Jerusalem — In the latest salvo in the gender-and-prayer wars here, bus ads in this contentious city became a lot more eye-catching this week, thanks to a provocative campaign launched Sunday by Women of the Wall (WOW).
The ads promote the right of girls to celebrate their bat mitzvah at the Western Wall by reading from the Torah.
In accordance with the current status quo at the Wall, it is impossible for girls or women to read from the Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel because Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, prohibits people from bringing Torah scrolls into the men’s or women’s sections. And he denies women access to any of the 100 on-site scrolls available to male worshippers., maintaining it is against tradition.
Women reading from Chumash isn’t an option either under Rabbi Rabinowitz’s mandate.
The first-of-its-kind campaign features Israeli girls, some of them in brightly colored Women of the Wall prayer shawls, holding a Torah in front of the Western Wall. The ads proclaim: “Mom, I also want a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall” and “Now it’s my turn.”
The ads were posted on public buses following last week’s High Court decision against the state and the Egged bus company, which for years has refused to put ads featuring women on its buses out of fears they would be vandalized by ultra-Orthodox extremists.
The Yerushalmim party led by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria, an ardent feminist, filed that petition two years ago. Last week Yerushalmim launched a bus ad campaign of its own featuring several modestly dressed Jerusalem women. That campaign, which was funded by the National Council of Jewish Women, was vandalized early this week.
WOW’s bus campaign is the latest bid for equality at the Wall, which the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government-funded entity headed by Rabbi Rabinowitz, maintains as a strictly Orthodox synagogue.
During the past 25 years, WOW members who tried to read aloud from a Chumash or actual (smuggled in) Torah scroll were harassed by ultra-Orthodox worshippers and risked arrest.
Shira Pruce, WOW’s director of public relations, said the ad campaign was conceived months ago, but that it was postponed because of current events. “We had this plan months in advance,” she said. “There was a Torah coming from America, and we had a triple bat mitzvah planned.”
Then, in June, the three Israeli youths were kidnapped from the West Bank and murdered. “The whole country was in a solemn mood, and then the Gaza war broke out,” she said. “We are part of Am Yisrael and shared what the country was feeling.”
Pruce said that although the campaign’s goals relate to all Jewish women, the focus on bat mitzvah girls isn’t a gimmick.
“Women of the Wall’s over-arching vision has always been about what we can do for our daughters and granddaughters,” she said. “I, for one, have already had my bat mitzvah, and it wasn’t at the Kotel.”
Pruce said WOW conceived the campaign after “more and more” families asked the group to organize a bat mitzvah at the Kotel itself — not at the Southern Wall/Robinson’s Arch, the alternative prayer site WOW last year grudgingly agreed to consider, along with the Reform and Conservative movements.
The decision by WOW’s board sparked a serious ongoing rift between members: Some insist the traditional Western Wall is the only place to pray while others believe the Southern Wall, which also features a section of the retaining wall of the Second Temple, will be a fitting place to pray if and when the government accedes to WOW’s demands for the physical restructuring of the entrance and the southern wall area.
WOW is also seeking authority over the proposed prayer site, independent of Rabbi Rabinowitz and charedi pressure.
“We are still in negotiations [over the Southern Wall] but they are taking a long time,” Pruce said, explaining the ad campaign. The Southern Wall “doesn’t and never did provide an immediate solution for the needs of women at the Kotel.”
Pruce said more Israeli bat mitzvah girls than ever are expressing a desire to read from the Torah, and that their parents are generally supportive.
“Parents call us and say our son had a bar mitzvah at the Kotel. A girl will see how her older brother or cousin had one, with all the bells and whistles and they want one too.”
Some, like 11-year-old Ashira Abramowitz-Silverman, one of the girls featured in WOW’s ads, has long dreamed of being able to read from the Torah during a WOW service at the Wall. But it has nothing to do with her brothers.
“Ashira says she ‘very, very, very much believes in Hashem,’ and davening helps her feel close, especially at special places like the Kotel,” said her mother, Rabbi Susan Silverman, a WOW activist who was arrested, along with an older daughter, Hallel, in February 2013, for wearing a prayer shawl.
“She feels very strongly that no one sect of Judaism should make the rules for all Jews.”
Silverman, a sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, said that she and her husband, social activist and solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, “understand Sinai as a pluralistic place and experience, and Jews are a pluralistic people. And in a democracy, which Israel strives to be as perfectly as possible, religious extremists — or any one group — don’t get to make the rules.”
Actually, it is Rabbi Rabinowitz who makes the rules.
Rabbi Rabinowitz told The Jewish Week that his decision to ban women’s Torah reading at the Wall “isn’t related to the Kotel. It’s related to whether women are permitted to read from the Torah at all. They are not.”
Rabbi Rabinowitz said he seems himself as a sort of gatekeeper.
“My job, and it’s a difficult one, is to maintain the status quo that’s been in effect since 1967,” when Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan. “The Jewish people have hundreds of traditions; not everyone abides by the same ones. Everyone thinks his is the one and only right one. ”
Imagine, a family of 10 children, the rabbi said, each with his or her own traditions. “When they come to their father’s house they must act according to their father’s tradition.”
Pruce said Rabbi Rabinowitz “represents the most extreme form of Judaism,” and that “many” Orthodox rabbis don’t agree with his position.
“He is not the right person to be overseeing the Kotel,” she said.