Depending on whom you ask, these women are either pioneers or provocateurs.
They are part of the liberal Reform or the Conservative streams of Judaism, which allow women to perform rituals typically reserved for men under Orthodox Judaism, the dominant form of Judaism in Israel. They say they are exercising egalitarian worship, which runs counter to the traditions of Israel’s Orthodox establishment.
The Reform and Conservative movements are marginal in Israel, where the Orthodox establishment rules many aspects of life, like marriage, divorce and burials, and they have struggled to make inroads here. The Orthodox rabbinate has refused to recognize their rulings, conversions or ceremonies as religiously valid. Under Orthodox tradition, women can’t become rabbis, nor can they perform a number of rituals men can.
The liberal denominations make up the majority of Jews in the United States, the world’s second largest Jewish community. What has emerged is a growing rift between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, which often disagree about religious affairs.
Baker became ordained as a rabbi in 2007. She performs many of the same duties a male rabbi would, such as holding prayer services, counseling congregants and leading study groups. But because of her affiliation to the Conservative movement, she is limited in the ceremonies she can perform. For example, the unions of the couples she marries are not recognized in Israel. They must have a second ceremony either with an Orthodox rabbi in Israel or travel abroad to marry.
Baker, 35, said many Israelis have become alienated by the Orthodox grip on many aspects of society and that the more liberal streams offer a Judaism that jives with a modern Israeli’s outlook. She said she sees a growing recognition in Israeli society of the more marginal streams, and with that, a greater role for women in Judaism.
“People are changing their concepts of gender roles within Judaism,” Baker said.
Saar is one of the few 12-year-old Israeli girls who are having Bat Mitzvah ceremonies as boys do. In this rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, they study a particular portion of the Torah and read from it during the ceremony.
Saar wore an orange dress accented with a white and orange-pink prayer shawl she made herself as she recited the biblical passage in front of nearly 100 family members and friends in May. Tamar’s two older sisters also had Reform Bat Mitzvah ceremonies like hers, and she said more girls in Israel should, too.
“Girls make up half of the world’s population, and it is stupid that men are worth more, because we are exactly like them,” Saar said.
One of the most prominent groups pushing for the right of women to worship as men do is the “Women of the Wall.” The Jewish women’s group, led by Hoffman, holds monthly prayer services at the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Temple compound and the holiest site where Jews can pray, where they perform rituals Orthodox Judaism reserves for men.
Hoffman, often draped in a pink, purple and white prayer shawl, has been arrested for what she says is her right to pray as she wishes. The Western Wall’s ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, has called the women “provocative,” but an Israeli court has upheld their right to pray there.
The court ruling is one of a string of recent achievements by Reform and Conservative streams in Israel. Israeli officials have proposed building an area for mixed male-female prayer at the Western Wall to accommodate those streams. The area currently has separate prayer zones for men and women.
Last year, Israel agreed to grant state funding to some non-Orthodox rabbis. Many Orthodox rabbis are paid by the government.
In 2010, the Israeli government froze a contentious bill that would have strengthened Orthodox control over Jewish conversions. The same year, Israel began allowing Israelis with no declared religion to marry outside the strict religious establishment — giving hope to many who reject the Orthodox monopoly on family matters. Civil marriages are generally banned in Israel.
Rabbi David Golinkin, who heads the Conservative Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, said that positive trend is attributable to Israelis’ search for an alternative to Orthodox Judaism. He said he sees greater recognition for the liberal streams, and the rights they grant women, continuing.
“There’s a growing recognition that there is more than one way to be Jewish. It’s legitimate to be Jewish in different ways, and the state of Israel has to serve of all its citizens,” Golinkin said.
Here’s a gallery of images from The Associated Press showing women performing Jewish rituals in Israel.