Anat Hoffman began her talk Monday night at Rodef Shalom Congregation by passing around a rock she had found in the parking lot of the Howard Cosell building at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“I want you all to have a piece of Jerusalem to touch while we bad-mouth what’s happening in that town,” the social change advocate told the crowd of over 200 that filled the seats of the synagogue’s sanctuary.
Hoffman was only half kidding. While she did “bad-mouth” the Jewish state, it was clear that she did so out of love for Israel, and out of a passion to stamp out what she sees as vast injustices.
Hoffman, who has taken up causes ranging from advocating for women’s rights to pray at the Western Wall, to defending an Orthodox man who was not hired for a job because he refused to work on Shabbat, was in town to implore Jewish Pittsburgh to join her in taking a stand against social inequities in Israel.
The program was sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, J Street Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai and B’nai B’rith, with support from several other groups.
“If there is a cause worth fighting for in Israel,” Deborah Fidel, PAJC executive director, told the audience, “Anat Hoffman is probably leading the charge.”
Hoffman has been working for social justice for much of her life. She served as a Jerusalem city councilwoman for 14 years, and became executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center in 2002. A founding member of Women of the Wall, she was arrested in 2010 for carrying a Torah scroll while praying at the Western Wall.
Social problems in Israel, Hoffman began, are reflected in the Hebrew language itself.
“It was a great achievement of Israel that they took a dead language and made it modern,” she said. “But it is not modern enough. The word ‘pluralism’ does not exist in Hebrew.”
Words for “integrity” and “accountability” have only recently found their way into the Hebrew lexicon, she continued, and were not developed until she herself petitioned the Academy of the Hebrew Language to do so.
Hoffman sees these Hebrew language deficits as emblematic of Israel’s internal problems.
The lack of pluralism in the Jewish state, Hoffman said, is particularly chilling in its impact on women, who are prohibited from performing rituals at the Western Wall that are commonly performed by non-Orthodox women in America.
“The Women of the Wall want to pray out loud, read Torah and wear tallit,” she explained. “But it is illegal in the law of Israel. One cannot perform a religious act that offends the feelings of others.”
Even though the ultra-Orthodox comprise only less than 10 percent of the population of Israel, it is their ideology that dictates much of Israeli law. That population, is, however, growing. A November 2010 report by two demographers at Haifa University, estimated that 30 percent of Jewish newborns in Israel are now Haredi, and government statistics predict that by 2025 the Haredim will have jumped from 9 percent of the population to 15 percent.
“The problem is,” Hoffman said, “Israel is allowing a small minority of extremists to dictate how things should be run in Israel.”
Hoffman has her own ideas on how to even out the playing field of prayer at the Western Wall.
“I think we should blow the partition [dividing the men’s side of the Wall from the women’s side] to hell,” she said. “We should do a time share, and give them [the Orthodox] a few hours in the morning, then down goes the partition, and we can all celebrate, and liberate the Wall once more.”
Israel’s discrimination against women goes beyond limiting their rights at the Western Wall, Hoffman said, noting such recent efforts as restricting women’s voices on radio airwaves, and requiring that women sit in the back of public busses, away from men. The increasing discrimination has lead Orthodox women to now seek the help of their Reform sisters.
“Orthodox women turned to us — the Reform movement — to help on the bus issue,” she said. “They are complaining to us. That’s new. That’s never happened before.”
Hoffman encouraged the crowd to get involved in what is happening in the Jewish state, but to focus on the internal social issues of Israel, rather than its security. She believes that Americans can make a significant impact in affecting social change, and should work to change policies such as the state’s nonrecognition of rabbis ordained by the Reform and Conservative movements.
“You have such a nuisance value that is terribly underused,” she charged. “Why has the law of return not changed since 1955? Because you would go crazy. You would jump out of your skin. You should jump out of your skin that HUC (Hebrew Union College) is not recognized as a religious institution in Israel.”
The evening clearly made an impression on the young people in the audience, including 30 students from the Temple Sinai Religious School.
“We study all year long about tikun olam, and about becoming a social justice advocate,” said Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons, director of lifelong learning at Temple Sinai. “We thought Anat Hoffman is a great person for them to meet because she is a role model for [the notion that] if you believe in something, you can try to change the world.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)