W4W’s Ronit Peskin took center stage

by Ben Sales

It was, perhaps, not the most auspicious setting for Ronit Peskin’s first-ever public speech.

The 25-year-old self-described housewife stood in front of a crowded room at the biggest Jewish conference of the year, the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem. She was about to verbally assail Women of the Wall — a group most in the audience supported. On the stage with her were Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie, representing a party that championed religious pluralism; Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who’s spearheading a compromise on the Kotel; and Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, a confident public speaker with decades of experience.

By the end of the event, Lavie was telling Peskin she should run for Knesset.

A Cleveland native and mother of three who moved to Israel at age 18, Peskin says she generally tries to avoid the spotlight. Most of her frequent Facebook posts are about cooking and household economy — publicity for her blog, Penniless Parenting.

But since April, Peskin has also served as co-founder of Women for the Wall, a traditionalist group that aims to maintain the status quo at the Kotel and that opposes Women of the Wall — helping to draw thousands of girls to the women’s section to counter WOW’s monthly services.

In her GA speech last week, she didn’t hold back.

“When Anat Hoffman and other WOW board members mistakenly compare Israel to Saudi Arabia, claim that women here are oppressed and have no rights, and that Conservative and Reform Jews get arrested for praying in their way, it’s doing irreparable harm to our nation,” she said. “The answer is not to let a tiny but vocal minority ruin the experience for everyone else.”

In the conversation that followed, she ratcheted up the rhetoric, asserting that Women of the Wall want the Kotel “all year, all the time.”

“I was a little more sharp than I needed to be,” Peskin told me a few days after the event. “I am a peace-loving person. I have compassion for both sides and I want to work things out, but I have a sharp side.”

Peskin knows that many GA delegates sympathize with Women of the Wall’s message of pluralism but feels that “once we shared our views, we won over a lot of people.”

However nervous she was before the event, Peskin seems to have emerged with a burst of confidence. Lavie has asked to meet with her, and she’s looking into organizing a U.S. speaking tour — targeting both her Orthodox base and Reform and Conservative skeptics.

But while some first-time speakers would be flattered by a lawmaker recommending they run for Knesset, Peskin remains skeptical, and was unsure whether she would even want to meet with Lavie.

“I have my reservations because her party is not exactly pro-haredim, and I’m concerned they’ll try to use me to hurt the haredi community,” she said. “My husband and I were discussing the idea of my being in politics. I wouldn’t want that at this stage in my life. I want to make a change through home. A lot of my activism is through the computer.”

Read more at the JTA.