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July 9, 2004

Respect Western Wall

The women’s section of the Western Wall welcomes all — Jew/non-Jew, Orthodox/non-Orthodox, one-time visitors/regulars, short-sleeves/long-skirts;those praying Sephardic, Ashkenazi or not at all (“Breaking Sacred Ground for Equality,” July 2). There’s almost total freedom, the only request being to respect the minhag hamakom, or the local custom, and abstain from conspicuous group prayer with male accoutrements. Even someone unfamiliar with Maimonides’s Laws of Festivals or Emily Post’s etiquette columns would agree that common courtesy requires respecting the sensitivities of others.

The Women of the Wall, or WOW, have other sites at which to conduct their men’s- style services and needn’t bring their custom to the main Wall plaza, where it is disruptive. The Israeli Supreme Court, after trying for 15 years to balance the rights of one group, WOW, with the rights of majority of worshippers, found a fair solution. In May 2003, nine judges gave the government 12 months to prepare an alternative site for WOW and other non- normative groups at a portion of the Western Wall, Robinson’s Arch, far away enough that they would not disturb the thousands of women and girls who pray at the Wall.

Until May 2004, WOW held their services in the Jewish Quarter, a few minutes’ walk from the Western Wall. However, rather than wait a few more months for their tailor-made Robinson’s Arch, WOW held a provocative and conspicuous service in the Wall’s women’s section on Rosh Hodesh Tamuz.

Many of the traditional women found this offensive and actively opposed the intrusion. My suggestion — that in lieu of the service, both sides study the laws of minhag hamakom — was rejected. I then requested they relocate their services in the Jewish Quarter, as they had been doing all year. Due to the ensuing agitation, they decided to forgo their Torah reading.

There have been accusations of violence, or even of seeking to harm one of the children, brought by WOW. No such thing took place.

Since WOW came to the Wall with several video cameramen in tow, the fact that neither I nor anyone else engaged in violence can be easily verified by the films. What has been termed a “riot” by WOW was at most a mild melee and verbal clash.

Many with truly feminine sensibilities, not man-wannabe fixations, assert that there is something degrading in WOW practices, which imply that only by emulating men can women truly participate in Jewish prayer. True feminism celebrates women’s unique characteristics. The attempt by WOW to bring new, non-normative practices to a place where the indigenous population has its own minhag hamakom runs counter to most postmodern thinking, which is to give voice to the grass-roots customs.

Nevertheless, there are admirable aspects of WOW. The group binds together women of all Jewish streams, from Reform to Orthodox. Since they have agreed to respect Orthodox traditions when they pray at the Wall, it is puzzling that they disregard the lenient Orthodox rabbinical opinions of such rabbis as Avi Weiss and Yehuda Henkin: namely, that such nontraditional women’s tefilla groups should be held away from the main worshipping areas.

The only way to understand the perseverance of WOW is to acknowledge that it is an attempt to change the atmosphere of a holy place to give satisfaction to a special interest group, regardless of the deep feelings of the thousands of women who pray at the Western Wall.

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt

Netanya, Israel

Repudiate Narrow Take On Religious Liberty

Opinion writers Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union and Marsha Atkind of the National Council of Jewish Women are dissembling, and they must know it (“Proposed Law Pays for Belief With Bias,” June 25).

The problem with the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, or WRFA, is not bad drafting, but rather their organizations’ refusal to accept as worthy of respect religious beliefs with which they disagree. (Indeed, on its Web site, the ACLU calls WRFA a stealth attack — no drafting error that.) Rather than admit their narrow views of acceptable religious practice, Murphy and Atkind prefer to blame the drafters.

The drafters of WRFA intentionally formulated the legislation so that it would reach all religious claims and allow them to be adjudicated under a single meaningful standard. Of course, not all claims made by employees will be vindicated — but they all will be considered under the same standard. The ACLU and NCJW would have preferred religious practices and disfavored religious practices, with only the former receiving meaningful protection, a form of official discrimination against disfavored faiths that is unconstitutional. As far as the ACLU and NCJW are concerned, Orthodox Jewish, Catholic and evangelical religious practice on abortion and gay rights are entirely beyond the pale. That is a strange view of religious liberty.

Though there is insufficient place here for a detailed discussion of each of the claims put forward by Murphy and Atkind, it is sufficient to note a few points.

First, existing law allows medical personnel an absolute right to excuse themselves from participation in abortion procedures; WRFA applies a far lower standard.

Second, often police officers are given some say in their assignments, in recognition of family responsibilities, career interests and the like. Why are secular preferences to be tolerated, but not religious ones? And it is not true that only anti-abortion police officers seek religious accommodation. In one case — unmentioned by Murphy and Atkind — an FBI agent sought religious accommodation against conducting surveillance of a peace group.

Third, the right to abortion and to gay rights is the right of individual choice. Why, then, is the right to choose one-sided, and not extended to those who choose to take a dissenting position against what is now a secular orthodoxy?

Lastly, in some cases — such as a pharmacist’s religiously based refusal to dispense the morning-after pill — the question often will be who must bear the burden: the person seeking contraceptives, or the person objecting to dispensing them? The ACLU and NCJW believe that the burden on the religious pharmacists should be uniformly ignored, no matter how slight the burden on others. WRFA asks the courts to weigh all the relevant circumstances and only then decide.

Forty years ago, Justices Arthur Goldberg and John Marshall Harlan, agreeing that Bible reading had no place in the public schools, warned against a vision of religious liberty founded in “untutored devotion” to the secular, a “brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and… a… hostility to the religious.” The hostility to conservative religious faiths manifest by Murphy and Atkind confirms the prescience of the justices’ warning. It behooves the Jewish community to repudiate the narrow-minded view of religious liberty advanced by Murphy and Atkind and their respective organizations.

Marc Stern

Assistant Executive Director

American Jewish Congress

New York, N.Y.

Shaky Bauhaus Article

Arts and culture writer Bill Strubbe’s claim in a June 25 article that “19 students from Israel studied in the Bauhaus School” is, I’m afraid, not quite accurate (“Back to Bauhaus”).

There were, at one time, 19 people who had studied at the Bauhaus School living in Mandate Palestine, but most of them were not from Palestine, and some of them, such as Munio Gitai-Weinraub, immigrated to Palestine after they had completed their studies in Europe. The story of the White City has a great deal to do with the impact of Central and Eastern European immigrants on Israeli architecture, and not quite as much to do with the formation of an indigenous grouping, as Strubbe’s wording may suggest. Strubbe also misses a key point in implying that Bauhaus flourished in Tel Aviv because it “came to exemplify the socialists’ ideals of the new state.”

My best guess is that Lauren Gelfond’s piece for the Jerusalem Post of January 10, 2003, which accents parallels between the orientation of the European architects who transplanted themselves in Palestine and the orientation of Zionists of that era — “Not only were they focused on no frills, no nonsense, and no social hierarchies, they were also interested in washing away the past,” she writes — also has explanatory power.

Readers interested in this topic may want to examine “White City. International Style Architecture in Israel” (1984) and “Tel Aviv Modern Architecture 1930-1939” (1994).

Jack Jacobs

New York, N.Y.

The letter writer is vice president of the

Forward Association.

Treyf Water Old Story

The July 2 article on copepods in New York City’s drinking water demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of drinking water and how the city’s water system operates (“O.U. To Require Water Filters in N.Y. Eateries”).

There was no “recent discovery” of copepods in the water by anyone except the Orthodox Jewish community. The rest of us have known about their presence in the water supply for a long time. In fact, anyone who did any research into drinking water would know that copepods have been common in unfiltered surface water systems since long before the first Jew stepped into Brooklyn.

There is also no way that the copepods could be confined to one borough: It is the same water system serving all five boroughs. It all comes from the same place and is delivered through the same system, so of course the copepods are in everyone’s water. Finally, there were no “subsequent tests” that found copepods all over New York City. The drinking water is tested thousands of times a year, and those tests always have shown the existence of copepods.

Whether Orthodox Jews choose to drink the water is of no concern to me. But as a Jew, it is embarrassing to see part of my community show itself as so out of touch with science and common knowledge.

Ian Ribald

Forest Hills, N.Y.

Add Monica to Index

The Campaign Confidential columnist’s list of Jewish “worthies” in the index of former President Clinton’s just published memoir left out the name Monica Lewinsky (“Bill’s Bigs,” June 25). Some might insist that she is not a “worthy,” others that her intimacy with the president was very short-lived. But Lewinsky was, in a meaningful sense, quite closely connected to Clinton. She is Jewish. And she is in the memoir’s index.

When her affair with the president splashed into the public eye, the first photos in Time and Newsweek magazines showed her at her brother’s bar mitzvah, her father and brother in yarmulkes. Like many Jews (and non-Jews) at the time, my knee-jerk response to the images was that this could get ugly for Jews. It did not.

But the fact that her being Jewish turned out to be irrelevant is a fact worth noting. It is, I think, without precedent in Jewish and American history. When, in connection with a governmental scandal of comparable scale, did a participant’s being Jewish simply not matter? How might the scandal have played out had the intern with whom the president had an affair been black, or gay?

In the main, the Jewish factor was clearly trumped by the oral sex factor. Monica Lewinsky was not “the Jew,” but rather “that woman.” The really fascinating thing, however, is that no one noticed that most Americans failed to notice “the Jew.” Even now. Why do you think that is?

Paul Breines

Boston, Mass.

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