A ‘Woman of the Wall’ speaks at Temple Beth-El


Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, spoke about her group’s three-decade struggle to pray aloud and with Torahs at the Western Wall during a visit to Temple Beth-El on Dec. 2.


Sachs was in the area to attend the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial 2017, in Boston. She spoke at Beth-El, in Providence, as a guest of the temple and the Sisterhood.  

 “Women of the Wall,” Sachs told the 100 people in the audience, “is a group of modern-Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women demanding our right to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall with what we call the Four Ts:  tefila,  to pray aloud and not in silence; tefillin – some of our women lay tefillin; tallit;” and to bring in a Torah.

“Two years ago, we thought we had made history,” Sachs continued. “Following three years of negotiation with us, the government of Israel voted 15 to 5 to create a third pluralistic plaza in the southern part of the Western Wall.”

Sachs said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked for three years with the Women of the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federation of North America, and The Jewish Agency to reach the January 2016 “Kotel Agreement,” which turned “an underused archeological site in the southern part of the Western Wall into a new worshipping space for liberal Jews and Women of the Wall.”

After a political storm, the government failed to implement the agreement.

 “In a country where there is no formal separation between religion and state, the government pays the salaries of rabbis. And where the government pays salaries, the question of who is a rabbi and related pluralism issues are inherently political,” Sachs said. “That means the Orthodox political parties that usually hold the balance of power in the Knesset can impose their will on any government.

“It’s important to know that the Western Wall is not a synagogue, it is defined by law as a holy national site. Unfortunately, after the 1967 war, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi was appointed as administrator, so it is no wonder that over the years he turned it into something that resembles ‘his synagogue,’  a synagogue where women should not be seen and their voices not heard,” she said.

Currently, women are restricted to a small section of the Kotel, where they must pray individually and silently, and are banned from bringing in Torahs; there are 200 Torahs in the men’s section, none in the women’s section.

Sachs told stories of being shoved, shouted at and arrested many times for trying to bring Torahs into the Kotel. She said when women attempted to pray aloud, groups of young women and girls who oppose Women of the Wall blew whistles and bullhorns to drown out their prayers.

Male supporters, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, have tried to provide Torahs for the women, but have been physically accosted by security guards at the Kotel.

Right now, she continued, “Women of the Wall are in the front line every Rosh Hodesh, suffering verbal, and many times physical, abuse [while] exercising spiritual disobedience.”

Sachs urged the audience to show their support by lobbying the Israeli government, both in Israel and through its embassies and consulates, to join Women of the Wall in praying aloud at the Kotel; to gather in support on Rosh Hodesh; and to wear the Women of the World Tallit.

Some members of the audience later said they were upset by the way the non-Orthodox are treated in Israel.

Rabbi Jacobs addressed this issue with a cautionary message during his d’var Torah a week later at the URJ 2017Biennial.

“Let’s speak honestly,” he said. “There are … forces pulling our communities apart: the frustration, even anger, that the non-Orthodox Jewish majority feels as our religious rights in Israel are denied; the alienation many, especially among our youth, feel over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians; the attentiveness of Israel’s government to Christian Evangelicals, while turning a cold shoulder to the concerns of progressive Jews.

“We should never shirk our obligation to raise objections to policies that weaken Israel’s Jewish democratic core and undermine prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. But we must simultaneously help our people fall in love with Israel, with her diverse and remarkable people, her founding vision, her creativity in its scientific, business and cultural achievements, and so much more.”

AARON GINSBURG is a Newport native who lives in Foxboro, Massachusetts.