Facing Women of the Wall, traditionalist group places facts on the ground

JERUSALEM (JTA) – At the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, the southern side of the Western Wall hosted a cacophony.

Barricaded by police into a space far from the wall itself, Women of the Wall sang festive prayers in a piercing, unified voice. The group, which meets for a women’s prayer service at the wall at the beginning of each Hebrew month, walked en masse, with hundreds of hands raised in the air, toward the police barricade.

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Perhaps two feet away, a group of haredi boys shouted at the women – calling them Nazis, blowing whistles, holding signs or raising a primal scream. A few threw eggs.

But the biggest group at the wall stood far from the brouhaha that morning. They were inaudible and invisible from where Women of the Wall were praying, but their presence dominated the space past the police lines. The women’s section of the wall was packed with Orthodox girls – many of them spilling out into the wider plaza. Police put their numbers at 5000 to 70az`00.

Unlike the comparatively small group that mandated the barricades, these girls stood silently, each praying on her own. When they were done, they left the wall without raising their voices.

“Our goal is to give voice to the hundreds of thousands of women who call the Kotel their spiritual home,” said Leah Aharoni, a founder of Women for the Wall, a group that helps organize the Orthodox women’s prayer. “They have a voice. They’re not subjugated, ignorant women managed by rabbinic handlers.”

Founded less than three months ago, Women for the Wall performs a balancing act between maintaining conservative values and using the language of women’s empowerment. The group hopes to be a counterbalance to Women of the Wall, advocating for perpetuation of the Western Wall’s status quo – which does not allow most public non-Orthodox prayer – while playing a part in bringing masses of women to dwarf Women of the Wall in size and physically block them from approaching the holy site.

Even while opposing a Jewish feminist group, Aharoni and her organization present themselves as advocates for women’s rights – galvanizing Orthodox women to represent themselves rather than rely on the rabbis that usually speak for the community.

“The religious community is very happy to really give its women the opportunity to speak their mind,” said Aharoni. She added that the debate between her group and Women of the Wall “is not a discussion between rabbis and women. It is a conversation between women and women.”

And the group isn’t monolithically Orthodox. Formerly a member of liberal Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss’s New York City congregation, Aharoni has participated in women’s prayer groups. Another of the group’s ten or so members, Jenni Menashe, once considered becoming a Conservative rabbi and now organizes Jewish ceremonies in Israel across denominations.

The group’s issue, say its members, is not with Jewish feminism but with decorum at the wall. Aharoni noted that non-Orthodox prayer is permitted anywhere else in Israel, and said that every holy site in the world comes with its own set of laws and norms.

Before an April court ruling, some of Women of the Wall’s activities – including donning prayer shawls or singing loudly – were illegal.

“This site has 2000 years of tradition,” she said. “It’s unthinkable for a small group to upset the tradition. It doesn’t happen in Mecca, it doesn’t happen in Westminster Abbey, and it cannot happen here either.”

But while the group’s leaders write op-eds and publicize the gatherings, Haredi rabbis and religious girls’ schools are the biggest catalysts bringing thousands of girls to the wall. According to Menashe, Women for the Wall’s leaders secured endorsements from leading Israeli haredi Orthodox rabbis via American Orthodox leaders, and the Israeli rabbis asked Orthodox girls’ seminaries to send their students to the gathering.

So far, the gatherings have had a mixed record. In May, thousands of girls filled not only the women’s section of the plaza but also much of its larger back section, and in July they again packed the women’s section. In June, though, only a few hundred Orthodox women showed up. Menashe attributed the low numbers to final exams in the girls’ seminaries, while Aharoni claims that police blocked many women from entering the plaza.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told JTA that “the police allow Women of the Wall to pray, and also allow [Orthodox] women to pray.” He said that in June, barriers were set up only to ensure that Women of the Wall exited the space safely – not to block worshippers.

Barring a court ruling or legislative change, the monthly race between Women of the Wall and Women for the Wall is likely to continue for the next several months. The groups do share some common ground – opposing violence and supporting women’s activism – but for now both have eschewed any idea of collaboration, preferring instead to continue the fight – with one side singing and the other silent.

“I think they’re trailblazing,” said Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman about Women for the Wall. “They’re women supporting the rabbis but they’re expressing their opinions in the public square. We have our struggle and they have theirs, and God bless.”

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.