In 1988, at the first International Jewish Feminist Conference, 300 women from 24 countries gathered in Jerusalem, site of the most sacred spaces for Arabs and Jews alike. A strong contingent of U.S. women had already spent two decades in the women’s movement, critiquing patriarchal institutions, including the world’s religions, as male-dominated and denigrating of women. Among Jewish activists in the United States, much had been accomplished: egalitarian prayer and study groups existed; new rituals like women’s Passover Seders had been created; and, within the Reform branch of Judaism, females had been ordained as rabbis as early as 1973.

One of the conference sessions in 1988 was on the subject of prayer. Jewish orthodoxy held that women’s voices must be silent, lest they disturb men at their worship. Women were forbidden to read from the Torah, the holy scroll. Ritual garments–the yarmulke (skull cap) and tallis (prayer shawl)–were only for men. At that session, plans emerged for a rebellion that would send shock waves through Judaism for decades to come.

Early on the morning of Dec. 1, 70 women wearing prayer shawls and carrying the scroll marched to the remnant of the ancient Temple Mount known as the Wailing Wall. The group included activists of all denominations within Judaism as well as scholars, writers and clergy. Among them, Rivka Haut had been organizing on behalf of women whose husbands refused to grant them religious divorces; psychologist Phyllis Chesler had shaken up the mental health establishment with her book “Women and Madness;” and Rabbi Helene Ferris had advocated for acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews.

At the wall, in the area reserved for women, they began to pray together, aloud. When they opened the Torah, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli woman nearby began yelling at them. Her shouts alerted men standing on the other side of the barrier separating men from women and, within seconds, the service was interrupted by jeers and curses. The women finished their worship, but subsequent attempts by those who remained in Israel after the conference ended were not so successful.

As word of the ongoing civil disobedience spread, hostility and violent opposition increased. Throughout the following year, participants were hit with metal chairs, beaten, bit, spit upon, and called names ranging from “witch” to “whore.” Police offered little or no protection. An international organization called Women of the Wall was formed for support; WOW’s lawyers fought off attempts by Israeli authorities to impose seven-year jail terms on women who conducted Torah services at the wall.

For 15 years, a legal battle has raged. Although their worship is still considered illegal, women still pray out loud at the western wall on the first day of every month on the Jewish calendar. Lest the symbolism of their insistence on full participation in Jewish ritual be lost on anyone, at Purim, the spring holiday, they read the scroll of Esther, an ancient story of the woman who saved her people from extinction.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at louise@womensenews.org.

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For more information:

Jewish Virtual Library, Women of the Wall:

Phyllis Chesler:

“Equal Access to Israel’s Western Wall Denied”:

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