“Regulatory overreach by Israel’s religious bodies obstructs freedom of religious expression for women,” says Dr. Susan Weiss, director and founder of the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ).
On March 29, 2016, Dr. Weiss, and Professor Shulamit Magnus, a founder of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), spoke to more than 20 local and foreign press and affiliates at the Jerusalem Press Club. OWOW is committed to allowing unobstructed women's group prayer at the Kotel (the Western Wall) with voice, the option of tallit and tefillin, and Torah reading. The group is comprised of founding members and core activists.
When OWOW was prohibited from using a Torah scroll at the Kotel, the group’s founding members came to CWJ for help. A 2010 Rabbinical regulation allows use of the Kotel’s or other Torah scrolls only with the express permission of the Kotel Heritage Foundation. In fact, only men are granted permission. “Although the regulation is ostensibly gender neutral," commented Prof. Magnus, “in reality it bars Jewish women from accessing the Torah scrolls."
CWJ took the case because it represented the Rabbinate’s use of “secondary legislation” to create arbitrary regulations that breach women’s civil rights. Dr. Weiss explained how the Israeli Rabbinate’s usurpation of power through this regulatory overreach is "hastening the demise of the Jewish and democratic state." She shared many examples of such regulations, including one preventing a nursing mother from remarrying and another restricting those suspected of adultery from remarrying.
Their topic, "Whither Israel's Civil Society: Religion, Democracy & the Kotel," provided historical and political context for CWJ’s recent litigation on behalf of the group. In November 2015, CWJ filed two petitions on behalf of OWOW. In one, CWJ asked Israel’s Supreme Court to declare the discriminatory directive void. In the other, we asked the magistrate’s court to order the State to pay $50,000 in damages to compensate our clients for its discriminatory practices.
While members of the audience had some idea of the power of the Rabbinate and the issues surrounding women’s prayer at the Kotel plaza, many were shocked at the sheer volume of arbitrary legislation implemented by the Rabbinate. Many remained after the lecture to question Dr. Weiss and Prof. Magnus and to discuss among themselves the appalling state of Israelis civil rights. This demonstrates the importance of such a talk to members of the press, ensuring our message reaches the public.
CWJ would like to thank our generous supporters whose commitment ensures that our educational message spreads and helps create the desire for lasting change: David Berg Foundation, Greater Miami Jewish Federation Women’s Amutot Initiative, Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta, Jewish Women’s Foundation of South Palm Beach County, the Miriam Fund and the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington, as well as donors whose general support provides a secure foundation for advancing our work.
Professor Magnus provided an historical and political context to OWOW’s struggle, particularly after the recent deal for and egalitarian service at Robinson's Arch, and the impending decision to turn the Kotel into an Ultra-Orthodox Synagogue.