Taking Our Place: Women of the Wall's 25th Anniversary

Five prominent Australian women have contributed to a book celebrating the 25th anniversary of Israeli organisation “Women of the Wall”.

Rachel Liel and Anat HoffmanNew Israel Fund (NIF) Australia and the Australian Reform Zionist Association (ARZA) together organised the Australian contribution to the global “Taking Our Place” campaign, in an effort to recognise the extraordinary work of “Women of the Wall”, an organisation originally seed funded with a grant from NIF, and the developing place of women in Judaism and wider society.

Women of the Wall’s anniversary celebrations was met at the Kotel by hundreds of Haredi girls. Dozens of Haredi men also joined, but they were outnumbered by the male Women of the Wall supporters, who prayed in the area adjacent to the women’s section, ensuring that the shouting and booing of the protesters failed to drown out the powerful sounds of our singing.

Read more in the December 6th edition of the Australian Jewish News:

AJN article

As part of the project, pioneered by the New Israel Fund, Jewish women around the world were asked to describe how their connection to their Jewish heritage has been strengthened by moves towards gender equality, as well as what can be done over the next 25 years to ensure Jewish and Israeli women continue to rise as spiritual, political and cultural leaders.

Susi Brieger OAM, Barbara Ford, Ilona Lee AM, Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio, and Ruth Wilson, all women who have played prominent roles in Australian Jewry for decades, contributed to the project. Together they wrote about their experiences as women in the Australian Jewish community and their hopes for women’s issues in Israel over the next quarter century.

You can read the Australian contributions below, and of others around the world on NIF's websiteSee photos from the event on Facebook.

The project is a show of support from Jews around the world for inclusion, tolerance and pluralism in Israel, as exemplified by the work of Women of the Wall. As a project of the entire Jewish people, it is integral that important Jewish sites are open and accessible for all Jews, regardless of gender or stream, without fear of arrest or subjection to assault.

Women of the Wall is an Israeli organisation dedicated to achieving social and legal recognition for the right of women to wear talitot, pray, read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall. 

Each rosh chodesh (the first day of each Jewish month) Women of the Wall organises a morning prayer session at the Kotel – in recent times its members have been spat on by members of the Ultra-Orthodox community and arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’, all for attempting to read from the Torah at the Wall.

Women of the Wall is made up of women from across the religious and political spectrum with the single aim to turn the Kotel (Western Wall) into a more open space that allows men and women from all streams of Judaism to pray equally. 

The book was also published as a special supplement in Haaretz on November 8th, 2013:


Contribution by Susi Brieger OAM

Australian Jewish women face challenges common to all women in society. Their responsibility as primary caregivers for children, the elderly and the sick hampers their development as spiritual, political and cultural leaders. Nevertheless since 1988 increasing gains have been made in the fight for gender equality.

In my own field of education, the equal contribution of women has been recognised in Jewish Day Schools with the appointment of female principals. More women could rise to positions of educational leadership if employers and communal organisations recognised the need for affordable care for children and if cultural changes within the communities occurred so that care work could be shared between men and women. In the area of decision making not a lot of progress has been made since 1988.

While more women lead committees within communal organisations, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the elected representative of the Jewish community has not had a female president; the Jewish Communal Appeal which is concerned with planning and fund raising is predominantly male orientated; currently, only one woman heads a communal organisation in NSW. Without equal representation in communal power structures, the fight for equality is far from over. To facilitate the rise of women as leaders a communal register could be established along the lines of “appoint women” an initiative of the Australian government designed to give women opportunities to be considered for appointment to a variety of decision making bodies.

Contribution by Barbara Ford, President, Australian Reform Zionist Association (ARZA)

Photo_of_Barbara_Ford.jpgBorn in Sydney Australia I have always been a member of a Liberal/Progressive congregation.  There have been many changes since I did my Bat Mitzvah with a group of 10-12 girls all dressed in white.  Rabbis were male only wearing ceremonial gowns.

I have been privileged to be on a Synagogue Board and be Vice President for a short time at my congregation. Now as President of ARZA I am able to tell the story of the WOW. I have been at the Kotel with the WOW when a lady was detained for wearing a ‘mans’ tallis. Many find it hard to believe the struggles that have taken place over the past 25 years.  We salute WOW on the amazing milestones that they have achieved.

I dream that Israel will fulfil its promise as stated in the Declaration of Independence and that this will ensure that Israel becomes a truly democratic and inclusive society.

I dream that Israel will respect the way I want to be Jewish and will allow me to be legally married by a Pluralistic Rabbi; that either all or no Rabbis will be paid by the state; and that land will be given to the Reform movement to build its synagogues as it does to other groups.

I dream that I can go to the Kotel with my family and be able to wear a tallit, if I choose, and to pray as a family at the Wall together.

I dream that Israel will acknowledge and embrace the fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

Contribution by Ilona Lee AM, Board member, NIF Australia

Photo_of_Ilona_Lee.jpgThirty years ago when I became president of my WIZO group. there were no female rabbis and no females presidents of mainstream Jewish organisations in Sydney.

There have been marked changes since in both the general and the Jewish community. A woman was elected for the first time as Prime Minister of Australia and, in Sydney, we now have three female rabbis attached to reform and Masorti synagogues. Over the years, I have been president of one of our major communal organisations and have been on the executive of four others including the roof body of the New South Wales community and the major fund-raising organisation. 

Surveying the Australian scene today, however, we still have a long way to go. Our first female Prime Minister was poorly treated and driven from office (many would say, because she is a woman) and, in the Sydney Jewish community, there is currently only one female president of any major communal organisation, including our day schools and synagogues. 

Why is this so? It is true that the way is open to women. But, most Jewish women in Sydney still shoulder the major roles of house management and child care whilst also holding down responsible jobs. Being a communal leader here is usually at least a half-time occupation, often more, but with no remuneration. Thus it is almost impossible for a woman to put her hand up for a leadership position until her children have grown and professional responsibilities decrease or she is wealthy enough to have paid assistance. So, until we make further strides forward in the general community and the tasks of managing home and family are more equally shared, women will continue to be underrepresented in Jewish communal leadership roles.

Contribution by Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

In 1980 when I celebrated my bat mitzvah, Lenore Bohm, an HUC rabbinical student, came to my community in Adelaide, Australia to officiate. I thought she was amazing. She was my second experience with a female rabbi, my first was with Rabbi Kineret Shiryon (at that time still a student), two years before. These two women were incredible, inspirational models of women in the rabbinate and after my bat mitzvah I announced to my parents that I was going to be a rabbi. The path to ordination however was not so smooth and I went via a law degree but eventually decided to become a rabbi. When I applied, my gender was not foremost in my mind, after all, I had experienced female rabbis before, by that time there were a number of women rabbis in Australia who spoke with me and I did not consider it so unusual. So it was and still is surprising that gender has played such a large role in my rabbinical life.

When I took my position at Emanuel Synagogue in 1998, I was the first female rabbi in the congregation and along with my colleague Rabbi Allison Conyer, who began in another Sydney congregation at the same time, we were the first female rabbis in NSW. There was a great deal of attention in the Jewish and the general press and we were seen as a new and interesting phenomenon. I felt that I had to be better than good, there would be no leeway for making mistakes because I had come to represent my gender. I heard often that people did not wish to do their lifecycle event with me because of my gender, they liked me but would prefer to have a male officiate. It used to be very painful to realize that such attitudes existed but more than that, it was somehow acceptable to state it openly and expect that I would understand. But as time has moved forward, I have noticed that just as many people request me to do their lifecycle events because of my gender as ask for a male instead.

We still have a long way to go and I often say that I look forward to the day when I will no longer be the “Female Rabbi” or the “Lady Rabbi” but instead will just be rabbi. I don’t imagine that will happen during my tenure as a rabbi but there are changes slowly happening and I see those changes not just here but in Israel as well. Change takes time and in the religious realm it seems, even longer but we need to be conscious of making the space for women’s voices to be heard, to have our issues seen as significant and important, to recognise that the battle for gender equality has not been fought and won and we, through our actions and our discourse, can be the voice for change. 

Contribution by Ruth Wilson

Exceptions and Expectations

I grew up knowing that my life was an exception to the rules.

My friends prayed on Sunday, in churches that were landmarks in my small country town. My family prayed, on Saturday, at home. We had different rules for eating. In my friends’ homes, they shared ghost stories and English classics; in ours we entered the world of the shtetl and the ghetto, our stories about dreamers of the Jewish world.

My early experience bred the expectation that the Jewish world was itself different, exceptional. It did not occur to me that it, just like any other of my time, would be beset  by gender and power games. My personal experience of service to the community in the 80s and 90s was mixed.  As a provider of educational services I was fulfilled and rewarded; but I found it hard to accept that the synagogue Board on which I served regarded the issue of whether women in the Gallery could hear the sermons as an irrelevance.  

I dream that  the relevance of gender as an issue will evaporate in the next 25 years. When the nature of gender equality is transformed from struggle to expectation, and the gender of human beings becomes as unimportant as the colour of their eyes, my dream will be reality.