After 25 years of meeting monthly on Rosh Hodesh (new moon) to pray together at the Western Wall, the Women of the Wall, a feminist organization, is still hoping for permission to bring a Torah scroll to its services.
Now the group is going public and advertising its struggle on Jerusalem’s public Egged buses, aiming to engage Jerusalemites in supporting a girl’s right to have a full bat mitzvah at the Western Wall.
“Women of the Wall has a dual struggle right now: the struggle to pray with a Torah in the women’s section, which is essential to our prayer, coupled with our inability to have a full bat mitzvah at the kotel,” said Shira Pruce, who directs Women of the Wall’s public relations. “Without a Torah scroll, we can’t have the full service.”
Women of the Wall members have been repeatedly refused permission to bring a Torah scroll to the Western Wall plaza for their monthly service. They’ve brought a scroll to the security entrance of the Western Wall plaza, hoping to receive permission, only to have their request denied.
Before 2010, and the first of a series of arrests of Women of the Wall members at the Western Wall, the women were allowed to bring a Torah and hold it in a bag. Any reading of the Torah could only done at Robinson’s Arch, an area adjacent to the Western Wall.
According to Pruce, no one has been allowed to bring in a personal Torah scroll since the spate of arrests began in 2010. So the group felt it was time to enlist more supporters.
“Buses are a great source for getting to the people of Jerusalem, to get them to ask for and demand this,” said Pruce.
The organization’s ad campaign features Israeli girls ages 11 to 14 wearing a prayer shawl and holding a Torah scroll in front of the Western Wall.
Posters on buses that travel through Jerusalem’s non-ultra Orthodox neighborhoods read, “Here is the Torah, now it is my turn.”
It’s a pun on a phrase recited in synagogue every time the Torah scroll is brought out to be read.
“Since 1967, when the Western Wall became a reality, there’s never been an option for girls to have a bat mitzvah at the kotel,” said Pruce. “Women of the Wall is opening the Israeli public’s eyes to the fact they can ask for more. We don’t need to be bystanders in our own Jewish life.”
The group has made significant strides in its quarter-century of activism.
In April 2013, Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court handed the Women of the Wall a significant legal victory, ruling that the state cannot arrest the women for their activities at the holy site.
The Sobel decision marked a distinct shift in the status quo at the Western Wall, creating a turning point in the liberal group’s fight to pray there as it wishes.
Since that time, said Pruce, some 10 girls and their families have celebrated a bat mitzvah with Women of the Wall. The group is still waiting to be able to celebrate a full bat mitzvah including Torah reading, she said.
“We want to be able to offer the main event,” she said. “We’re waiting for the day when we can offer girls a Torah scroll, making the event at the Western Wall their main and only bat mitzvah.”
It’s the right time to launch this particular battle, added Pruce. With Simhat Torah, the holiday celebrating the Torah, beginning Wednesday night, it’s a time that’s often bittersweet for Women of the Wall.
Most of the women celebrate the holiday in their own communities, but know they won’t be able to hold the Torah scroll at the Western Wall, dance around it or read from it at the sacred site.
“Some women will say that it’s more significant to them than the fight for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall,” said Pruce. “We’ve fought for that right, because we should have the right, but we all want to read from the Torah at the Western Wall.”
The girls featured in the campaign are either planning a bat mitzvah with Women of the Wall at the site or have already had one. Ashira Abramowitz-Silverman, daughter of Yosef Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman; Devora Leff, daughter of Lauri Donahue and Rabbi Barry Leff; Sasha Lutt, daughter of Irena Lutt ;and Alma Weiss-Abraham, daughter of Sharon Abraham-Weiss and Yoav Weiss, are all active, along with some members of their families, in Women of the Wall.
Two of the girls are from Jerusalem, one is from Tel Aviv and another is from Beersheba.
Irena Lutt, who moved to Israel from Russia with her year-old daughter, Sasha, eleven years ago, knew she wanted Sasha to be part of the organization’s ad campaign. They live in Beersheba, where they attend a Reform synagogue.
“I had questions about it, but if you want to change something, you have to be involved,” she said. “Otherwise it will never change.”
The Lutts have taken gradual steps toward living a more observant lifestyle. Irena Lutt, who has long been involved with Project Kesher Israel, an organization that builds Jewish identity and social activism among women, said she first heard about Women of the Wall through that group.
“It really spoke to me, because it’s what I deal with through Kesher, about creating a more pluralistic picture in Israel,” she said.
Lutt began going to Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh services at the about a year and a half ago. Sasha, she said, had a lot of questions about her involvement.
“She wanted to know why I was doing it,” she said. “I told her that she had to see it for herself.”
Lutt sees Sasha’s involvement in the ad campaign as part of her education, and her heritage.
“She was excited to see the bus ad,” said Lutt. “We both were. This is something important.”
Egged did tell the organization that their advertisement may attract vandalism. It was a reminder of the bus company’s battle regarding advertisements featuring women, an issue that was settled last week.
“They wanted to let us know,” said Pruce. “It will be interesting to see if that happens.”
Pruce said she believes the ad will spur calls from families who want their daughters to have a bat mitzvah at the wall. For now, girls or women who want to have a bat mitzvah with Women of the Wall can have a private ceremony or join the larger Rosh Hodesh gathering, connecting them to the wider history of the organization.
“If someone is interested in a bat mitzvah with meaning, they’ll call,” she said. “I think Israeli society is ready for this change.”
There have been numerous attempts to find alternate spaces for the Women of the Wall, near but not at the Western Wall. The group is currently engaged in negotiations run by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit to create a third section — in addition to the men’s and women’s sections — at the site that would be run by Women of the Wall.
Until that happens, said Pruce, the group will continue to fight for its rights at the only other viable space, the women’s section of the Western Wall. This includes the current battle to carry, read from and dance with the Torah.
“There’s no other solution for now,” she said.