It is the first morning of the Hebrew month of Kislev, and ordinarily Anat Hoffman would be surrounded by a diverse community of women celebrating Rosh Chodesh, singing in the shadow of Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel. Instead, Hoffman, who is 58 and the chairwoman of the multidenominational prayer group known as Women of the Wall, sits on the other side of the world in a Manhattan restaurant, railing and reflecting — and rejoicing a bit too.
“I need to be there!” Hoffman proclaims, meaning at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, from which she has been banned for 30 days following an arrest on Oct. 17. The arrest, which drew protests from liberal Jews around the world, was made because Hoffman wore a prayer shawl and recited the Shema aloud in front of the Western Wall — behavior forbidden to women under Israeli law, which requires that “religious ceremony” be in “accordance to the traditions of the place.”
A sudden smile flashes over Hoffman’s face. “You know what happened today?” she asks. Close to 150 women showed up at the prayer group, despite a police request that Women of the Wall stay home because of mounting violence in Gaza, Hoffman says.
“This was not a demonstration; this is a prayer group!” she rages about the request to cancel. “And there comes at a time, when, davka [precisely], Israel needs prayer more than ever. Instead of seeing this as a sign of devotion, it is seen as insensitivity.”
Within minutes of the service’s start, the police arrested the six remaining leaders of Women of the Wall, but Hoffman finds yet another reason to be cheerful: A secular photographer, hired to film the proceedings, stepped up after the leaders were detained, and helped with logistics. “She’s not a praying woman,” says Hoffman, but “she says, ‘we hijacked her soul.’”
Wearing a bright purple top and coordinated scarf, her hair and eyes a matching shade of chestnut, Hoffman’s appearance lends an upbeat, offbeat sort of air to the business crowd at this Midtown Manhattan eatery. Now she grins like a delighted 5-year-old. It’s time to order a beverage. Should it be hot cocoa? Or, though the holiday season is still weeks away, perhaps the menu might feature eggnog, she hopes—a drink that Hoffman learned about when she attended UCLA for college in the 1970s.
Hoffman, who has recently become the woman of the moment (at least in feminist Jewish circles) is a complex character. She talks animatedly, often using her hands for emphasis, and employs some distinctive American phrases such as “what gives?” At other times, her expression seems somber; and then, in the middle of a conversation with this reporter, Hoffman, who is a mother of three grown children, takes a phone call from her youngest, a 17-year-old son in Jerusalem, who is worried about war. “Motek sheli,” she says softly, “My sweetie.”
While Hoffman’s style invigorates many Jewish feminists, it also discomfits some prominent Orthodox women, even as they admire her greatly. Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who is a spiritual leader at Hebrew Institute for Riverdale, writes in an e-mail interview that she doesn’t like that Hoffman’s “approach ends up being divisive.”
The rabba adds, however, that she advocates “pursuing what you believe in, even when it is not the most popular opinion or strategy. And that as “an unapologetic pluralist,” she believes “that all Jews should have the opportunity to connect with God in their own way.”
Blu Greenberg, who is the founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, says that “Anat is a longtime friend and I appreciate that she has given her life to increasing gender equality and expanding women’s participation in tradition. The fact that she has not been burnt out after so many decades inspires us all to stay the course.”
She adds, “Although I’ve disagreed with her on some political issues and tactics, I also know that the noise she creates generates the climate for change, of which I am a beneficiary. Among other things, Anat is trying to re-vision the Wall plaza as a sacred place for Jews, a tough struggle.
“There is surely no justification for the recent arrest and strip search. These constituted a violation of human rights and of her person, and we should all rise up in her defense.”
In the days after the October arrest, Hoffman’s reports of her treatment by police drew an international outcry from liberal Jews. Though this was not the first time Hoffman had been arrested at the Kotel, this time she says the police handled her roughly, strip searching her and dragging her across the floor during her night in jail. (A police spokesman told JTA news agency that Hoffman’s reports are not accurate.)
Among the American responses to Hoffman’s arrest, the Union for Reform Judaism called for a police investigation, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, advised members to flood Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s e-mailbox with letters of protest. Rivka Haut, an Orthodox feminist who lives in New York City, and has been involved with the Women of the Wall from its start, found herself sadly explaining the situation to her progeny. “This is what I want to teach my granddaughter about Zionism? About Israel?” she says, her voice rising sarcastically.
In the United States earlier this month for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, Hoffman says “it was amazing to see the younger women so worked up about” the Women of the Wall, and that when she spoke, she needed to pause for “quite a few interruptions by people who wanted to cheer.”
At a time when Israel is not only facing external strife, but also confronting internal divisions, particularly the growing unease many have with the powerful position of Orthodoxy in religious life, Hoffman’s message resonates with many liberal Jews. She wants to “give Israel a gift” of liberating the Western Wall for all Jews, for all people. She wants to abolish a regulation, for example, that forced the 6-year old daughter of a California rabbi to cover herself up at the Kotel. “That’s sick,” she says, recalling that the rabbi himself cried when he told her the story.
She says the Women of the Wall is saying, “Take the handcuffs off Judaism.”
Of course, with slogans like this, Hoffman has the potential to offend as much — or possibly more — than she inspires.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a fervently Orthodox Jew who is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, says he expresses his personal opinion and not the view of Aguda, when he says that Hoffman engages in “guerrilla theater” tactics. Rabbi Shafran continues, “I have no reason to doubt that some, if not all, of the women Ms. Hoffman regularly brings to the Kotel, are well-intentioned and heartfelt Jews, not necessarily intent on disruption in the guise of ‘activism.’ But they are misled all the same.”
“The Kotel is already a fully welcoming place for all Jews,” Rabbi Shafran asserts. “A modicum of respect for those who make up the vast majority of supplicants there, not to mention for the millennia-old Jewish religious tradition, is all that is asked of anyone. Menschlichkeit and good will, not ‘activist’ attempts to ‘get in others’ faces’ are what are needed there to maintain it as the place where Jewish hearts, whatever their backgrounds and yearnings, beat as one.”
Another Orthodox rabbi, Meir Fund, the spiritual leader of The Flatbush Minyan, says, “I think that most of us would agree that the Kotel, the remnant of the Temple Mount, is the holiest place in the world for Jewish people. And to say that the spot has functioned as an Orthodox synagogue for thousands of years would not be off the mark. So to say that it should no longer be that is the ultimate expression of chutzpah.
“Having said that, I believe that everything that can be done within the confines of halacha [Jewish law] should be done to make every Jew feel welcome there.”
Raised by an American-born father who wrote for the Jerusalem Post, and an Israeli mother who was a “perpetual student,” Hoffman and her three siblings have all drifted toward careers that include some component of social activism.
For her part, Hoffman, who is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center — the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel — has spent much of her life fighting against what she’s perceived to be one form of injustice or another. In an early stage of her working life, she taught kindergartners to approach advertising with skepticism. In the late 1980s, working for the IRAC, Hoffman took on Bezeq, Israel’s national telephone company, fighting for itemized bills. Later, elected as a City Councilwoman in Jerusalem, she often butted heads with then Mayor Ehud Olmert.
Growing up, Hoffman did not embrace religion. Her maternal grandparents founded a kibbutz and celebrated only two holidays, jokes Hoffman: “May 1 and the October Revolution.” The only time she visited the Kotel was to accompany tourists who wanted to pray. Her attitude toward religion shifted however, as a student in California when she was introduced to what she perceived as the open, egalitarian spirit of liberal Judaism.
These days, she writes prayers when she’s deeply moved by an experience, “letters to the big boss,” she calls them, though she’s not certain that anyone is listening. She’s also often inspired by reading Jewish texts, and remarks that the Talmud would have “been a much thinner book if it were up to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel today” to edit it. As for religious services, Hoffman praises the community of Women of the Wall for enabling her “to touch things she would not have been able to on her own.”
On this first morning of Kislev, Hoffman has done her best to be present at the Rosh Chodesh service. She rose in darkness in New York and by phone celebrated along with her comrades in Jerusalem. “We’re supposed to decide it’s not Rosh Chodesh that day?” she says, again angry about the request that the women stay home.
This month of Kislev brings the holiday of Chanukah, a festival of lights and miracles. Though Hoffman says she doesn’t believe in miracles that involve the “suspension of the physical laws as we know them,” she does believe in “human behavior changing, in people acting with grace and respect. And when this happens,” says Hoffman, “it qualifies as divine.”
“There is a famous Chanukah song, which says that every one of us is a candle and together we make a big light,” says Hoffman. “The Orthodox say there is one light, one way to be Jewish. I say there are many lights.”
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