffman, who was visiting Shaare Emeth as the synagogue’s scholar-in-residence.

While Reform and Conservative Jews constitute only 7.5 percent of the Jewish population in Israel, according to polls, the groups comprise more than half the Jewish population in the United States.

Hoffman has been harassed and arrested a number of times at the Wall for trying to pray with a Torah. A few days before Hoffman’s visit to St. Louis, Lesley Sachs, the director of Women of the Wall, was detained for questioning after she was caught with a Torah scroll in the prayer plaza before the Wall.  

Hoffman suggested that young women and men on Birthright trips, among others, should carry Torahs through Jerusalem to the Wall and “demand to go in with your Torah. On your trip to Israel, literally it’s your birthright, and the guard there will say, ‘No, you can’t bring your Torah in,’ and you make a moment out of that.”

And she urged Jews outside of Israel to visit Israeli consulates “with your talitot and your Torah, and you demand from the consul general to convey to Israel that you want to have the women of your congregation hold the Torah, read the Torah” at the Wall. 

But that pressure, it would seem, has to come from outside of Israel. Within Israel, the number of Reform Jews remains small. Hoffman said that number is growing. 

“If Israelis are going to have a religious ceremony of some kind, they would certainly consider a Reform or Conservative service,” she said. 

But, Hoffman suggested, secular Israelis “don’t go to the Wall. They have given up. They believe that it’s the ultra-Orthodox discothèque.”

If there were to be one entrance where either option is visible, as the deal stipulated, Hoffman is confident the number of people visiting the egalitarian space would resemble that in the main prayer space.

“May the best plaza win, and I think our’s has a good chance,” Hoffman said. 

Aside from negotiations at the Wall, Hoffman said another chief concern is racism against Arabs in Israel. After mentioning that, she said she was looking forward to visiting Ferguson.

“I want to know how you dealt with a police force that adopted a policy against minorities. We suffer from something similar,” she said. “Israel has a real problem in that some people, particularly rabbis, incite for violence against minorities as retaliation for terrorist attacks.”

Despite the recent setbacks, Hoffman and others are optimistic that the various parties will be able to reach an agreement to allow women to pray freely at the Wall. 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, visited St. Louis earlier this month and described Hoffman as “extraordinary.”

“One of the reasons we have as made as much progress as we have and in the coming months” will  hopefully reach an agreement on the Wall, said Jacobs, who has been active in negotiations, “is because of her courage.”

Hoffman also remains confident. 

“I am absolutely sure that there will be a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall for Jewish girls. It makes absolutely no sense that it won’t happen because all the facts are showing that women have entered the final frontier of the religious world,” Hoffman said and then mentioned the increasing number of female rabbis in the United States. “There is no doubt in my mind that there will be equality at the Western Wall. The question is, how long will it take?”