CRC Speaks Out for Women of the Wall

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

For most Jews, a visit to Israel is a highlight of life, and a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem is often a moving religious experience. The Western Wall, the retaining wall and last visible remnant of the temple King Solomon built, is central to all streams of Judaism, however, it is also fraught with controversy.

The Wall is a place where Jews gather to pray. The rules governing access and conduct at The Wall were written by the Israeli government. Within Israel, there is a politically strong and extremely vocal minority group of ultra Orthodox Jews, known as Haredi, and the Haredi have strongly exerted their influence in the governance of The Wall (also called the Kotel).


Currently, the Israeli government has appointed Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, an ultra Orthodox rabbi, to administer all activity at The Wall and has given him complete authority to dictate what happens there.

The Haredi community observes a strict separation of men and women in all public venues as part of their commitment to the mitzvah of modesty. To accommodate this community, the plaza at The Wall is divided by a mechitza, a physical structure, creating a large area where men can pray, and a smaller area for women. Haredi beliefs also mandate that men wear kippot at The Wall and preclude women touching or reading from Torah, wearing kipot and talitot and praying and singing aloud. Also, women are not counted in a Haredi minyan (10 adults required for Jewish communal prayer).

Rabbi Rabinowitz has also established a Modesty Patrol whose officers enforce the separation of men and women, even in the Kotel Plaza. The Modesty Patrol also now enforces a dress code in the area, forcing visitors, particularly women, to adhere to the Haredi definition of modest dress.

In accommodation of the non-Haredi, a small space at the southern end of the retaining wall, known as Robinson’s Arch, has been set aside as an egalitarian alternative prayer space. Groups that want to use the space must reserve it and must conclude their services by 10:30 a.m. In 2009, more than 450 services were held there.

Rabbi Rabinowitz is continuing to escalate his efforts to enforce his beliefs and practices at The Wall. Traditionally, Israel has held two significant ceremonies at the wall: the swearing in ceremonies for the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and the welcoming ceremony at which new immigrants receive their Israeli identity cards. As a result of his efforts, the IDF ceremonies have become fewer and further between; and at the last welcoming ceremony, there was an attempt to separate men and women, there were signs calling for modesty posted all over the Kotel Plaza and Israeli flags were removed.

In December 1988, a group of women organized a Rosh Hodesh celebration (the celebration of the start of a new month traditionally considered a women’s holiday) at The Wall where a women’s minyan to read Torah, sing and pray. Since then, the group meets monthly at 7 a.m. in the women’s section of the plaza for their service.

The Haredi community views this prayer service as an abomination and actively oppose the Women of the Wall. Sometimes, when the women gather for peaceful prayer, they are left alone, but at other times, they are subjected to verbal and/or physical abuse.

In November, a member of the Women of the Wall, Nofat Frenkel was arrested for the crime of carrying a Torah and wearing a tallit in the plaza at The Wall. On January 5, police took Anat Hoffman, the director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and leader of the Women of the Wall for 21 years, in for questioning. They fingerprinted her and she was informed that she is being investigated for committing a felony for her activities at The Wall.
The actions of the Israeli police in this matter have drawn strong reaction from many Jews around the world, particularly among the Reform and Conservative.

The issue has also drawn the attention of the Jewish Community of Louisville’s Community Relations Council, and after a discussion of the matter led by Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, the CRC decided to speak out on the matter by sending a letter to Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michel Oren.

Here is the text of that letter.

Dear Ambassador Oren:

The Community Relations Council (CRC) of the Jewish Community of Louisville provides a forum for discussion and coordinated action on public policy issues of concern to the Louisville, Kentucky Jewish community. Its membership is made up of a broad representation of Jewish organizations throughout the metropolitan area.

We write on behalf of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Community of Louisville to express our concern about the recent detention and fingerprinting of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, for her role in advocating a woman’s right to collective prayer and Torah reading at the Kotel. In addition to her position with the Israel Religious Action Center, Ms. Hoffman is respected as a civil and consumer rights advocate, founding member of Women of the Wall and past member of the Jerusalem City Council.

The CRC affirms that Ms. Hoffman’s detention, following the recent arrest at the Kotel of Nofrat Frankel for wearing a tallit and carrying a Sefer Torah during worship services on Rosh Hodesh, drives a wedge between our communities at a time when working for unity within Israel and enhancing the connection between Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel should be a primary concern.

The CRC of Louisville is in agreement with leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements and others who have urged “the municipality of Jerusalem, the State of Israel and its ambassador to the United States to realize the gravity of this issue and take immediate steps to promote religious pluralism, provide equitable treatment to non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life and end the harassment of women seeking to pray with dignity in collective prayer and with their own public reading of the Torah at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy place.

We hope for a pluralistic Israeli society that welcomes all Jews who share a commitment to Jewish continuity, peoplehood and Zionism. When the government limits access at the Kotel, changes the status quo of “who is a Jew,” and refuses to grant Reform and Conservative Rabbis equal rights in Israel, many in the Diaspora, who wish to see Israel flourish and thrive, otherwise feel alienated.

By standing with the Women of the Wall, we affirm our unity as a single worldwide Jewish community. We affirm our connection with our sisters and brothers in the Land of Israel and we affirm the abiding holiness of the city of Jerusalem in our lives.

Leon Wahba
Chair, Community Relations Council
Jewish Community of Louisville

For more information about the Community Relations Council, contact Wahba or JCL Executive Director of Philanthropy Alan Engel, 451-8840 or

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