Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Like many other Progressive or Reform Jewish women from around the world and in Israel itself, I plan to travel to Jerusalem in May of this year to attend the Biennial Conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) named “Connections”. I also hope to attend the Wilkenfeld Seminar for women. This seminar is arranged by the WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism, USA) and is being held on the two days prior to the Connections Conference.
I took my first trip in 1996, covering many parts of the country on what I suppose was a tour of the major tourist, religious and political destinations. This was when I gained my first deep understanding and impression of Israel as the Jewish homeland (Eretz Yisrael).
I returned to this amazing land for many reasons, often on JNF missions, particularly to the Arava and the Negev, looking at projects for water, forestation, and community security. We visited newly arrived communities from Ethiopia and India and sat down with the Bedouin. All extraordinary experiences. My other visits to Israel were to attend World Zionist meetings and biennial conferences for the World Union for Progressive Judaism. It was here at these conferences that I met some of the most wonderful people like Rabbi Dick Hirsh, and wonderful women from the WUPJ, IMPJ, KKL and the WZO, who have remained friends and assisted me greatly over the years with community projects.
Visits to the Kotel are an all-important part of such visits. A most memorable occasion was a Shabbat service at the Kotel in the Egalitarian space in May of 2017 as part of the WUPJ Biennial Connections conference. Hundreds of Progressive Jews gathered rejoicing, singing in prayer, and reading from Torah.
So, I was more than saddened this week to receive an email from Yochi Rappeport, the new Executive Director of Women of the Wall reminding us of the headlines and pictures of the past going back more than a decade, when “women were dragged from the Kotel by police in handcuffs for wearing tallitot”. She is of the view that such images could well return.
The new Israeli Government had proposed an imminent threat of legislation, known as the Women of the Wall legislation which would undermine existing legal precedent that allows women to pray according to their current custom. Deri, the leader of the Shas party and part of the new Netanyahu Israeli Government has threatened to introduce such a bill, which will include the banning of Torah scrolls and women wearing tallitot as well as modesty codes for women. For the moment, Prime Minister Netanayahu has determined not to present the bill to the Knesset. Whether the bill will come to the Knesset later is anyone’s guess.
There is a huge outcry against the government and Women of the Wall say they will sit in jail to show their disdain and opposition. They say being arrested did not stop them in the past and it will not stop them in the future. They need our strength and support in the name of freedom.
Helen Shardey OAM
ARZA Australia President
UPJ Vice President