Anat Hoffman, founder and chairwoman of the Israeli, multi-denominational, feminist organization called Women of the Wall, which advocates for the right for women to wear prayer shawls, pray aloud, and read from the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, fielded questions via Skype on Aug. 27 during a Shacharit service at Congregation Darchei Noam.
Hoffman, a former Jerusalem city councilwoman and the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center since 2002, has worked for decades to promote pluralism, equality and justice in Israel.
Speaking with The CJN in advance of the event from her home in Jerusalem about what the organization has achieved since its founding in 1989, Hoffman said she was looking forward to hearing what members of Toronto’s Jewish community think about issues concerning religion and state, religious freedom, human rights, women’s rights, equality and racism.
Over the years the organization has been faced with a lot of resistance and gained a lot of publicity in Israel and abroad. Do you feel that Women of the Wall has made a lot of headway in achieving its goals?
I think we’ve formed a very large coalition, Jews from all denominations around the planet. I think that’s a big achievement because there are very few Jewish causes involving all the denominations in Israel and abroad. It’s taken us a very long time to demonstrate our seriousness and sincerity to the government of Israel…. I don’t think it should have taken that long, but it seems now that we are being taken seriously. We’ve formed an international coalition and… it’s pushing for pluralism and equality and empowerment in Israel and these are wonderful things.
Why has it has been such a hard-fought battle? Why do you think there has been such resistance to this cause? Why are lawmakers so reluctant to make changes that would allow women to pray where and how they choose?
We were challenging some of the biggest forces in Israel. The rabbinic establishment… hold the keys to the holiest site of the Jewish people for one minority faction of the Jewish people. We were the only ones getting up to challenge them and since they wield quite a bit of power, both economic, political, social, religious power – why give it up? No one likes to give up power.
At every turn… it’s clear that we’re looking at power. We’re demanding territory and we’re demanding recognition and that requires the powers that be to give up some of their power, give up some of their territory and you can see [from] the kind of opposition that we’ve had that this is a power struggle.
In the 26 years since the organization was founded, what do you consider its greatest success?
There are a few successes. One of the successes is that we exist. We were able to overcome the differences between ourselves. We are Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. We are the only group in the world that prays together with all denominations regularly. We actually have our own siddur for Rosh Chodesh…
I think the fact that we are women that… are able to be part of a sisterhood and camaraderie… is one of our biggest achievements.
I think we’ve built a very solid bridge with Jews all over the planet. There are supporters of Women of the Wall in New Zealand, in South Africa, in Brazil, in Toronto, all over the world. We bridge across generations. There are 11-year-old girls who see themselves as Women of the Wall and there are great-grandmothers who are Women of the Wall. We’ve had some of the most moving bat mitzvahs where four generations of women read Torah together. I think this is the biggest achievement of the group, that we were able to make our coalition much bigger than ourselves.
I think a social activist is measured by their ability to form unorthodox coalitions. We formed a very strong, very wide, very deep coalition that formed across the country, spans across many nations and that’s pretty good.
Last year it was reported that there was division within the organization about whether to accept Robinson’s Arch – an area next to the Western Wall Plaza that the government plans to expand and renovate to accommodate non-Orthodox prayer groups – as a place for the Women of the Wall to pray. How do you feel about this?
That is a source of sadness actually, that we were not able to come to the finish line as one group and that a few of us, a group of women that we really care for, had decided that there was… no room for compromise.
We had a democratic vote, we had a process that took a year and we believed that compromise should be on the table, especially since the group was 25 years old. For the last year and a half, we’ve been negotiating with the government of Israel and, look, we’re compromising and we believe that compromise is a measure of maturity and a measure of understanding the political and legal and social situation that we’re in. After studying exactly what our strengths are, and what our weaknesses are, compromise is called for… We’re coming to something that I think could be revolutionary.
Are you currently praying at Robinson’s Arch?
No, no, no, no. We’re not moving from the women’s section [of the Western Wall] until the ultimate site is respectable and respected and dignified and ready. We’re not moving. But we’re looking at how [Robinson’s Arch] is going to be run, what would be its budget… what the rules will be, what is considered acceptable to us. For example, would a blind person with a seeing-eye dog be allowed there? Will we allow a mix of men and women to pray together? All these questions come into question, and we’re saying yes to all of them.
We’re about 50 per cent there. We’ve ironed out some things over the year, but on the physical side, we’re still not there. We’re not sure what it’s going to look like. We want it to be momentous. We want it to look as monumental as possible.
Some have accused the movement of being anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, as trying to redefine what Judaism is. What do you say to your detractors?
I think we’ve been extremely loyal to Israel. I think it’s a patriotic act to devote time to making Israel more pluralistic, more tolerant, more equal – I think the Women of the Wall deserve the Israel Prize someday for really revolutionizing the choice that Israelis have. And hopefully… people could come to the Wall and decide that if they don’t want to sit on a plastic wobbly chair and watch their bar mitzvah boy through a telescope, that they can stand right next to their bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl. I hope Israel can also have choices about marriage and divorce, that there will be more than one way to be Jewish in Israel, more than one way to convert in Israel, more than one way to get buried in Israel, more than one kashrut in Israel. It’s high time that there was competition for religious services in Israel. Right now there is only one product on the shelf and that product is not popular with everybody. It’s good for some, but not for all. Some Israelis, I would say the majority of Israelis, are yearning for a different choice.