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Celebrating WRJ’s centennial year with visit to Israel, Berlin PDF Print E-mail
By Barbara Horovitz Brown   
Friday, 12 April 2013 14:24
District board member of Women of Reform Judaism reflects on remarkable experience

WRJ officers gather around a rabbinical student as he reads from the Torah in Berlin.  /Barbara BrownWRJ officers gather around a rabbinical student as he reads from the Torah in Berlin. /Barbara BrownEAST GREENWICH – The Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) celebrated its centennial year with a March 5-17 trip to Israel and Berlin. The trip was packed with behind-the-scenes experiences that I could never have witnessed on my own. I was the only Rhode Island representative among the 27 participants from the United States and Canada.

Established in 1913, as women struggled for recognition and equality, WRJ was originally called the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods and was renamed in 1993 to more accurately reflect Reform Jewry in Sisterhoods around the world.

Today, WRJ represents 765,000 women in nearly 500 groups worldwide; it supports the Reform movement’s precept of placing Jewish women on a plane of religious equality with men and is active in a wide range of women’s and social justice issues.

In Jaffa, we visited one pre-army leadership training opportunity, a mekhinah, which receives funding from the Reform movement in Israel and WRJ. At this mekhinah, participants help young and elderly residents of Jaffa’s ethnically diverse community. In a program called Friends Forever, one mekhinah volunteer works with high-risk kids, many of whom are of Arab descent.

At the Hotline for Migrant Workers, we learned that most migrant workers serve as home healthcare workers for long hours at low pay and for one person, until that individual dies. Then, lacking citizenship, they must leave Israel.  Many migrant workers establish illegal businesses in Israel, as non-citizens can’t own legal businesses. The Hotline was established to help such migrant workers.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, we met with the women of Beit Daniel, one of the original Progressive congregations in Israel, and one of 26 WRJ affiliates in Israel. We talked about WRJ’s YES Fund, which provides funding for Youth, Education and Special Projects initiatives.

A “twinning” program exists between North American synagogues’ Sisterhoods and Israel’s Reform women’s groups. Each twin pair decides how to structure their relationship; in some cases, North Americans twins may advocate for Reform Jewish women in Israel who may not be able to practice their religion as they wish.

Jewish geography

Kibbutz Lotan, north of Eilat, focuses on ecology, sustainability, community and Judaism. On 70 acres of land, in one of the world’s most arid areas – less than one inch of rain per year – the kibbutz has a thriving garden, using a saltwater drip irrigation system, a recycling center, solar ovens and lighting, and toilets that use no water but don’t smell!

And Jewish geography was alive and well! After I returned home, I learned that Bill Miles, a Temple Emanu-El member, had written a book about Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Yahel, “Zion in the Desert: American Jews in Israel’s Reform Kibbutzim.”

At a lunch with several Hebrew Union College rabbinical students studying in Israel, I sat with Max Jared Einsohn, Meredith Sinel’s cousin from Texas., and met Eric Abbott, a rabbinical student from Rhode Island.

Meeting Anat Hoffman

Our most exciting experience was accompanying Women of the Wall (WOW) to the Kotel to pray, sing and dance on Rosh Hodesh. Anat Hoffman leads WOW and IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center, which receives WRJ support). Although WRJ does not financially support WOW, it shares WOW’s belief that ending discrimination against women in Israel is essential. Today, women in Israel can’t participate equally in praying at the Wall, sitting where they choose on a public bus or eulogizing one’s father at a cemetery.

WOW wishes to pray traditionally at the Wall, and does not believe in “separate but equal.” In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that sufficient space had to exist for women to pray at Robinson’s Arch (a section of the Kotel) within a year. Ten years later, women are still waiting; arrests or detentions occur regularly at the Kotel before or after prayers. Orthodox men and women have responded to WOW with verbal abuse and more.

Warned to expect protests to our planned visit to the Wall, most of us, nonetheless, chose to participate. We figured out how to sneak in our tallitot (prayer shawls) and what to do if we were detained. There was a large police presence, perhaps because of rumors of a larger-than-usual protest.

After we cleared security, Temple Beth-El’s Rabbi Sarah Mack, in Israel on a separate trip, greeted me; she was a reassuring presence.

After we took our tallitot from under our clothing and put them on and began to pray, a number of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women screamed at us and shook their hands in the air.

Although I felt some sympathy for their strong beliefs, I – and the WRJ – believe the Kotel is a public holy place that should be open to all.

It was exhilarating to be with Hoffman, holding hands with her and dancing with the group. We anxiously waited for the police to move in, as we were certain that some of us would be detained. In all, approximately 220 women prayed at the Wall.

We were wholly surprised that, for the first time in 22 months, there were no arrests or detentions. Two theories were offered: As it was only a few days before President Obama’s visit, they did not want to arrest any Americans. Also, three female Members of the Knesset – Tamar Zandberg, Stav Shaffir and Michal Rozin – demonstrated with Women of the Wall for the first time, while wearing tallitot.

We were able to complete our prayers, undisturbed except by Orthodox women.

On our last night together, we each received certificates for something that was significant about each of us. I received the “stayed away too long” certificate; it had been almost 50 years since my last trip to Israel.

Visiting Berlin

In Berlin, we laid a wreath at the Rosenstrasse monument, which commemorates the incident in 1943 when Jewish men married to non-Jewish women were rounded up and imprisoned, before being shipped to Auschwitz. Risking their own safety, the women held a nonviolent demonstration in front of the prison; they ultimately succeeded in getting their husbands released before the transport. Sadly, there were few other successes to celebrate.

The haunting Holocaust memorial of nameless gravestone-like concrete blocks of various heights and the architecturally amazing Jewish Museum helped reveal a new attitude toward accepting and acknowledging the extraordinary losses of the Holocaust. Visits to the Wannsee House, where the meeting to unveil the Final Solution was held, or the platforms at Gleis 17, where trains stopped to send Berlin’s Jews to concentration camps, were chilling.

There is, nonetheless, a growing Jewish population in Germany of about 11,000 members. We visited old and new synagogues (rebuilt where old ones had been destroyed) and celebrated our second Shabbat of our trip, praying in Germany.

After a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call, I was ready to come home. With challenged immune systems from our nonstop schedule, many of us came home with colds to begin preparing for Passover Seders. Many of us added a pomegranate to our Seder plates as a reminder of Israel.

This year, hearing the words “Next year in Jerusalem” was especially poignant.

BARBARA HOROVITZ BROWN ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ), a Temple Beth-El Sisterhood board member and a WRJ Northeast District area director, lives in East Greenwich.

BROWN’S TRIP will be the topic at a Temple Beth-El Sisterhood Rosh Hodesh event on May 9, from 7 – 9 p.m., at the home of Dr. Cheryl Greenfield. For more info for  directions/RSVP: Call Rona at Beth-El, 331-6070.

 

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