A Beacon of Religious, Non-Violent and Feminist Struggle

June 28, 2015

4 min read

Phyllis Chesler

Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman our Devora: a fiery leader (“aishet lapidot”), a beacon in the religious, non-violent and feminist struggle for Jewish women’s right to pray – collectively, fully – at Judaism’s holy site.

In our anthology Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, Rivka Haut and I gave Bonna pride of place and she penned the first piece. She wrote: “The goal of Women of the Wall [is] to contribute to the sanctity of a very dear place… for me, prayer is a journey toward the sacred, enveloped in awe and divine glory.”

Bonna was – it pains me to write of her in the past tense – both a learned and a “spiritual” woman. That first year (1989), in her words, she “assembled a group to study the halachic sources the deal with women’s prayer, quorum, Torah reading, tallit and women’s voices. Our findings supported our practices… and sustained the strength of our own convictions about the appropriateness of our practice.” Bonna formed the Jerusalem-based Original Women of the Wall (OWOW) and, year after year, kept the group together.

Bonna described a private tour of the Kotel tunnels that the former administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, arranged for her and a small group of OWOW. As Rabbi Getz’s delegate, Rabbi Hersh offered Bonna and OWOW an amazing underground synagogue, he also warned her that “thousands of haredim with knives would be bused in and “we would be trapped inside the tunnels and massacred.”

Bonna described how the group was betrayed by the Border Police who promised to protect them if they did not bring a Torah scroll or wear tallitot. The police failed to intervene. Heavy metal chairs and a table “were flying at us… one man picked up a [tear gas] canister and pitched it directly into our midst. The contingent from the Religious Affairs Ministry, the chief of police and Rabbi Getz were watching as we endured our roles in the macabre, bitter drama unfolding against the backdrop of the old stone wall on the eve of Purim, the festival of masquerade.”

Once Bonna decided to do something no one could not stop her. She was fearless, formidable. However, unlike the biblical Devora, our Bonna held no formal or structural position, neither as a judge nor as a military adviser.

In a sense, she was more like the biblical Miriam, just after the parting of the Red Sea: joyful, leading us in song and prayer, her entire body very much “in the moment,” earth-bound – and yet, God was always on her mind, on her lips and in her heart. Like Miriam, she radiantly created sacred circles of women (“b’miholot”), and saw far into the future even as she remained rooted, maternal, in this world.

Bonna officiated at the first bat mitzva at the Kotel. The women were forced to leave the Kotel in order to read from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch (a site unacceptable to us then and unacceptable to us now, since we represent all denominations, not just one, and are committed to women-only prayer first). But hear how Bonna described this bat mitzva: “Calling her up to bless and read from the Torah was one of those holy moments, like a kiss of heaven and earth…

We danced her to exhaustion, circled and blessed her.”

That’s Miriam energy, pure and simple.

No matter the difficulty, Bonna maintained an almost supernatural cheerfulness.

Perhaps it was her personal eleventh commandment. She was optimistic, creative, spontaneous, whimsical, theatrically impromptu.

I will never forget how she protected the Torah from being snatched or thrown to the ground – with her very pregnant belly, in 1989. The image still resonates and is very “Bonna-esque.”

Bonna and I first met on the phone month after month during that first terrible/ glorious year when she led our group despite the most horrendous and terrifying violence. We finally met in person when I was part of the delegation that brought a Torah to the Original Women of the Wall.

We spent our first personal time together in Jerusalem, toward the end of 1989, when it was decided that the two fierce feminists would be most comfortable spending Shabbat together. They were right.

I will never forget how warm and welcoming she and her husband Shmuel were and how memorable a Jerusalem Shabbat meal we shared.

I will never forget what Bonna said when we came to donate and dedicate a Torah scroll: “Once again, the Torah has come to us ‘hutz l’aretz,’ from outside the land.”

What a remarkable and consoling insight! I will never forget how Bonna more than held her own against four of us for more than an hour in terms of whether or not we should appeal the first Supreme Court decision about the rights to prayer as we wanted or not. We finally prevailed but it was not easy. I was impressed with how strong Bonna’s will was.

I will never forget how Bonna lovingly welcomed me into her family’s succa when we were both teaching in Boston. She was great friends with the former rabbi of the Park Slope Jewish Center, Sammy Barth, who adored her – as I adored him. I remember how patiently, carefully and slowly these two scholars prepared a vegetarian feast for their guests.

I remember Bonna visiting me in New York, perhaps two years ago. She entered beaming, bearing “holy bread from the Holy Land,” a small and perfect loaf – sown, reaped and baked by a holy friend.

Bonna was, unashamedly, a hippie-rebbe, the mother of five and a warrior for the ages.

I am amazed by how grief-stricken I am, we all are. We were more than just friends.

We were leaders in a struggle that matters deeply, not only to us, but for all Jews, all women, and for all time. To her eternal credit, she never used the extraordinary injustice Women of the Wall has endured for 26 years to defame Israel among the nations at so perilous a time. I cherish her for this.

Her death diminishes me. Bonna’s is the fourth death our group has known: Barbara Wachs, Marion Krug, my dear friend and study partner Rivka Haut and now Bonna, our brave, brave, leader and founder. Each of their deaths have diminished me. In the immortal words of the poet, John Donne: “No [wo]man is an island/ Entire of itself/ Each is a piece of the continent/ …Therefore, send not to know/ For whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”

As each beloved sister-warrior departs this vale of tears, she tenderly brings her survivors closer to each other and tenderly reminds us that we, too, are mortal and therefore how precious each day really is.

May her family and all those who loved her be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Israel.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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