It’s a little redundant when Anat Hoffman uses the phrase, “I would dare say…” The co-founder and leader of Women of the Wall in Jerusalem is nothing if not daring, regularly grabbing international headlines for smuggling a Torah scroll into the women’s section of the Kotel for a monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer service or a bat-mitzvah ceremony.
Yes, smuggling a Torah scroll into world Jewry’s holiest site. To Jews affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations, the notion that women are barred from reading Torah publicly is often unthinkable. But in Israel, where an ultra-Orthodox minority holds sway over matters religious, the act itself meets with fierce opposition on the street and in the Knesset. Hoffman and other women involved in the prayer services endure violent verbal and physical attacks from some Orthodox worshippers, and are frequently arrested by Israeli police, despite promises of protection and equal access from the Israeli government.
The face and voice of Women of the Wall, Hoffman will speak at a morning service and kiddush lunch at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid.
Hoffman also serves as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public- and legal-advocacy arm of the movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel.
So when she talks about her native country, it’s with the complex blend of love, pride, and desire for improvement that only comes from having a lot of skin in the game. Born in 1954 on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, near Jerusalem, Hoffman earned a B.A. in psychology from UCLA in 1980. She then returned to Israel, where she became an activist for religious pluralism and co-founded the Reform/progressive Kehilat Kol Haneshema synagogue in Jerusalem. She served on the Jerusalem City Council from 1988 to 2002. In December 1988, Hoffman was a member of the group that started Women of the Wall, an international organization of women working to secure the right to pray, wear tallitot, and read from the Torah at the Kotel.
“I still believe very strongly that Israel is probably the most important Jewish project of our lifetime and I would even dare say it’s one of the most important historical developments of the world,” she says. “It defies gravity that we were able to retain our affinity to this place and come back.”
Hoffman considers every Jew an active participant in this “Jewish project” because, whether a welcome prospect or not, Israel is the business of all Jews. “When Israel does something wonderful, it reflects on diaspora Jews and rightfully makes them proud,” she says. “And when Israel does something awful, that also reflects on North American Jews. You cannot escape this relationship.”
But what happens in Israel can move into much more consequential territory. “If Israel passes a law that curtails recognition of the Jewishness of you and your relatives, we’re no longer talking about ‘reflecting’ on you; that affects you and your children and grandchildren and their ability to become Jews in Israel, and that should outrage you,” Hoffman says.
Just as Americans can simultaneously love this country and rebuke its leaders, Hoffman wants American Jews to take the same thoughtful approach to Israel and its policies by demanding that the government advance issues of equality, pluralism, and tolerance. “In my mind, their patriotism is measured by their willingness and courage to stand up for their values,” she says.
Hoffman suggests a three-pronged approach to becoming more engaged: read something every week about Israel that is not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; donate wisely to Israeli causes that match your personal values; and visit Israel.
“I think Israel is way too important to be left to the Israelis,” she says. “You need to get off the sidelines, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. And you can’t roll up your sleeves and wring your hands at the same time.”
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What: Speaker: Anat Hoffman
When: Saturday, June 10, at a 9 a.m. service and kiddush lunch.
Where: Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, 6880 N. Green Bay Ave, Glendale
More info: Rabbi Hannah Greenstein, 414-390-5764 or HannahG@MilwaukeeJewish.org