Clenching their prayerbooks, gathered in a tight-knit circle at the Western Wall, some 400 Jewish women made history Friday morning. The Women of the Wall and their supporters held a monthly prayer service at Judaism’s holiest site, surrounded by police. Except this time, the police hadn’t come to arrest them — they came to form human barricades and to wrestle away ultra-Orthodox Jewish teens who had been bused in to protest the event.
It was the first time in 24 years that the police had no shadow of a doubt who they’d come to protect. Instead of confiscating the women’s pink-and-purple flowered tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries), as they have done in the past, the police ensured the Women of the Wall — a multi-denominational group pushing for greater women’s prayer rights at the site — got their chance to pray, somewhat freely. This time, it was three ultra-Orthodox men who were arrested for charging at the women and causing a disturbance.
The event marked the first such prayer service since a Jerusalem District Court ruled in April that Women of the Wall members aren’t violating the law — which requires respect for the “local custom” of the site — by holding a group prayer service and wearing tallit and tefillin. But their exuberance was met with derision and sporadic violence.
While some of the thousands of ultra-Orthodox teens pelted small rocks at them, hit them with candy, and threw water and chairs in their direction, the Women of the Wall staunchly continued their celebration of the new month of Sivan.
Streaks of early morning light danced across their faces as they read the weekly Torah portion in which the Jewish people received the ancient scriptures k’ish echad b’lev echad — as one person, with one voice — on Mount Sinai. As they sang, the women — backed up by some female politicians, men, and children — drowned out the opposition crowd’s whistles and jeers.
Tamar Zandberg, a freshman MK from Meretz, the left-wing party that has backed the women’s efforts, described the morning as exciting, albeit tense.
“I think what we saw today is a backlash — it’s the beginning of the crumbling of the exclusive Orthodox rule over Judaism in Israel. The absurd thing is that Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, is the only place where Jewish people cannot pray in a pluralistic way,” she said. “In any other community in the world, Judaism is very open and pluralistic. But in Israel it’s very conservative and Orthodox – and that’s absurd, but it’s changing. Today we saw the winds of that change, and it’s encouraging.”
Sharon Klein, a recent immigrant from the United States, said she wasn’t affiliated with the Women of the Wall but that she came because she wanted to support them. Klein, who sports a short, grey bob, grew up in a traditional home in New York and now leads an egalitarian renewal congregation in Jerusalem. She also sings at her temple.
“I felt that I had more religious freedom in the States than we do here,” she said, adding that she had complicated feelings toward Judaism and its rules.
“But I don’t see this as a feminist battle. I always found it troubling that women were kept in a separate place in Judaism. I’m very offended by the Orthodox notion of not being able to hear a woman’s voice.”
Coming to the prayer service was Klein’s way of making her voice heard.
A ‘non-victory’ victory
The road to Friday morning’s “success” has been been arduous and windy, Anat Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall, noted after the service. She joked that it was a success because she wasn’t arrested, like previous times.
True, the Jerusalem District Court ruling was a huge boost for the women’s fight for equality at the Western Wall, further underlined, she said, by an op-ed published in Haaretz Friday by one of the leaders of the religious Zionist right, Yisrael Harel, in which he questioned why the Israeli government “relinquished” control of the holy site to the Western Wall rabbi and a “group of extremists.”
With the Israeli government seemingly starting to fall in line behind the Women of the Wall, Hoffman said, the main question is: Why now? Why has the issue of equal prayer rights all of a sudden galvanized Israeli society? It’s because their battle extends far beyond women’s right to equal prayer at the Western Wall, she claimed.
“Although Israelis didn’t care so much about the partition at the Wall, they did care when the partition at the wall started traveling around Israel — going into streets that were segregated, in Beit Shemesh, in Beitar, in Emanuel, and going into segregated buses, into businesses, in HMOs, in radio stations that didn’t allow women to speak. That got Israelis’ attention. They suddenly realized that if they don’t deal with the partition at the Wall, they’re going to find a partition in their bank, or in their school. The awakening of Israelis to the idea that the role of women in religion will, in the end, affect the role of women in the country is what brought us so much support.”
Indeed, the epithets yelled by the Haredi teens Friday morning echoed the fear that the pluralistic group isn’t only seeking prayer rights at the Western Wall but that it’s bidding to change Orthodox Judaism’s hitherto impenetrable control over matters of religion and state in Israel.
Ronit Peskin, a soft-spoken ultra-Orthodox mother to three from the settlement Kochav Yaakov started the group Women “for” the Wall a few weeks ago to directly oppose the feminist group’s efforts. Her group helped coordinate the busloads of ultra-Orthodox female teens who came to protest the prayer service.
“The same way Christian traditions are respected at the Vatican, and Muslim traditions are respected at al-Aqsa Mosque, we ask that Jews respect the holiest Jewish site,” Peskin explained, just two feet away from the jubilation.
“First, they say they just want to pray peacefully, and that they only care about women’s rights, but then they say they want to change how religion works in Israel — to change marriage laws, conversions, divorces. I don’t have a problem with that fight, although I don’t agree with it, but this isn’t the place for it. It’s in the court,” she said.
Later, as the hundreds of WoW women and their supporters made their way to buses designated for them by the police, located outside the gates of the Old City, an ultra-Orthodox teen in a tall, black hat separated suddenly from his friends and ran up to the group.
“This is a provocation. You’re insulting me, you’re insulting Judaism,” he pleaded as the women walked past him. “Why don’t you go pray on Temple Mount then, huh?” he yelled.
Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Women of the Wall activist and sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, exited from the Old City’s Dung Gate and said her heart “felt heavy” from the intensity. She noted that she’d heard a lot of sexual obscenity coming from the ultra-Orthodox teen boys toward the non-Haredi women and that it worried her.
Silverman’s red-headed, ivory-skinned teenager daughter, Hallel Abramowitz, said she didn’t understand why other women fight against women’s rights. “I feel bad that they [the ultra-Orthodox teens] were taught that,” she said, earnestly. “I honestly wish that I could speak to each of them. They deserve more. They deserve to know that they deserve more.”
“When a group becomes fundamentalist, when they become violent, we’re really in danger. The last thing we want is for Israel to become a place where fanatical, terrorist Jews try to wield power,” her mother added. “I wonder if they don’t remember Mount Sinai [the theme of the week’s Torah portion] when we all stood together and received the Torah — and if they’ve forgotten anybody’s presence except their own.”
When asked if the prayer service was a victory, Silverman said, sadly, no, not really.
“There’s no victory. We’re moving forward, in terms of recreating the idea of Sinai, but it’s such a sad day,” she said. “There’s no victory when people feel like they lost,” she added.
Her daughter chimed in and said: “We’ll have a victory when we don’t need police protecting us when we pray.”