Lapid phones American boy whose Western Wall bar mitzvah was overrun by zealots

PM tells Seth Mann that the violent protests against his ceremony were ‘outrageous’ and didn’t represent Israel; family says they were encouraged by the premier’s call

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Seth Mann, left, reads from a Torah scroll during his bar mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall's egalitarian section on June 30, 2022. (Courtesy/Mann family)
Seth Mann, left, reads from a Torah scroll during his bar mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall's egalitarian section on June 30, 2022. (Courtesy/Mann family)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid called one of the American boys whose Western Wall bar mitzvahs were overrun by religious zealots last month, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Last month, dozens of mostly ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, young men and boys entered the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, also known as Ezrat Yisrael or Robinson’s Arch, in order to disrupt a number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies being held there by American families.

The demonstrators blew whistles to drown out the prayer services, called those present “Nazis,” “Christians,” and “animals,” and ripped up prayer books. Police officers were present at the scene, but generally refrained from intervening, save for some cases of direct physical violence.

In the phone call, which took place on Monday evening, Lapid called the violent protests “outrageous” and said that every Jew should be able to pray as they see fit, the source said, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.

The prime minister told the boy, Seth Mann of Las Vegas, that the protests “did not represent the State of Israel, the people of Israel, or the government of Israel,” said the source, who was on the line.

Yair Lapid prays at the Western Wall, on July 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though the conversation was between the premier and Seth Mann, his parents Joel and Sari Mann, the latter of whom is the Nevada state director of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, were also on the line.

“We were very encouraged to hear the prime minister’s words and hope our experience, as painful as it was, will help facilitate a change to how Jews are allowed to pray at the Kotel,” Mann’s father Joel told The Times of Israel after the call.

“It meant a great deal to me that the prime minister took the time to reach out to Seth,” he said.

Lapid also wished Mann a mazal tov on his bar mitzvah.

Though several other families were also at the Western Wall that day, the Manns have been the most public in voicing their disappointment at the violent disruptions of the bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, as well as at the near-total lack of intervention by police at the scene.

Earlier Monday, Lapid met with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev to discuss the police officers’ actions at the Western Wall, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, also on condition of anonymity.

William Daroff, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations umbrella group, hailed Lapid’s call, saying it showed that the Israeli government was ” upholding basic Jewish principles of treating each other with basic dignity and respect, as well as promoting Shalom Bayit (a Jewish concept meaning ‘peace in the home’).”

“I am very encouraged that Prime Minister Lapid understands the outrageousness of the way Seth and his family were treated at his bar mitzvah at the egalitarian plaza of the Kotel,” Daroff said, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the head of the US Conservative movement, of which Mann is a member, also lauded the premier’s phone call.

“This was an important gesture of support that is greatly appreciated. We hope the Prime Minister will also take further action to ensure such an incident doesn’t happen again. This includes clear protocols to maintain safety at the egalitarian Kotel and the ability of security services and the police to enforce them,” Blumenthal said.

The vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization and former head of the Conservative movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, similarly lauded the prime minister for making the call to Mann but also demanded concrete action to address the underlying situation at the Western Wall. Hess specifically called for Lapid to advance the so-called Western Wall compromise, a deal that would give non-Orthodox streams of Judaism official representation in the management of the holy site.

“The Jewish tradition is to bless bar and bat mitzvahs, not to curse them. I am proud of a prime minister who knows how important it is to make time for a call like this. At the same time, the more appropriate thing, the necessary thing is to cancel the decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise. Only implementing the agreement will prevent such events in the future,” he said.

The violent demonstration prompted fierce condemnation from major American and international Jewish groups, despite being largely ignored in Israel. The issue was also hotly debated at last week’s Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem.

At the meeting, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors passed a resolution condemning what it called the “despicable” protest at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section and requiring the organization to act to address the security situation at the holy site.

The resolution called for the organization to discuss the matter with Israeli government officials, to galvanize Israeli public opinion about the issue, and to identify “actions that can be taken to ensure that all Jews are welcomed to Ezrat Yisrael (the egalitarian section), as they are all members of the Jewish people family.”

“The Jewish Agency will promptly develop, approve, and implement a detailed work plan for the above-mentioned actions,” the resolution read.

The resolution passed unanimously, including with the support of Orthodox and Haredi members, including Rabbi Pesach Lerner, of the hardline Eretz Hakodesh organization. This was particularly noteworthy as Lerner and his group have organized protests against the Women of the Wall, a feminist group that organizes monthly prayer services and female-led Torah readings at the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel.

“The Board of Governors unequivocally condemns the despicable disturbances of prayer and smachot (celebrations) at Ezrat Yisrael,” the resolution read.

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