Women of the Wall Leader Spreads Message Here

Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sachs was in the Philadelphia area recently to speak to the Jewish community about the status of a proposed pluralistic section of the wall and the group’s history.

They have been arrested, challenged in court, yelled at and criticized, but nothing has deterred the Women of the Wall from fighting for their rights to pray at the Kotel.
These women have battled the Israeli government and the haredi Orthodox movement for nearly 30 years and refused to take “no” for an answer.
Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sachs was in the Philadelphia area recently to speak to the Jewish community about the status of a proposed pluralistic section of the wall and the group’s history.
Her appearances included stops at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and Melrose B’nai Israel-Emanu-El, also in Elkins Park.
“This dream is on the shoulders of a lot of brave women and men who are willing to make it happen,” Sachs told attendees at Main Line Reform Temple. “When I finished the Army, I realized I was put on this earth to make a difference in the status of women and the state of Israel.”
Women of the Wall’s struggle started in December 1988, at the end of the first International Jewish Feminist Convention, where dozens of women from all over the world participated.
As a part of the convention, the women planned to join in a prayer of thanks for the peace of the state on the women’s side of the Western Wall with a Torah. When they arrived and started reading from the Torah, it sparked a violent reaction from some men on the other side of the partition. The men spat at the praying women, yelled obscenities and grabbed their siddurim from their hands.
Sachs reminisced how three- and-a-half years ago she received a phone call from the head of the police in Jerusalem asking her to cancel a Rosh Chodesh service. She was shocked and replied, “Only God can cancel it.” He told her they did not have enough police to protect the women at the Kotel. She said if there are enough police to arrest them that is fine, but if there aren’t enough to handle the men who speak against them, then the police should call the politicians who oppose them.
“I want an Israel that is democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian,” she said during her Philadelphia visit.
Once in the Kotel, the group’smantra is the four Ts: tefillin, tallit, tefillah and Torah. She said numerous Orthodox men and women do not even want to hear their voices at the Kotel and constantly complain and call the authorities. According to Sachs, the toughest part is getting a Torah in, which they have been forced to do illegally a few times.
“It’s not a religious battle,” she said. “This battle is a battle about politics, about power and about who runs the Kotel. The Kotel is the heart of Judaism. There’s no reason it should be run one way.”
Sachs spoke about one particular incident three years ago.
In April 2013, Sachs and four of her fellow activists were arrested at the Kotel. Police accused them of disturbing the public order and requested that the judge ban them from the Western Wall for the following three Rosh Chodesh prayer dates.
Sachs knew she was either paying a fine or going to jail — and she was not forking over any money. So she said goodbye to her friends and family, but fortunately the law was on her side.
After examining the evidence, Judge Sharon Larry Bavly said there was no cause for arresting the women. In a groundbreaking decision, the judge declared that Women of the Wall was not disturbing the public order with its prayers. Rather the disturbance was created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer; therefore, the organization should not be blamed for others’ behavior.
The women were released.
The police appealed that decision and, on April 25, 2013, the Jerusalem District Court rejected the police appeal, fully supporting the Magistrates’ Court decision. The police’s request for a restraining order from the holy site once again was rejected.
In 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a legal secretary to work with both parties to find a solution. The two groups debated and made compromises for three years.
Everything changed on Jan. 31, when an accord was reached that would create a pluralistic egalitarian plaza on the south side of the wall, which is now an archeological dig.
“We felt that this was a wonderful agreement,” Sachs said. “We feel that when this new plaza will be built, many people that come to the Kotel will see another way of being Jewish. They might feel more connected.”
However, the Orthodox reneged on the deal, she charged, accusing Netanyahu of wanting to appease his Orthodox constituency.
At the end of March, Netanyahu appointed a committee to figure out how to end the 27-year dilemma. Sachs noted there have been countless committees over the years, but hopefully this will be the last.
“This is not acceptable to us,” she said. “We did not agree to this agreement. Now the question is what do we do?”
On Chol Hamoed Pesach, April 24, at 8:45 a.m., Women of the Wall will hold a large women’s prayer for freedom at the Western Wall including the Priestly Blessing — what the group is calling Birkat Kohanot — by women, for women.
Among the attendees at one Philadelphia appearance was Evalyn Elias of Wynnewood, who belongs to Temple Sholom in Broomall. Elias was impressed with Sachs and is proud of what she and her organization have accomplished.
“We are North American Jews, we’re women and we want to be represented in Israel,” she said.
Contact: jcohen@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747


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