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Women In Prayer Shawls Detained At Judaism's Holiest Site

Feb 11, 2013
Originally published on February 21, 2013 9:40 am

Police in Jerusalem on Monday detained 10 women for wearing the tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl traditionally worn by men, while praying at the Western Wall.

The Women of the Wall have been fighting for years for permission to worship in the manner that men do at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism for prayer. The stone structure is part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.

Men and women both pray at the wall, but in separate sections and under rules set by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a body appointed and funded by the government. It is headed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Frequent Protests

Many of the women at the wall Monday gather regularly on the first day of the Jewish calendar month to pray — and just as regularly, police detain them.

Women are not supposed to wear religious items such as prayer shawls at the Western Wall — or at least that's how the rabbi in charge interprets it, and police enforce his decision.

But Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, disagrees.

"Secular Israel, the democratic, Jewish state of Israel, has taken the keys to the holiest site of the Jewish people, and given it to one rabbi, who belongs to less than 8 percent of Israel's population," she says, referring to the country's ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Hoffman had a male friend sneak in the prayer shawls. In the past, police have confiscated them. Then she and her supporters entered the women's section, donned their shawls, and began to pray.

The security force for the site moved in quietly and told some of the women to come with them. But the women refused, and sat on the ground.

Police have arrested women for donning prayer shawls at the wall in the past, but left them alone for the time being.

On the men's side of a mesh barrier, some male supporters chanted along with the women. But one man began yelling at them, saying Reform Jews don't belong at the wall — Israel's ultra-Orthodox do not recognize more liberal strains of Judaism.

Prominent Male Supporters

The women continued praying for a solid hour, glad to have gotten so far. The group believes the police held back because six former Israeli paratroopers showed up in support.

They included men like Yitzhak Yifat, who helped take back the wall, which was under the control of Jordan for nearly two decades before Israel took it in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But once the crowd of supporters and media dispersed, police stepped in and grabbed 10 women, including Susan Silverman, the sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman, and Lior Nevo, a rabbinical student.

"I don't know, apparently I'm not being arrested," Nevo said, as she was being led away. "I don't know, they haven't told me anything."

Police said the women were being "detained" for disturbing the peace by wearing the tallit at the wall. One concern is protecting the sensitivities of the many ultra-Orthodox who pray at the Western Wall — including many women. One woman, who would not identify herself, says devout Jews follow the teaching of their rabbis.

"This according to the Torah is not correct," she says. "Just because a few women decide to do it because it makes them feel better, because it makes them feel more important?"

After a circuitous court battle, the Women of the Wall have been offered an alternative site for worship away from the wall proper, something they refer to as "the back of the bus with new upholstery."

The rabbi in charge of the wall hasn't budged, although police did refrain on Monday from carting women away during prayer. The Israeli Parliament has basically punted on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Women of the Wall say they'll be back next month to try again.

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