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“In 2003 we could have easily removed ourselves from the Western Wall plaza to Robinson’s Arch — it was there then and it’s there now,” said Bonna Devora Haberman, one of WOW’s founders and a signatory to the protest letter. “We’ve not yearned 25 years to be displaced from the central gathering point of the Jewish people at the Western Wall plaza.”
Cheryl Birkner Mack, a WOW member who resigned from the organization’s board in protest, plans to stand firm because the new section will be constructed at the site of archeological excavations, not at the centuries-old pilgrimage site. “I’m not interested in bigger, better, nicer, I’m interested in holiness and they’re not suddenly going to impose holiness on the new site,” said Mack, who also signed the letter.
Hoffman believes that there is no room for the dissenter’s ideological rigidity today and commented that WOW’s failure to negotiate for an alternative site back in the 1990s was “in retrospect a mistake” — though she said its negotiating power now is stronger.
The schism over the location of prayer meetings runs so deep among WOW members that dissenters may even face off with the group’s board over control of the WOW name. Hoffman insists that the board owns the Women of the Wall brand, but Mack said that “morally and ethically” the dissenters should lay claim to the name. If the dissenters organize events or meetings under the WOW banner, this could result in a legal challenge from the board.
Even if Hoffman’s camp retains control of WOW, and negotiates a satisfactory egalitarian section, some experts believe it is far from the end of the feminist battle over the Kotel. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of Bar Ilan University’s Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and a member of the U.N. Committee For Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, believes that a deal by WOW will not silence calls for women’s rights at the main Kotel section in the long term. “Things will evolve and things will change,” she said.
Halperin-Kaddari said of WOW board members: “Politically they took a correct decision in accepting this, but it’s certainly not the end of the issue — it’s excluding them from the area considered to be the most sacred [in Judaism].”
The dispute within WOW also places its considerable American supporters in an awkward position. When queried about the split, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told the Forward: “the Reform and Conservative movements have embraced the Sharansky proposal on condition that it be fully implemented. So therefore, we’re sympathetic and appreciative of majority of Women of the Wall who think that opening of a larger area of the Wall to be areas of prayer that are accessible to all people, all Jews, is the most effective way of addressing need of having egalitarian, pluralistic, access to the Wall.”
Maya Shwayder also contributed to this story. Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org