On Bonna Haberman

June 19, 2015

By Shulamit S. Magnus

Bonna Haberman created and ran Women of the Wall (WOW) for years and remained active in our core mission literally, to the day she died.

The idea for a religiously diverse group of Jewish women to pray together in a group service with Torah reading, came from Rivka Haut, z’l, an Orthodox Talmud scholar from Brooklyn. She was in Jerusalem in December 1988, along with about 1,000 other women for the first International Conference of Jewish Feminists when she suggested the idea. You can read about the background and experience of participants in the book Rivka co-edited with another founder of WOW, Phyllis Chesler: "Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site."

Bonna, who lived in Jerusalem, asked herself why it took women coming from the Diaspora to have and execute this idea, when the Kotel, as she said, is in our back yard. Bonna being Bonna, then launched Women of the Wall as an Israeli group, going regularly, on various days of the week, when the Torah is read and days it is not. I was in Israel that year (1988-89). I was at the planning meeting for the first women's tefilla at the Kotel, with Rivka Haut, and I read Torah there that first incredible time. I was a member of WOW during that first year with Bonna.

We experienced appalling violence for months. Haredi men charged through the mehitsa to attack us, even attempted to overturn the table with the Sefer Torah, an unimaginable sacrilege. Bonna, then hugely pregnant, caught the Sefer Torah against her belly lest, God forbid, it fall to the ground. When the police stopped men from coming through to attack us, Haredi women turned on us with stunning violence, sending several of us to the hospital.

In that year, the Ministry of Religion issued rulings criminalizing a woman's voice in the Kotel precincts, and having a Sefer Torah. We risked fines and imprisonment. We sued before the Supreme Court of Israel. By this time, an international group of supporters, called the International Committee for Women of the Wall, Inc. (ICWOW), had formed. That group raised consciousness abroad about the cause. They raised funds. We commissioned and purchased a Sefer Torah for the women of Jerusalem and, in order to gain standing in the Supreme Court case, brought the Sefer Torah to Jerusalem, inaugurated it in festivities (details, in Chesler and Haut, eds.), and then brought it to the Kotel area, where we were blocked from bringing it to the Wall.

Bonna led the many years-long dealings with lawyers, commissions and court hearings while continuing to lead tefillot, group prayers and the Torah readings at a nearby archeological site.

The Supreme Court ruled on our case in 2003, stating that in principle, our demands were legal. It cited political considerations and gave the government one year to prepare an alternate site, another nearby archeological site, Robinson's Arch, to be able to accommodate prayer services. If that were not done within that time frame, the Court said we had every right to be at the Kotel in the manner we wished

The Government did not make Robinson's suitable within that time frame. In any case, WOW, and ICWOW, resolutely rejected any suggestion of an alternate site and continued to insist on the same full religious expression at the Kotel that men have enjoyed since 1967. We continued to hold women's services at the Kotel, departing to Robinson's Arch for a number of years in order to read Torah, but never accepting the legitimacy of that arrangement and continuing to press for the rights we call "t-4": women's group tefilla (prayer) with voice, tallit, tefillin and Torah.

In 2013, after women had been detained by police for donning talitot at the Kotel, claiming this disturbed the peace and violated custom, WOW won a stunning victory in the District Court of Judge Moshe Sobel. Sobel ruled sweepingly, on the basis of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling and on evidence presented in Court that Jewish women praying in our manner in no way disturbs the peace. He ruled that it was the protesters against us who did that while overwhelming evidence established that we, like other worshipers, only of the male variety, were just praying. But Sobel also ruled that, after a quarter of a century, our minhag, custom, was as much a part of the custom of the place as any other, and that we violated no custom, either. He said explicitly that all we seek to do there, t-4, is legal and not to be barred.

From that point on, the police, who had been harassing us at the behest of the rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, started protecting us instead. It was a remarkable turnaround and testimony to the rule of law. Bonna was in Moshe Sobel's court the day he heard the case; she participated in parsing the ruling that swiftly came, and in acting on it, by continuing to participate in women’s tefilla at the Kotel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz, however, issued a nohal, a pronouncement, stating that no one can bring a Torah scroll to the Kotel. Since he also refuses to allow women to use any of the dozens of Torah scrolls held on the men’s side, this effectively bars Jewish women from reading Torah at the Wall, a restriction we have gotten around several times, including most recently when I organized a service to pray for Bonna’s health and we got a Torah scroll in, and read from it at the Kotel. (See the details on our Facebook page. However, we cannot do this easily, in the open, because it is a violation of the court rulings on this matter.

Bonna has been an active member of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), established by original founders of Women of the Wall in October 2013, when the current leadership of WOW made a decision we are challenging. WOW is negotiating with the Government, along with the Reform and Conservative movements, to ban women's tefilla at the Kotel and turn the Kotel officially into a synagogue under Haredi control — a status it does not now and never has had — in return for official recognition of those movements and preparation of Robinson's Arch as a grand new plaza for egalitarian tefilla. Recognition of religious pluralism and proliferation of prayer sites and styles are worthy goals, which some of us may support individually, but absolutely not at the cost of giving up the whole purpose of Women at the Wall and the historic gains we have made.

Bonna was adamantly opposed to this and resolutely continued to support and promote our original goals. She participated in every step of our challenge to the scheme to give up women's inclusive, pluralistic tefilla at the Kotel. She wrote about it, published about it, spoke about it, and strategized actively with us, coming to planning meetings even when weak from her illness and its treatment, in typical Bonna heroic manner; speaking with our lawyers, consulting with us, here in Israel, and in North America, who run OWOW. Bonna was utterly committed to egalitarianism in all aspects of life and in religion in particular, yet like all of us in OWOW, she understood the importance of and need for women's tefilla, that is, of the need for feminism, as well as egalitarianism, in Judaism.

She was enormously buoyed by our tefilla at the Kotel, with Torah reading, in her honor just last week. This is what she wrote to me after I emailed that we had succeeded in getting a Torah in, and reading from it at the Kotel:

"Shulamit! OWOW!! Words cannot express how grateful I am to you all for this tefilla. I learned of your success when I returned from the hospital in the early eve after a grueling day. You made my heart soar! Much love and brakha — B"

Shulamit S. Magnus is professor of Jewish studies and history at Oberlin College, author of four books,including the winner of a National Jewish Book Award and Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Translation Award for her two-volume translation and critical edition of "Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of a Grandmother" (Stanford University Press, 2010, 2014). She was a founder of Women the Wall and is now living in Israel.