The call is out for Reform and Conservative Jewish women from the Pittsburgh area to join a “Shema-in” Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, in support of a prominent female activist who was recently arrested for praying the foundational Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The local event will be recorded on video for YouTube and sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ambassador Michael Oren, the chief rabbis of Israel and to the Women of the Wall.
Anat Hoffman, who visited Pittsburgh in April to talk about increasing restrictions on women in Israeli society, was arrested Oct. 16 during one of the regular New Moon celebrations that women have been holding there for 20 years. The New Moon is a minor Jewish holy day honoring women. Ms. Hoffman, chairperson of the Women of the Wall movement, was “strip searched, hand-cuffed, shackled, dragged and held in a jail cell overnight with no bed,” according to Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, who is organizing the event.
The arrest is due to the growing influence of some extreme ultra-orthodox Jewish groups over public life in Israel. Their restrictions on public contact between people of the opposite sex go far beyond that practiced by most ultra-Orthodox Jews. While nearly all Orthodox Jews object to women leading public prayer and reading from the Torah, most are appalled at the harsh treatment of women who have done so at the Wall, the holiest site in all of Judaism.
The Jewish Conservative movement is doing organizing a similar “global flashmob” to protest the arrest. And the Reform Movement in Israel is inviting
Jews worldwide to sign a petition urging the Israeli government to ensure that the Western Wall and the area around it is open to a range of Jewish views and practices and that men and women have equal access.
The conflict at the Wall takes place in the larger context of tensions within Israeli religious life. The nation is officially Jewish, with the government paying to build synagogues and maintain rabbis, yet due to the political power of an ultra-Orthodox swing vote in Parliament, only the Orthodox branch of the faith is recognized.
Reform and Conservative rabbis don’t receive state salaries, and the marriages they perform aren't recognized. Only recently, through the efforts of Ms. Hoffman’s organization, have conversions to non-Orthodox Judaism been recognized for immigration and. The government has also begun to build a few Reform synagogues.
Yet, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, only about 20 percent of the population is Orthodox, with less than half of those belonging to the ultra-Orthodox sects whose rules have become law at the Wall. The single largest population group is self-identified secular Jews, who account for 42 percent of adults.
This protest is “about a lot more than a group of women praying at the [Wall] or even the place of women in the public sphere,” Ms. Fidel said. “This is about the role of the Reform and Conservative movements and their clergy in Israel and the monopoly of the Orthodox. It strikes me as interesting timing – the peace process is dead and almost buried. Women’s issues have been pushed to the back burner for decades because security always was prioritized. Is this an expression of the larger social protests from last summer? Or just a long standing problem bubbling up to the surface?”
She believes its an escalation of a problem whose seeds were planted shortly after the Holocaust, when Israel’s first prime minister granted Orthodox rabbis a monopoly on the new nation’s religious life.
“Now that the fight with the Palestinians is on hold, the vacuum is allowing the infighting to begin with the Orthodox. Why is this striking a chord with American Jews? Because we hesitate to criticize Israel on security or political issues, but on religious questions we feel free to let loose. Ultimately, however, the position of the Orthodox in the Knesset has huge ramifications for the peace process,” Ms. Fidel said.