Frannie Werner, 13, of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, was surrounded by a protective bubble of more than 40 progressive women at the female side of the Western Wall.
The women huddled around Frannie and a Torah, as about a dozen interlopers hollered “sheket” or quiet, banged on buckets and blew a whistle to drown out their prayers. One man told them to “go to Tel Aviv.” One interloper tried to grab the Torah from the women.
Welcome to the ground war in the fight over progressive versus conservative religious values at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Frannie Werner, not a loud, boisterous teen by nature, stood her ground and read her Torah portion for her bat mitzvah at the Wall.
Some women have been held for prohibited activities at the Wall. “I wasn’t afraid to be detained,” recalls Frannie. “If I was it would be a cool story.”
Frannie and her parents, Mike Werner and Claire Turner, members of the Reconstructionist Shir Hadash Congregation of Milwaukee, held Frannie’s bat mitzvah at the Wall on July 7, 2016 with the assistance of Women of the Wall, a Jerusalem-based organization.
Women of the Wall is an organization that seeks to attain social and legal recognition of the rights of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah, collectively and aloud, at the Western Wall. Women are blocked from bringing Torah scrolls to the Wall, according to Women of the Wall. The group meets monthly for prayers at the Wall.
Frannie’s mother, a devoted progressive who has passed her values onto Frannie, got the idea for a Western Wall bat mitzvah from a brainstorming session with her rabbi, Tiferet Berenbaum. Turner then made contact with Women of the Wall at their website and things unfolded from there.
Mike Werner, a local commercial illustrator, had to watch his daughter from the mens’ side of the Wall. He remembers being “shocked at how vehemently they were yelling.”
“It was kind of like you’d see at a football game, or soccer,” he recalls. There were five or six men — in typical Orthodox white shirts and with children around them — yelling in Hebrew at the women.
Three or four other men approached the hollering men and seemed to try to get them to stop, talking with them.
From Frannie’s viewpoint in the bubble of protective women, she saw “just a bunch of women praying.” Still, she saw things. There was that one woman, an interloper, who made a run for the Torah. She was “really close to us,” remembers Frannie. “This lady tried to run in, grab it.” That’s when the Women of the Wall drew in closer to one another to protect it, while the woman stood at bay.
Frannie was the only girl becoming a bat mitzvah that day, when the huddle of women also held a service for rosh chodesh, marking the beginning of the month. It all took about an hour, with Frannie’s mother and sister, Bess Werner, 17, at her side.
The Women of the Wall attempted to sneak in two Torahs, but one got confiscated that day, says Mike Werner. The family doesn’t want to say how Women of the Wall had gotten one Torah in, to protect future efforts.
“It’s very important. It’s a very important cause. We did it because women should be able to participate in Judaism,” says Claire Turner, the proud mother. She recalls that as a Jewish girl growing up she was told, “Oh, you get to light the candles … that was a turn-off to me.”
“The women there were joyous, elated,” she says and during an interview she shows a picture on her phone of a Chagall painting featuring a man and woman praying at the Wall steps away from one another. “To put up these arbitrary sexist walls, literally, is very offensive.”
Anat Hoffman is board chair of Women of the Wall and is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She told the Chronicle that “we have over 120 girls who want to have a bat mitzvah at the wall.”
Women of the Wall informs interested girls and their families that they can’t guarantee a bat mitzvah with a Torah because 100 Torahs kept at the Wall are reserved for the men’s side and people cannot bring outside Torahs to the Wall.
“The government in Israel should have two plazas, one pluralistic and the other Orthodox,” she said. “How long will this go on? How long will our rights be denied? Enough is enough, really.”
Some don’t see it as Claire Turner and Anat Hoffman do.
In an LA Times story on Women of the Wall in August, Haim Rabinowitz, an aide to a legislator from the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party was quoted: “There are rules, and there’s religious law. In Judaism, there’s no such thing as renewal or reform. There are no compromises.”
Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, rabbi of the Old City, called on the public to prevent an egalitarian service in June, according to Haaretz. “There cannot be any compromise with the Reform,” he declared.
As for Frannie, the whole experience has deepened her Jewish questions and thinking.
Before, Judaism hadn’t quite engaged her as it does now. “Now it feels like there’s something more to it,” she says. “It’s something I really am interested in. I like fighting for women’s rights and I like Judaism.”
And the whole family had a wonderful week otherwise touring Israel, having escaped the Wall unscathed. Well, except for the candy. The candy was tossed high in the air in celebration. According to Werner, Haredi boys then picked it up and hurled it at the Women of the Wall and Frannie.
Did it hurt? Laughing as though it’s no big deal, Frannie says, “a little bit, yeah.”