Despite heckles, pluralistic services at Western Wall pass ‘quietly’
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Despite heckles, pluralistic services at Western Wall pass ‘quietly’

Reform, Conservative Jews comply with attorney general's order not to pray at holy site, but still draw protests from small group for singing and dancing

Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold a mixed men and women prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016.(Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold a mixed men and women prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016.(Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Conservative and Reform Jews held a mixed-gender egalitarian service at the Western Wall plaza on Thursday amid jeering from a handful of protesters but few other disturbances.

The organizers said they complied with an attorney general order not to pray at the site and held a singing and dancing service instead.

“It passed totally quietly,” said Yuli Goren of the Israel Religious Action Center. “We sang songs of prayer, said words of Torah. We respected the attorney general’s order, and we didn’t pray.”

“We’ve seen much worse,” she added, referring to past protests against the groups at the holy site, which has for decades been managed as an exclusively Orthodox prayer space.

That has begun to change in recent years, though, as pluralistic groups have pushed for greater inclusiveness at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

An ultra-Orthodox woman whistles in protest of the Women of the Wall group's Rosh Hodesh (New Jewish month) prayer at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox woman whistles in protest of the Women of the Wall group’s Rosh Hodesh (New Jewish month) prayer at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 7, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israeli media reports said the non-Orthodox groups were heckled by some 10 ultra-Orthodox protesters at the site.

Women of the Wall, which was holding a separate monthly prayer service at the plaza, wrote on Facebook that ultra-Orthodox protesters had shouted “get out!” and “Amalek” in their direction.

Amalek was a Biblical tribe that attacked the Israelites from behind while they wandered in the desert. In the Biblical narrative, its members were designated a special evil deserving of extermination.

Members of the Women of the Wall hold a Rosh Hodesh (New Jewish month) prayer with a Torah Scroll they snuck in at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Members of the Women of the Wall hold a Rosh Hodesh (New Jewish month) prayer with a Torah Scroll they snuck in at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 7, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Women of the Wall also reported “yelling and screaming and whistles blowing,” during the prayer, which was attended by 300 women and included a bat mitzvah.

The services coincided with the start of the new Jewish month of Tamuz.

The Reform and Conservative movements were informed of the decision to bar them from praying in the Western Wall plaza on Wednesday in a letter from attorney Yisrael Patt, the legal adviser to the Ministry of Religious Services, the Walla news site reported.

The decision was approved by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, despite not nixing a separate prayer service last month by the groups, which led to scufffles with ultra-Orthodox protesters..

A member of the Women of the Wall wears a tallit (prayer shawl) as she prays holding a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 11, 2016 (AFP/GALI TIBBON)
A member of the Women of the Wall wears a tallit (prayer shawl) as she prays holding a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 11, 2016 (AFP/GALI TIBBON)

Reform Jewish leader Gilad Kariv told Army Radio he would petition the High Court of Justice on Sunday against the attorney general’s ban.

“Unfortunately, we will be forced to petition the High Court as soon as Sunday,” he said. “We are unwilling to give up on our right to bring hundreds of Reform and Conservative Jews here for a gathering of song, Torah study, and personal prayer.”

Police officers walking at the Western Wall plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 13, 2015. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers walking at the Western Wall plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though the sectioned-off area directly in front of the Western Wall is specifically designated for prayer, the letter from Patt informed the groups that the open plaza adjacent to it is not meant to be used for spiritual gatherings, according to a 2013 decision by the Western Wall’s chief rabbi and the Justice Ministry.

“This has no connection to the type of prayer or religious ceremony,” Patt wrote.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 05, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)

The Western Wall has two sections for prayer, one for men and one for women, in accordance with the Orthodox tradition.

The Reform and Conservative movements have on occasion hosted prayer services in the space behind those two sections.

This occurred most recently on Monday, to no great controversy. But when a similar prayer was held last month, a group of ultra-Orthodox men at the site tried to disrupt that service, leading to scuffles.

A planned multidenominational prayer space directly south of the Western Wall plaza, meant to soothe tensions at the holy site, has become mired in government infighting.

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