Barred once again from entering the women’s section of the Western Wall, some 300 activists from the Women of the Wall prayer group held their monthly Rosh Hodesh (new moon) prayer service at the back of the Western Wall compound on Wednesday morning, raising their voices in song against the jeers and whistles of a large gathering of ultra-Orthodox protesters.
Last week, Israel Police pledged that the group – a feminist, multi-denominational group that supports a woman’s right to pray wearing traditionally male prayer shawls and tefillin, to read from the Torah and to sing aloud – would be escorted directly to the women’s section of the Western Wall this morning. Nevertheless, when their three police-escorted buses arrived at the ancient holy site, the police, citing overcrowding, delivered the news that they would be relegated to an area in the far back of the Western Wall plaza instead.
Their prayer service, which is held on the first day of every Jewish month, or Rosh Hodesh, and is routinely met by protests and violence from ultra-religious protesters, was held behind a police barrier and went off relatively smoothly. Haredi detractors, who themselves were bused to meet the women (and many men) of the group, were kept behind a military police barricade and for the most part refrained from violence. They did, however, hoist a handful of provocative signs, and the trill of their dozens of plastic whistles, designed to block out the sound of women’s singing, filled the air.
Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, said she was incredibly disappointed with the way the morning prayer played out. “Today is going very badly. We’re very upset,” she said. “Yet again we’re not on the women’s side, not even close. And when we agreed to come into this compound that was made out here the police promised there would not be any whistles and there would not be signs, which are against the law here. But nothing is being done.”
Police were seen confiscating a few whistles from protesters and encouraging those in the crowd – many of whom were teenaged students from nearby Jewish seminaries – to stop tooting them. At one point, a police officer snatched a whistle from a young Haredi boy and was trounced by several of his friends. But for the most part, other than the noise level, the prayer service was largely uneventful.
A 17-year-old ultra-Orthodox seminary student who gave her name as Dina said she was disgusted by the Women of the Wall. She was at the event with her friends Esti and Tamar, who all said they had come to pray but were unable to concentrate.
“They are troublemakers. They have no point. Most of them are not even Jewish,” Dina said, repeating an off-cited insult that the Women of the Wall’s progressive way of practicing Judaism does not qualify as authentic to the religion.
Her friend Tamar was even more outspoken.
“They are like monkeys,” she said. “They are a provocation.”
The Women of the Wall had been told it was illegal to bring their Torah scroll into the compound, so at the end of their prayer service, which they marked with the singing of “Hatikva,” one member of the group held it aloft just outside the plaza and allowed the group members to kiss the scroll on their way back out to their buses.
Charlie Kalech, an American immigrant from New Jersey who now lives in Jerusalem, said he comes to pray each month with Women of the Wall because their services represent the way in which Judaism ought to be practiced in Israel.
“Every Jew has a right to daven at the Kotel the way they want to daven,” he said, standing near the back of the designated area out of respect for those women in the group who didn’t want a gender-mixed service. “No one has a monopoly on it, it belongs to the entire community of Israel. But there is a monopoly on it, and forget about it not being democratic, it’s not even Jewish. There’s always been a divergence of opinion in Judaism … and yet we can’t daven the way we want.”
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