March 24, 2023

What Do Rabbas Mean to Me?

By Rachel Putterman

rachel_puttermanWhy am I, a non-Orthodox female rabbinical student, brought to tears at the recent images of Modern Orthodox women being ordained as rabbis in both Israel and the U.S?  Why does this historic shift resonate so deeply with me, given that the liberal movements have been ordaining women for decades?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that I have been advocating on behalf of women for most of my life, first, as a public interest attorney, and now as a rabbinical student.  Thus, on a basic level, I am incredibly moved by the fact that real concrete change is happening, and at such a rapid pace that it appears to constitute a paradigm shift.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted that two cohorts of Orthodox women–one in Israel and one in the U.S.–would be granted semikha in 2015.  Indeed, at the JOFA Un-Conference held a mere nine months ago, in response to participants’ urgent questions regarding when women would be ordained as rabbis, a prominent male leader of the Modern Orthodox establishment said that the structure of rabbinic leadership would look very different within one to two generations. The ground is literally shifting beneath our feet!

Another part of the answer has to do with me being a decidedly non-Orthodox rabbinical student.  Despite my utter freedom to pursue the rabbinate, and the multiple options I had regarding where to receive rabbinic training, I was never able to shake an awareness that the path that I was pursuing was essentially off limits to women within an entire branch of Judaism.   And, I experienced that exclusion of women as a type of Jewish glass ceiling. I felt stigmatized by the fact that being a female rabbinical student automatically signaled that I was not Orthodox.  [For purposes of this discussion, I am putting aside the issue that all non-Orthodox rabbis are not considered valid rabbis by most Orthodox].  Whereas a male non-Orthodox rabbinical student could “pass” as Orthodox, so long as he dressed appropriately, the minute I said I was a rabbinical student, it was a given that I was not Orthodox.  I find it extremely liberating that with the ordination of Orthodox women that is no longer the case.  I am elated that my Modern Orthodox sisters have gained the right to become rabbis if that is their hearts’ desire, albeit with much more risk attached to their endeavors than to mine.  These women and the men who are supporting them are truly heroic, given the extreme censure and backlash that they face from the ultra-Orthodox.  They are the trailblazers, while I am the beneficiary of courageous women who preceded me.

I have met or corresponded with two of the newly-ordained female Orthodox rabbis and they have been so happy to connect with me that I’ve realized that we have more in common than I originally thought.  I met both of these women in the context of working towards solutions to the plight of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce).  Perhaps it was our shared journey, combined with our mutual goal of helping agunot that overrode our denominational differences.  And this is yet the last reason why I’m moved to tears. The nascent expansion of the tent of Jewish women clergy has the potential to lessen the painfully entrenched division between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which will in turn lead to the further empowerment of all Jewish women.

Rachel Putterman is a Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence at HBI and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

On Bonna Haberman

By Shulamit S. Magnus

Bonna Haberman created and ran Women of the Wall (WOW) for years and remained active in our core mission literally, to the day she died.

The idea for a religiously diverse group of Jewish women to pray together in a group service with Torah reading, came from Rivka Haut, z’l, an Orthodox Talmud scholar from Brooklyn. She was in Jerusalem in December 1988, along with about 1,000 other women for the first International Conference of Jewish Feminists when she suggested the idea. You can read about the background and experience of participants in the book Rivka co-edited with another founder of WOW, Phyllis Chesler: Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.

Bonna, who lived in Jerusalem, asked herself why it took women coming from the Diaspora to have and execute this idea, when the Kotel, as she said, is in our backyard. Bonna being Bonna, then launched Women of the Wall as an Israeli group, going regularly, on various days of the week, when the Torah is read and days it is not. I was in Israel that year (1988-89). I was at the planning meeting for the first women’s tefilla at the Kotel, with Rivka Haut, and I read Torah there that first incredible time. I was a member of WOW during that first year with Bonna.

We experienced appalling violence for months. Haredi men charged through the mehitsa to attack us, even attempted to overturn the table with the Sefer Torah, an unimaginable sacrilege. Bonna, then hugely pregnant, caught the Sefer Torah against her belly lest, God forbid, it fall to the ground. When the police stopped men from coming through to attack us, Haredi women turned on us with stunning violence, sending several of us to the hospital.

In that year, the Ministry of Religion issued rulings criminalizing a woman’s voice in the Kotel precincts, and having a Sefer Torah. We risked fines and imprisonment. We sued before the Supreme Court of Israel. By this time, an international group of supporters, called the International Committee for Women of the Wall, Inc. (ICWOW), had formed. That group raised consciousness abroad about the cause. They raised funds. We commissioned and purchased a Sefer Torah for the women of Jerusalem and, in order to gain standing in the Supreme Court case, brought the Sefer Torah to Jerusalem, inaugurated it in festivities (details, in Chesler and Haut, eds.), and then brought it to the Kotel area, where we were blocked from bringing it to the Wall.

Bonna led the many years-long dealings with lawyers, commissions and court hearings, while continuing to lead tefillot, group prayers and the Torah readings at a nearby archeological site.

The Supreme Court ruled on our case in 2003, stating that in principle, our demands were legal. It cited political considerations and gave the government one year to prepare an alternate site, another nearby archeological site, Robinson’s Arch, to be able to accommodate prayer services. If that were not done within that time frame, the Court said we had every right to be at the Kotel in the manner we wished

The Government did not make Robinson’s suitable within that time frame. In any case, WOW, and ICWOW, resolutely rejected any suggestion of an alternate site and continued to insist on the same full religious expression at the Kotel that men have enjoyed since 1967. We continued to hold women’s services at the Kotel, departing to Robinson’s Arch for a number of years in order to read Torah, but never accepting the legitimacy of that arrangement and continuing to press for the rights we call “t-4”: women’s group tefilla (prayer) with voice, tallit, tefillin, and Torah.

In 2013, after women had been detained by police for donning talitot at the Kotel, claiming this disturbed the peace and violated custom, WOW won a stunning victory in the District Court of Judge Moshe Sobel. Sobel ruled sweepingly, on the basis of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling and on evidence presented in Court that Jewish women praying in our manner in no way disturbs the peace. He ruled that it was the protesters against us who did that while overwhelming evidence established that we, like other worshipers, only of the male variety, were just praying. But Sobel also ruled that, after a quarter of a century, our minhag, custom, was as much a part of the custom of the place as any other, and that we violated no custom, either. He said explicitly that all we seek to do there, t4, is legal and not to be barred.

From that point on, the police, who had been harassing us at the behest of the rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, started protecting us instead. It was a remarkable turnaround and testimony to the rule of law. Bonna was in Moshe Sobel’s court the day he heard the case; she participated in parsing the ruling that swiftly came, and in acting on it, by continuing to participate in women’s tefilla at the Kotel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz, however, issued a nohal, a pronouncement, stating that no one can bring a Torah scroll to the Kotel. Since he also refuses to allow women to use any of the dozens of Torah scrolls held on the men’s side, this effectively bars Jewish women from reading Torah at the Wall, a restriction we have gotten around several times, including most recently when I organized a service to pray for Bonna’s health and we got a Torah scroll in, and read from it at the Kotel.  (See the details on our Facebook page. However, we cannot do this easily, in the open, because it is a violation of the court rulings on this matter.

Bonna has been an active member of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), established by original founders of Women of the Wall in Oct., 2013, when the current leadership of WOW made a decision we are challenging.  WOW is negotiating with the Government, along with the Reform and Conservative movements, to ban women’s tefilla at the Kotel and turn the Kotel officially into a synagogue under Haredi control– a status it does not now and never has had– in return for official recognition of those movements and preparation of Robinson’s Arch as a grand new plaza for egalitarian tefilla. Recognition of religious pluralism and proliferation of prayer sites and styles are worthy goals, which some of us may support individually, but absolutely not at the cost of giving up the whole purpose of Women at the Wall and the historic gains we have made.

Bonna was adamantly opposed to this and resolutely continued to support and promote our original goals. She participated in every step of our challenge to the scheme to give up women’s inclusive, pluralistic tefilla at the Kotel. She wrote about it, published about it, spoke about it, and strategized actively with us, coming to planning meetings even when weak from her illness and its treatment, in typical Bonna heroic manner; speaking with our lawyers, consulting with us, here in Israel, and in North America, who run OWOW. Bonna was utterly committed to egalitarianism in all aspects of life and in religion in particular, yet like all of us in OWOW, she understood the importance of and need for women’s tefilla, that is, of the need for feminism, as well as egalitarianism, in Judaism.

She was enormously buoyed by our tefilla at the Kotel, with Torah reading, in her honor just last week. This is what she wrote to me after I emailed that we had succeeded in getting a Torah in, and reading from it at the Kotel:

“Shulamit! OWOW!! Words cannot express how grateful I am to you all for this tefilla. I learned of your success when I returned from the hospital in the early eve after a grueling day. You made my heart soar! Much love and brakha -B”

Shulamit S. Magnus

Shulamit S. Magnus

Shulamit S. Magnus is Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College, author of four books,including the winner of a National Jewish Book Award and Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Translation Award for her two-volume translation and critical edition of Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of a Grandmother (Stanford University Press, 2010, 2014). She was a founder of Women the Wall and is now living in Israel.

Value Us, Don’t Discriminate

By Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein


I am proud to be an Ethiopian-Israeli black woman, yet I am angry and disappointed at what is going on with Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Israel is my home and I owe my life to Israel and the Jews around the world who enabled me to be airlifted, in 1985, from the Sudan desert by the Israeli Air Force.

As Ethiopian Jews, our ancestors dreamt of going to the “Promised Land of the Jews” for 2,500 years. To get there, we crossed the desert on foot, sacrificing our lives to be with our fellow Jews in the Holy Land.

Yet, now in Israel, we find ourselves in a different fight. In the Ethiopian village, we knew whom we were fighting against. And, we had solutions. We could insulate ourselves as a community. Our family could work on our own fields; use our own Jewish community blacksmiths, weavers and potters. If our neighbors didn’t like us, we could live in a Jewish village.

In Israel, we are all in the same region, but we, the 135,000 Ethiopians in Israel, are a different color. It seems that a difference in color is what makes it different for Ethiopian Jews to live in certain places, get certain jobs or ride a bus proudly without stares.

We feel surrounded by injustice and discrimination. Like a pressure cooker under a rug, it burst out in an aggressive protest last month, triggered by an event caught in the lens of the camera where an innocent Ethiopian soldier in uniform, serving his country, was beaten brutally by Israeli police officers. How could this happen?

What is most painful for me is that the young generation of Ethiopians, born and raised in Israel, educated and serving in the Army like everybody else, needs to go through this unacceptable discrimination.

These young people are assets who can empower Israel to deal with its many challenges, but instead young Ethiopian Israelis are waging their own war of survival. Instead of using young people as a driving force for the State of Israel, young Ethiopian Israelis are fighting for basic justice. This kind of discrimination should not happen in any country, but certainly not in Israel, a state that was created by and for the Jewish people.

Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein is a Research Associate at HBI and Senior Research Associate at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis University. Her research areas are cross-culturalism, gender, immigration, knowledge and cognition in context. 

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