Women on both sides of Kotel debate to share stage

by Jonah Lowenfeld
LA Jewish Journal

When American Jewish leaders gather in Jerusalem for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly later this month, they’ll have the opportunity to hear from top Israeli political leaders on a variety of issues. They’ll also have the chance to witness the first public conversation between two groups of Israeli women at the center of a heated disagreement over what the future of the Western Wall should be.

On Monday, Nov. 4, Women of the Wall (WOW) will celebrate the beginning of a new Jewish month and its 25th anniversary by doing what it’s been doing for most of that time: holding female-led prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site, the remnant of the ancient temple in Jerusalem that is known in Hebrew simply as “the Kotel.”

They were the only women publicly involved in this debate – until, that is, the formation of Women For The Wall (W4W) in May 2013. A self-described “grassroots group” of Orthodox and Haredi women, W4W opposes any changes to the current restrictions that prohibit women from collectively praying together at the kotel – enjoining practices that are de rigeur in most non-Orthodox congregations, like women wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah.

Yet, over the past few months, efforts by a number of Israeli organizations to put together public conversations between representatives of both groups have been stymied – which makes the upcoming meeting on Nov. 11 between WOW Chair Anat Hoffman and W4W Director Ronit Peskin all the more noteworthy.

“There have been many invitations to them to join us in a discussion; they refuse to acknowledge our presence,” W4W’s Peskin said of WOW. “This is the first time they’ve consented to appear, and we think it’s wonderful. You can’t have a real discussion of an issue by only hearing one side of it.”

The groups that have tried to coax WOW into public discussions with W4W in the past are reasonably well-established. Gesher, a 40-year-old organization that works to bridge the religious-secular divide in Israel, tried to convene a conversation between women on both sides of the Kotel issue earlier this year, without success. Media Central, a non-profit, independent, media-liaison service that for the past seven years has worked to support foreign journalists in Jerusalem, managed to get representatives from WOW and W4W to appear — but only by agreeing not to have them on stage at the same time.

“The fact that the Women of the Wall — the supposedly more open-minded group — refused to have anything to do with or any conversation or dialogue with Women for the Wall, I found amusing,” Aryeh Green, Media Central ‘s director, said. “And somewhat off-putting.”

Read the full article at the Jewish Journal