Women of the Wall head presents her philosophy and activism
Make no mistake: Anat Hoffman is a firebrand.
Her extensive resume as an activist backs that up — more than 20 years as the outspoken and seemingly omnipresent leader of Women of the Wall, the group that has fought long and hard for the right of women to pray, in the same ritual manner as men, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall; dozens of arrests for performing precisely those rituals at monthly Rosh Chodesh observances at the Wall; years of the indignant ire, and sometimes angry verbal and physical assaults, that some of Israel’s Orthodox Jews have thrown in her direction.
Hoffman’s defiant words in the interview below only buttress her credentials as a determined and focused activist.
Yet, in person, the Jerusalem-born Hoffman — a former swimming champion, 14-year veteran of the Jerusalem City Council and mother of three — seems like anything but a radical.
In Denver last weekend for a slate of community events sponsored by Temples Emanuel and Sinai, Hoffman took time out for an interview with the Intermountain Jewish News, during which she revealed herself to be soft-spoken and articulate with a gentle sense of humor.
There were times when she almost seemed weary of discussing Women of the Wall, preferring to discuss her sadness at the news of the sudden death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the actor who shares her surname, and even — surprisingly — her curiosity at why the Denver Broncos so conclusively lost the Super Bowl.
“Defeats,” she said of the football game and other things, “are an interesting topic.”
Hoffman has known her share of defeats — untold numbers of unsuccessful court maneuvers to give women the right to pray at the Wall, reams of newspaper and online articles criticizing her and her cause, dozens of arrests, even more personal confrontations with opponents.
Yet today, after 23 years as leader of Women of the Wall, Hoffman stands at the brink of what might be a major victory.
Following several positive court rulings last year, and an effort initiated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and led by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky to forge a compromise granting many of WOW’s demands, Hoffman describes herself as “cautiously optimistic” that her long battle might soon be over.
Not everybody involved is happy with the plan to create an “egalitarian” prayer plaza in the vicinity of the Robinson’s Arch portion of the Wall, where women would be allowed to read aloud from the Torah and wear tallisim, tefilin and kippot, all key demands of WOW.
Israel’s haredi Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitz, whose Western Wall Heritage Foundation currently has state-granted control over the entire Kotel area, might ultimately refuse to go along with Sharansky’s plan.
So might some of Hoffman’s own allies, WOW members who oppose the compromise that she has tentatively agreed to (some of whom have formed a splinter group called Original Women of the Wall). These rebels could throw their own monkey wrench into the Sharansky plan.
Hoffman clearly wants to overcome these obstacles and to achieve final resolution of the Western Wall issue. She says she’s ready to move on to other matters.
As executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and political arm of the Reform movement, she wants to direct her energies to such Israeli religious and social issues as conversion, marriage, women’s equality in the public sphere, recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis and racism.
Despite the fact that Hoffman’s name is intrinsically tied to the Western Wall, her own words make it clear that her ultimate agenda is much broader and more comprehensive.