The sun has not yet risen over the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but you can already hear Anat Hoffman’s voice, loud, clear and melodic, as she sings the morning Rosh Hodesh service, celebrating the new moon. A few dozen women surround her, and their voices come together in harmony as part of a women’s prayer group, appropriately named Women of the Wall.
The peaceful scene at the Kotel, as the wall is known in Hebrew, is deceptive. The Wall is the last remaining section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 CE and, by religious convention, one of the holiest places for Jews to pray. In a land where religion and politics mix freely—and often are combustible—the Western Wall, governed by Orthodox tradition, has become a flashpoint. The rules are like those in a traditional Orthodox synagogue: A partition separates the men’s section from a smaller women’s space, where women are forbidden to read from the Torah or wear the prayer shawl called a tallit. But many of the women, Conservative and Reform Jews, routinely do read from the Torah as part of their prayer services and also regularly don ritual objects such as tallit and tefilin (phylacteries). But since this is in defiance of Orthodox tradition and now also Israeli law, these religious acts are illegal, and on this day, three police officers stand a few feet away, one of them filming the entire service.
“God is my strength and my song, and has become my salvation,” the women sing. Passersby—mainly young Orthodox girls in long skirts and tights—stop and stare, but for the most part, the service is uneventful. Suddenly a commotion erupts when one of Women of the Wall’s regulars, Deb Houben, is detained by the three police officers and led away to a police station. The crime? She is wearing a black and white tallit draped over her shoulders as opposed to a colorful one wrapped like a scarf, as many members of the group have taken to doing as a way of skirting the law.
Hoffman, the chair of Women of the Wall (WOW) and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, quickly takes charge. In pursuit of Houben, she leads the group to the police station. On the way the women are stopped by a rookie officer who wants to take Hoffman aside for questioning. “Who is Anat Hoffman?” he asks the group. “I am,” answers one woman. “I am Anat Hoffman,” says another. “We are all Anat Hoffman,” Hoffman finally says.
“They want to yank me out to intimidate us,” she says in accented English to the growing crowd, mostly women but also a sprinkling of men, who have come to support the group. “But we are doing the right thing. We are fighting for a voice and a place at the holiest site.” Later she tells me: “If Israel claims to be the state of the Jews, with Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish world and the Western Wall the holiest site of the Jewish people, then Israel has to adopt practices that reflect the realities of the larger Jewish world.”
But now she has no time for philosophizing: She talks furiously with the lawyer for WOW, sends text messages and organizes her troops as they wait outside the police station, where they sing psalms and also spirituals in English such as We Shall Overcome. Houben emerges, only to be taken for questioning at another police post, an old Turkish prison near Jaffa Gate. The women cheer and follow, continuing their service outside the station as they wait for Houben, who is eventually released without charges.
Hoffman revels in the chaos. “This is a great day,” she says, clearly meaning it, smiling mischievously as we make our way up the cobblestone stairs. “It couldn’t be better.” For Hoffman, who has been detained, arrested, and barred for months at a time from even coming to the Kotel plaza, the struggle isn’t just about who owns the Western Wall. “It’s about who owns Judaism in Israel.”
In 1964, at the age of 10, Anat Hoffman caught the eye of swimming coach and former Olympian Nachum Buch. Hoffman, the Jerusalem-born daughter of an American father and an Israeli mother who both had “overactive consciences,” had already made a name for herself as a promising gymnast when Buch saw her perform at the YMCA and was taken with her fearlessness. “Can you swim?” he asked her. She said yes and jumped into the pool fully dressed in her leotard, only admitting she didn’t know how to swim as she kicked and flailed around in the water. The swimming coach liked what he saw and he asked, “Do you want to be a champion?” She answered yes, so he said, “I’ll teach you how to swim and you’ll become a champion.” And he did just that. A few years later, Hoffman was a teenage champion swimmer with titles in nine international sports competitions for Jewish youth.
It’s a story Hoffman, 58, likes to tell, mostly because it speaks mountains about her personality. As long-time friend Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, puts it, “Anything she decides to do, she gives the same zealousness she used to become a champion swimmer. The same drive that pushed her to go to the pool at 5:30 a.m. to swim hundreds of laps is the same drive that pushes her to do so well.”
At age 20 and newly married, the swimming champion moved to Los Angeles, where her then-husband—she is now divorced with three children—had enrolled at UCLA. Her English at the time was limited, though it’s hard to believe now, given her vast repertoire of American idioms. But Hoffman recalls that it took lots of hard work at Santa Monica College until her English was good enough to allow her to transfer to UCLA.
While in the United States, Hoffman became involved in the Westwood Free Minyan, an independent prayer group, which had a deep impact on her. “I learned that there is more than one way to be a Jew,” she says. Back in Israel, she gravitated to the Israel Reform Action Committee (IRAC), which was founded in 1987 to promote religious pluralism through activism and legal action. At the time, it was led by Uri Regev, an Israeli-born lawyer and Reform rabbi who fought to dismantle the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel over life cycle events such as marriage and pushed hard, though unsuccessfully, for the recognition of civil unions. His biggest victory, in 1989, was ensuring the state’s recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions abroad for the purposes of Jewish immigration.
Eager for the Reform movement in Israel to be relevant in social justice issues, Hoffman offered to launch a general complaint hotline for the organization. Complaints about Bezek, Israel’s national telephone company, poured in. Bills weren’t itemized and customers were often charged astronomical sums without knowing why. After IRAC published a popular consumer guide on how to defeat the phone company in court, Bezek’s director-general resigned and the monopoly was broken up. It was Hoffman’s first highly visible public role, and she cites the experience as the impetus that led her to become interested in politics. After the hotline shut down three years later, Hoffman, then 35, ran for a spot on the Jerusalem City Council.
She won, and for the next 14 years she represented the left-wing Meretz party, which opposed the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly. Hoffman, who is straight, also became the first member of Open House, Jerusalem’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer center. But she is perhaps best known as an outspoken critic of what she called the widespread gender discrimination throughout the city. She launched the country’s first-ever investigation into salary discrepancies between male and female municipal workers, and discovered that women, on average, earned 46 percent less than their male colleagues. Her investigation was later replicated in cities across the country. After learning that just three percent of the city’s streets were named after women, she waded into that somewhat obscure battle and succeeded in doubling the number.
Hoffman also focused on providing adequate municipal services for the city’s estimated 200,000 Palestinians, who are residents of the city but not Israeli citizens. No issue was too small to provoke her ire: She discovered that the city did not dispense toilet paper to public bathrooms in East Jerusalem and when she asked why, a city official told her it wasn’t necessary because “the Arabs aren’t used to modern flush toilets.” After much debate, directives went out to install proper toilets and ensure enough toilet paper to all the city’s public facilities, regardless of users’ ethnicity.
She was an especially vocal opponent of then-Mayor Ehud Olmert, who had developed a cozy relationship with the city’s growing ultra-Orthodox population. The two were notorious political enemies and as councilwoman, Hoffman initiated 30 court petitions and four police investigations against him. “I was an Olmertologist,” she has said. “I knew everything there was to know about him. When he resigned [in 2003 to turn his attention to national politics] I thought to myself, what am I going to do now?”
As it turns out, IRAC’s Regev had stepped down in 2002, and Hoffman, although not a lawyer, was interested in the job. The search committee was wary that Hoffman, known as a rabble rouser, might have difficulty working with some of the organizations that make up IRAC’s steering committee. Someone suggested—it was more of a dare—that she provide a reference from Olmert. Unfazed, Hoffman asked him—and Olmert’s endorsement was glowing: In a letter to members of the hiring committee, he said that he regretted that she was rarely on his side. She got the job, becoming the organization’s second executive director.