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Kolech Orthodox feminists Women of the Wall break over egalitarian prayer space

Women of the Wall are ready to accept a government proposal to permanently move to Robinson's Arch causing supporters and groups of members to splinters off from the organization, vowing to continue to fight to prayer at the women's section of the Kotel
Women of the Wall are ready to accept a government proposal to permanently move to Robinson's Arch causing supporters and groups of members to splinters off from the organization, vowing to continue to fight to prayer at the women's section of the Kotel
Miriam Alster/Flash90

Just as the Women of the Wall is set to accept the Israeli government proposal to use the Robinson's Arch egalitarian prayer area as their permanent prayer location, Kolech the Religious Women's Forum who sides and often prays with the WoW broke with the non-traditional women's prayer group as reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Feb. 4, 2014 because as Orthodox women they believe they should continue praying in the women' section of the Western Wall, Kotel, and praying among men would counter those beliefs. The move comes over a week after WoW Chairwoman Anat Hoffman published a letter on Jan. 27 to the group about being close to accepting an agreement and the government close to meeting all their 16 demands, which would move the group permanently to the Robinson's Arch area called Ezrat Yisrael.

Kolech's directors sent their letter objecting to moving their prayer location to Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who is in charge of the negotiations. They explained the government's proposed agreement with Women of the Wall; "The compromise being formulated in your discussions with Women of the Wall, according to which women's prayer groups would be forced to leave the women's section and move to Ezrat Yisrael (the egalitarian section), could deal a heavy blow to Orthodox women, and we will not be able to agree to this. We see ourselves as part of Orthodoxy, and our prayers have already become part of the local custom as interpreted in Judge Sobel's ruling." The group also asked Mendelblit to meet with them.

The directors then stated specifically why they objecting for religious reasons; "Attempts to move us over to Ezrat Yisrael represent a blow to our religious identity. Since we observe halacha strictly and belong to the Orthodox Jewish stream, we are not willing to forfeit our right to pray as we see fit in the women's section of the Western Wall."

According to their website, Kolech formed in 1998 describes themselves as "the first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Israel," which "aims to increase public awareness and bring about change in Israeli religious society… seeks to disseminate the values of gender equality and mutual respect, to encourage equal opportunities for women in the public arena, including the advancement of women's rights in religious and halachic spheres…. encourages greater equality for women in matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce, and is in the forefront of an uncompromising battle against all forms of gender violence."

Kolech is the second group to break from the Women of the Wall over their permanent prayer location. The first to "splinter" was actually a group of American WoW founding members, who broke with WoW in mid-January during negotiations, because WoW seemed close to accepting the government's proposal. They are now calling themselves Original Women of the Wall, or O-WOW, and are set to continue praying at the women's section of the Kotel. They have hired a lawyer, Gideon Koren who also sent a letter to Mendelblit stating that the move violates their freedoms, and that they are a completely separate entity from WoW, which Koren expressed is "hurting (to put it mildly) the interests of Jewish women in Israel and around the world."

Aliza Lipkin announced the splinter group in her Times of Israel blog on Jan. 13, explaining; "The original stance was that Woman of the Wall should be allowed to serve G-d in the manner they have chosen at the Kotel. O-Wow is not really a new group. They consist of some founding members that have not lost sight of the original concept, which is to pray as they please by the Western Wall."

Lipkin does not believe that even if WoW accepts the government's deal O-WoW will continue to face protests from the traditional prayer group Women for the Wall, when they pray each month from Rosh Hodesh, writing; "Since O-WoW plans to continue where WoW left off at the Kotel and it seems unlikely that WFW will relent in their opposition demonstrations, then in my opinion the whole Sharansky plan should be shelved as it clearly does not present a solution to the conflict.

Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce responded for the group, agreeing to disagree with their former members and supporters, stating; "We struggled to have our voices heard and now we have taken our place amongst the leaders re-envisioning the future of the holy site.... We are happy to hear the voices of Kolech and the Orthodox women, many of which pray with us each month. These are important voices; voices that must be heard and voices which we have been representing already for many years."

Chairwomen of Women of the Wall Anat Hoffman sent out a letter to the group on Jan. 27 that the government was close to agreeing to the group's conditions to move their regular prayer meetings to the Robinson's Arch area. Hoffman and the group have been negotiating with Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit and a "special government committee" he is chairing to find a permanent solution and location for the group's monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer meeting. Hoffman and WoW submitted 16 conditions in October 2013 that the government has to meet to make the Robinson's Arch area equal to the Kotel plaza. The committee first has get the government cabinet "approval" before any agreement will be final.

In her letter Hoffman announced; "We believe that the negotiations are nearing their end. The principle issues have been agreed upon and while some issues remain controversial, we have a few meetings left to iron out the final plan." Hoffman also addressed the O-WoW splinter group in her letter, saying; "These are the seeds we sow with tears because there is no negotiating without a 'give' and 'take.'"

Some of the 16 conditions compromise a temporary mechitzah, partition that will divide the women from the men that might pray at the area when WoW uses the site. WoW demanded the partition to please Orthodox members of their group. Hoffman and members of the group will also be part of the area's administration. The group will be allotted a budget for special events including tours, educational programs and "ceremonies." According to the Jewish Press the conditions relate to the "size, appearance, management, accessibility, budget and name." and will "mandate that the new section be treated as equal to the existing Western Wall plaza."

The group agreed in October 2013 with the Chairman of Jewish Agency for Israel Nathan Sharansky's proposal to make the Robinson's Arch area the group's permanent home. This caused some contention, which led some board members to leave the group. Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman resigned to the decision stated; "I'm not happy about it, but I'm at peace with it. It took a tremendous amount of courage."

The decision comes with some advantages; the group will have the freedom to pray without the protests and interferences from the security, to wear tallits, kippot and tefillin and to pray out loud and to read from the Torah. For the past few months the group has been barred by security from reading from the Torah at their service.

The feminist prayer that the Women of the Wall are practicing is a form of liberal prayer that does not conform to the Kotel's norm. Israel's Haredi, ultra-Orthodox object to the women's praying because they choose to wear tallits; praying shawls, and teffilin, which according to the Jewish orthodox tradition are religious garments only men are allowed to wear during prayer, and have been considered illegal for women to wear by Israeli laws. The women also read the Torah, another ritual activity that only men do, and read their prayers out loud. The WoW practices which are against the religious hegemony of the Kotel have led in the past to arrests and protests.

The Robinson's Arch is in the archaeological park and is referred to as the "Southern Wall." The area has been used since 1998 for egalitarian prayers with a smaller platform built in 2004, but free access has been limited to morning prayers, the remainder of the time there is an entrance fee. Usually the area is not government run or funded. The new space called "Ezrat Yisrael" can accommodate 450 worshippers.

The Jerusalem District Court ruled in April 2013 that the WoW's practices of wearing Tallits, Kippot and Tefflin and publicly reading from the Torah did not violate "local custom." Prior to the ruling the group all those who joined them in non-traditional prayer risked being arrested for their method of prayer. Afterwards the arrests stopped, even though the protests persisted from the ultra-Orthodox Women for the Wall.

Since the group's 25th anniversary in November 2013, they have again been able to hold to their Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Women's section of the Kotel after being barred by the police for months to the Robinson's Arch egalitarian area. The women however, will only be praying for a short time at the main women's section until their conditions are complete. Hoffman promised the group will continue praying at the Kotel "until the full implementation of the report's agreed-upon recommendations." It will take a year to make all the modifications to the Robinson's Arch area to meet WoW specifications.

They have also be denied the right to read from the Torah and on Jan. 2 they were accused of trying to smuggle a Torah scroll into the women's section at the Western Wall, Kotel at their prayer service honoring Rosh Hodesh Shevat. Although they had the scroll in a duffle bag WoW denies attempting to smuggle it in. Still Hoffman promised in her letter to renew their fight to read from the Torah after the agreement with the government is finalized; "It should be noted that when the negotiations end, we will return to our steadfast pursuit of Torah reading during our Rosh Hodesh prayer, as is customary and permissible in Jewish law."

The Women of the Wall have been attending their monthly prayer service at the Kotel for 25 years. Formed in 1988, the group of women is predominately composed of Americans Jews that have moved to Israel of liberal denominations and women rabbis, but also some who are traditionalists. The group sees their largest support in North America. Since their formation, they had been fighting for their legal right to gather and pray publicly at the Kotel, Western Wall's women's section.

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.

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