Israeli feminist tells Beth El sisterhood to stand up to gender inequality
Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Center and co-founder of Women of the Wall, spoke to Beth El Congregation of Baltimore’s Sisterhood on Sept. 6 about women’s rights in Jerusalem.
More than 160 listeners tuned in to the Zoom talk.
Hoffman started off by encouraging questions and comments.
“You can’t come up with things that would hurt my feelings. And there’s no stupid questions,” she said. “Every woman who threw a ‘silly’ question at me usually turned out to be the most thought-provoking ideas,” Hoffman said.
While the talk was educational, it was also a peek into the power of a strong leader. Hoffman’s ability to lead activism was a lesson in of itself. Her daughter, Tanya, in a Haaretz article, described Hoffman’s personality best: “My mom’s like a bulldozer. She’s got a huge mouth, she’s super opinionated, she doesn’t care what people think about her, and she fears nothing.”
Hoffman shared a prayer for Jerusalem, Israel, soldiers and diversity. She then jumped into a history of her work.
“You cannot swim without getting wet,” she said. “And, when you swim, you need to pull from your belly button, your center of gravity. The wall is our center of gravity.”
Similarly, Hoffman believes that if religious pluralism and equality is reached at the Western Wall, then all of Judaism will be more balanced. Right now, there is an imbalance at the Kotel, she argued.
There is more than one way to convert, marry or practice Judaism, she said.
“[The Rabbinate Council] only stand for the ultra-Orthodox minority,” she said. “[They] don’t recognize other forms of Judaism.”
To fight for women’s rights at the Kotel, she co-founded Women of the Wall. The organization was initiated at a women’s conference. The women (a mix of all denominations, Hoffman said) wanted to make it legal for women to wear tallitot and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.
Have they accomplished some of their goals? “You betcha!” Hoffman said.
Hoffman stated that once you can do something that was once illegal, you realize how precious it is.
The Women of the Wall also prepare girls for bat mitzvahs. It costs $1,000 for one bat mitzvah, reduced to $500 if her mother comes and is free if the grandmother joins classes, too.
Hoffman also addressed Western stereotypes about Israeli women.
“You describe Israeli women like the kind of woman I’d love to meet,” she said. “Courageous, brave, can shoot an AK47, superwoman. But that’s just photographs. Those women were taken out of the laundry room for these photo shoots. There are two power systems in Israel: the rabbinical and the military, and both are patriarchal.”
She believes Israeli women identify as mothers rather than leaders.
But Hoffman wants to change this. She argued that ideas around gender equality and roles can change when Diaspora Jews get involved.
“A Diaspora is a seed,” she said. “You are Diaspora Jews. You have a right at the table.”
Regardless of a Jewish woman’s nationality, she should be able to bring ideas to matters of the Jewish state, Hoffman argues. For example, Hoffman believes divorce in Israel should be more pluralized like in the Americas.
“Right now, there is only one way,” she said. “You go to the rabbinic court, which is run by men.”
Women can’t testify for a couple, she said. Rather, the wife and husband show up to a court of male judges, and only men to testify for their accounts. When Hoffman takes tours past the courts, there are often wives standing outside waiting for a man to pass by and volunteer to testify for them. Hoffman encourages the men in her tourist group to volunteer to help.
“That woman’s best friend of 25 years who knows her so well can stand there, but the court will only listen to this man, a stranger,” Hoffman scoffed.
Hoffman told participants that to fight inequalities like this, they should join organizations like Hadassah and be activists.
“How you like them green apples?” she asked.