Israeli religious activist Anat Hoffman urged a mostly female audience in Baltimore “to interfere” in what she called Orthodoxy’s “monopoly” on Israeli society.
Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a founding member of Women of the Wall, said last Tuesday at Temple Oheb Shalom that when it comes to Jewish values, “Israel is quite bankrupt. Israelis are not aware of so much of their Judaism. That’s because there is just one product on the shelf — Orthodoxy. And most Israelis reject Orthodoxy,” she said.
Hoffman has worked for nearly 30 years to secure equal rights for women to pray in the women’s section of the Kotel, or Western Wall. Her cause scored a historic victory on Jan. 31 when, with players including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Federations of North America and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and North America, a compromise was reached with the Israeli government.
It allowed for the creation of a revamped egalitarian prayer space, located adjacent to a site called Robinson’s Arch, to the south of the main plaza, which is controlled by Orthodox authorities.
Implementation was thwarted when Israeli Religious Services Minister David Azoulay refused to sign the agreement within the required time period.
“The 30 days have come and gone. He says he would rather have his right arm cut off than sign it,” Hoffman said to an audible gasp from the audience.
Now, Hoffman said, “Jerusalem is covered in posters against Reform Jews.”
Hoffman said that one of these posters reads: “The holiness of the wall extends its whole length, from its most southern corner to its most northern corner. It is inconceivable to divide the Kotel or the area adjacent to it. The Reform shall shatter us to splinters and split us into factions. … We need salvation in spirituality, especially now that the Supreme Court has intervened to allow the Reform into our land, and their essence is to take Jews and make them goyim. This monster is worse than all the seculars we know. In their actions, they bring chaos into the world and increase the power of Satan, God forbid.”
“This is really a disappointment,” she said. “We cannot allow extremists to take over.”
Yet, Hoffman said she has hope: “The Reform and Conservative movements have been making headway. I think 2016 will be a turning point. ”
A decade ago, the Israel Religious Action Center was “suffering and fighting over gender segregation in the public sphere, she said. Twenty-six Orthodox women came to us and said, ‘We aren’t allowed to sit in the front of the bus.’ We fought with them in court.”
Although the women won their suit, many people ignored the court’s ruling, Hoffman said — until the center sued 13 bus drivers. Now, bus drivers follow the law, and there are very few segregated buses, she said.
Recently, the Israel Religious Action Center took El Al Israel Airline to court on behalf of an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor and retired attorney named Renee Rabinowitz.
In December, Rabinowitz was awaiting takeoff of a flight from New Jersey to Israel when a flight attendant asked her to move to another seat. Rabinowitz learned later that she was asked to move because the haredi man assigned to the seat next to hers refused to sit next to a woman.
“It took us two years to find the perfect case [to file a law suit], and she came to us,” Hoffman said. “Since we have publicized her case, four other cases have emerged. And at last, what we were waiting for, an anonymous call from a flight attendant saying, ‘This is company policy. It is not, as El Al has claimed, a voluntary arrangement between passengers. We are told [by El Al] to move people.’”
Hoffman said she expects Rabinowitz, originally offered a $200 discount on a future ticket by the airline, to be awarded more than $65,000 in her discrimination suit.
Simone Ellin is a freelance writer in Baltimore.