by Marilyn Cooper
Mar Cheshvan’s Rosh Hodesh, the monthly holiday celebrating the new moon, is traditionally associated with bitterness because Cheshvan contains no holidays. But now there will be a happier historic association with the month: Last Friday in Jerusalem, following centuries of Jewish women being denied full access to the Western Wall, the first ever complete bat mitzvah ceremony was held in the women’s section of the Western Wall. After a failed attempt to openly bring a full-size Torah to the women’s side, 12-year-old Sasha Lutt read from a tiny Torah that had instead been smuggled in while her Russian-born mother Irina Lutt proudly looked on. And a big part of the story is what didn’t happen. Whereas past bat mitzvah attempts were met with jeers, shouts and even pushes from surrounding men, no disruptions or noticeable disturbances interfered with last week’s celebration.
There was a collective “wow” from American supporters of Israel’s WOW (Women of the Wall) when the news spread in the United States this morning. Friends of WOW’s Washington, DC-area organizer, Virginia Spatz made on of the first U.S. announcements of the news after Rosh Hodesh morning minyan services last Friday. The women gathered there described about the long struggle that had preceded the bat mitzvah. They explained that Women of the Wall had thought the issue had been largely resolved in April 2013, when the Jerusalem District Court guaranteed women the right to pray freely according to their tradition, including full use of Torah scrolls. Then the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, overseen by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, put in place local regulations banning entrance to the Kotel to women holding a Torah scroll and refused to allow women access to even one of the 100 scrolls stored at the Western Wall for public use. This foundation runs an active business putting together bar mitzvah celebrations for boys at the Western Wall, but offers no such ceremony for girls. In the past, Rabbi Rabinowitz has prevented bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls by refusing women access to Torah scrolls at the Western Wall.
The 28-centimeter, 200-yea- old Torah that Sasha Lutt read from belongs to the English couple John and Noeleen Cohen of London and was certified kosher by an Orthodox authority. John Cohen’s great-grandfather carried this Torah with him from Lithuania to South Africa in 1880. Cohen explained his decision to lend Women of the Wall the Torah by saying, “The purpose of a Torah scroll is to be read and I can think of no better place for the scroll to be on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan than at the Kotel, in the women’s section, being read by women who want and have every right, to read Torah at the Wall and, in my view, at every other place that a man can read Torah.”
No advanced notice was given about the bat mitzvah celebration. Longtime activist Jodi Ochstein spoke about her surprise and said that she had to reread the news several times in order to believe that not only was it true but that it had happened without any objections from the surrounding men. She explained that she had “never understood why women couldn’t pray at the Western Wall the way they wanted to. The guys get to do everything but the women are completely excluded even though Jewish women have so much to bring to the table.”
Another supporter of WOW, Linda Yitzchalk said, “I keep repeating to myself, it really happened. They were able to read Torah on the women’s side of the Western Wall. Even though it was a really small Torah, it finally actually happened.
Jodi Ochstein laughed and added, “I guess this is a case where size doesn’t matter.”
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Two corrections of note:
The bat mitzvah celebration of Sasha Lutt was widely publicized before Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan: see WoW’s website, Twitter feed, advance announcements for Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. The existence of the small Torah scroll was kept secret, but the plan to bring in a larger scroll was well publicized. In addition, young women have celebrated bnot mitzvah with WoW before, reading from a Chumash. Some aspects of the ceremony were a surprise to most, but plenty of advance notice was given regarding the bat mitzvah celebration itself.
Also, please note that Virginia Spatz is not “DC-area organizer” for Washington Friends of Women of the Wall. Instead, I am, and identified myself as, one of a group of co-organizers. The most active organizers include Jonina Duker, Marcia Goldberg, and Michele Sumka, and Linda Yitzchak, who is mentioned in this story and often leads Hallel in solidarity with WoW. Women and men interested in promoting pluralism and supporting WoW are encouraged to join the planning committee. Visit washingtonwow.webs.com.