At the Helm of the Israeli Movement for Women’s Rights

6 April 2017

What Will the Western Wall Be for Future Generations?

Lesley Sachs is one of those lucky people who has a mission in life.

“I believe I was put on earth to try to better society for future generations,” says the 58-year-old Israeli in a British accent. “I feel lucky that I can pursue this mission.”

Lesley is the Executive Director of Women of the Wall (WOW), an NGO that fights to secure women’s right to pray at the Western Wall according to their custom. The ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate maintains control over the Western Wall plaza and enforces strict gender separation and restrictions on women’s prayer. This includes a ban on women reading Torah. When they pray these women are often confronted by protesters spitting, throwing chairs, and cursing at them.

As part of upgrading the way WOW communicates with the world, Lesley and 15 WOW staff and board members attended a Shatil training on photographing protests and demonstrations.

“Our self-photography and the videos we take on our phones are more effective since the workshop,” says Sachs. “Just today (Rosh Chodesh Nisan), a guard at the Wall asked one of our board members to take off her coat…She took out her smart phone, knew how to hold it correctly, started videotaping and said to the guard, ‘Are you saying I should take off my coat?’ So we have this on video and can use it in our court appeal.”

The court had previously ruled against humiliating body searches at the entrance to the Wall and in favor of police protection guaranteeing the right to pray without violent disturbance.

Becoming a Feminist

Sachs has a unique background that brought her to this work. Rather than raise their daughters in an apartheid country, Lesley’s parents left South Africa for England and then, at her Zionist mother’s urging, to Israel.

Sachs describes her mandatory army service as a crucible of machismo and sexism that helped shape who she is today. “Each and every one of our commanders felt we were there to serve them in every way possible. It was degrading,” says Sachs. “But it was a wakeup call. I didn’t go into the army as a feminist. But I came out as one.”

As a literature and philosophy student at Haifa University, Sachs helped to found Isha L’Isha, the Haifa Feminist Center, from her living room.

In 1990, the Israel Women’s Network (IWN) asked her to be its spokesperson – a rare position in a social change NGO at that time.

Sachs says of former NIF board member and IWN chair, “Professor Alice Shalvi, who has always been a visionary, understood that in order to bring change you must work with the media. I had no idea how to do any of this but Shatil trained me.”

Sachs believes Israel has made “tremendous progress” in the area of women’s rights. She has seen changes in the IDF, increased government support for rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters, improved gender studies programs at universities, and more progressive legislation.

“I very much feel a sense of accomplishment,” she says. “But there’s still a long way to go. The whole arena of state and religion, including marriage and divorce, is a huge challenge.”

But Sachs remains hopeful. “Women should have the right to pray their way and liberal Jews should be treated with respect, dignity and love. If I weren’t an optimist I couldn’t keep doing this. I believe in change.”

Photo Credit: Dafna Tal, Lesley Sachs pictured