Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman Calls on SoCal Rabbis to Get on the Bus

By Olivia Herstein

Who knew that when the Board of Rabbis of Southern California invited Anat Hoffman as part of its new Critical Issues Series – her visit would be so timely? Hoffman, who directs the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem and is best known for her Women of the Wall group, spoke Friday, February 3 to rabbis on “Two Jews, Three Shuls: Disagreement over Religion in Israel.” The seminar at University Synagogue in Brentwood gave local clergy an insider’s view of the vitriolic battles over women’s rights in the Holy City. In turn, Hoffman asked her hosts for advice on rallying American Jews around the cause of equality in Israel.

“I have been doing this for 23 years,” said Hoffman, who serves as executive director of the Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. “I can’t believe we’re still doing this after 23 years, and we still haven’t had a bat mitzvah at the [Western] Wall.”

Hoffman briefed the rabbis on her organization’s work in the Israeli court system to fight for recognition of Reform and Conservative Jewish conversions done in Israel – those performed in the United States are recognized by the Israeli rabbinate – as well as Israeli recognition of Reform rabbis as ordained clergy.

Then, Hoffman turned to this month’s hot-button Jewish issue: The segregation of women on Jerusalem’s public buses. The state of Israel prohibits such segregation, but the law is often flaunted in the city’s most traditional neighborhoods, she said. Hoffman lauded her organization’s “Freedom Riders,” the 200 female student volunteers who ride the city’s buses and invite Orthodox women to sit next to them to avoid harassment. The volunteers report bus drivers who refuse to enforce the no-segregation law, and “this has been tremendously successful,” she said. “We never would have won [the Israeli Supreme Court] case for this law if it hadn’t been for the Orthodox women who want to stand with us.”

Before joining the Action Center, Hoffman held a seat on the Jerusalem City Council for 14 years. She was an outspoken opponent of the policies of the city’s ultra-Orthodox administration. A native “Yerushalmit,” Hoffman became an Israeli swimming champion in her teens. After serving in the Israeli army, she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of California - Los Angeles, and then pursued graduate studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. She and her family live in Jerusalem.

“Anat, we owe you – you will be a legend,” said Rabbi Judith HaLevy, president of the Board of Rabbis. “You have been at the forefront, fighting for all of us."

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, and Rabbi Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi at University Synagogue and BOR executive committee member, also expressed their gratitude to Hoffman for her activism.