Braving protesters, US girl holds bat mitzvah with Women of the Wall activists

Lucia da Silva celebrates milestone despite catcalls and commotion during monthly Women of the Wall reading for Rosh Hodesh; no arrests reported

  • Women read from a Torah at the Western Wall on July 20, 2022. (Noga Tarnopolsky via JTA)
    Women read from a Torah at the Western Wall on July 20, 2022. (Noga Tarnopolsky via JTA)
  • Lucia da Silva, 12, from Seattle, Washington, surrounded by her mothers Cara Stoddard (right) and Ada Danelo in front of the Western Wall, July 29, 2022 (Tal Kfir Shor via JTA)
    Lucia da Silva, 12, from Seattle, Washington, surrounded by her mothers Cara Stoddard (right) and Ada Danelo in front of the Western Wall, July 29, 2022 (Tal Kfir Shor via JTA)

JTA — An American teen held a protest bat mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Friday alongside the Women of the Wall activist group, braving Haredi protesters who sought to disrupt, sometimes violently, the female-led Torah reading.

No injuries or arrests were reported during Friday’s confrontation, which came during the observance of the start of the month of Av and a month after a major incident at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall garnered international attention.

On Friday, thousands of black-attired young yeshiva students, both male and female, swarmed a group of about 100 women and a dozen men who accompanied them to the Western Wall, where traditional prayers were to take place at 7 a.m., ahead of the bat mitzvah of Lucia da Silva, 12, of Seattle, who came to Israel with her parents and godparents to celebrate the event.

Each month, a group called Women of the Wall attempts to read Torah at the Western Wall in violation of the rules of the site’s main plaza, which bar women from carrying and reading from the Torah. Only at a nearby site, known as Ezrat Yisrael or Robinson’s Arch, can women read from the sacred scroll.

Da Silva opted to celebrate her coming of age with the group, reading from scripture amid the throngs of often vicious protesters against such female-led services.

Her mother, Ada Danelo, had prepared Lucia ahead of time to think of the Western Wall as a soccer arena. In this scenario, da Silva was the star kicker, and the crowd included both hooligans and supporters.

“I looked at them as fans who came to cheer me on,” Lucia said of the commotion that encircled her as she read from scripture at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Lucia da Silva, 12, from Seattle, Washington, surrounded by her mothers Cara Stoddard (right) and Ada Danelo in front of the Western Wall, July 29, 2022 (Tal Kfir Shor via JTA)

Ushers working for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a state-funded institution, attempted to direct the women into a dedicated lane leading to a fenced-in corral but Women of the Wall refused. Instead, they headed to the center of the women’s section, adjacent to the men’s section of the wall to hold their service.

This form of protest occurs at the start of every Jewish month, in this case Av, as the start of a month, known in Hebrew as Rosh Hodesh, is considered a holiday with feminine undertones. The start of the month of Av also marks the start of the nine days leading up to the Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Jewish temples, and this period is generally seen as a time for introspection and repentance.

Women read from a Torah at the Western Wall on July 20, 2022. (Noga Tarnopolsky via JTA)

Clutches of girls dressed in black set upon the women, calling them whores and heretics and hollering that they should burn in hell. When confronted by Women of the Wall activists and asked for their names, three of the girls in unison replied, “I’m a minor.” Others blew whistles to drown out the women.

From a raised platform behind the women’s section, young men taunted them with coarse gestures and insults, and were occasionally herded away by police. Photographers practiced in the monthly ritual came equipped with noise blockers.

The Western Wall Foundation employed at least two videographers to film the women at prayer, with one of them, a man, hovering directly above them from a stool placed in the women’s section.

When asked about the commotion, which made any conventional sort of worship impossible, Eden Shimon, deputy head of operations for the Western Wall Foundation, replied “Get out of my way. Sue me.”

Loudspeakers situated in the plaza blared prayers intended to drown out the women’s voices.

Attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and Women of the Wall’s incoming chair, described the women’s section as a “lawless pit devoid of any sort of rule.”

“They see us as provocateurs,” she said, indicating toward the police officers lingering near the entrance to the women’s section, “not as citizens exercising their rights.”

Anat Hoffman, the organization’s current chair, protested that the police’s refusal to demand identification from any of the aggressors rendered any future complaint moot. “The cases are closed before they’re opened,” Erez-Likhovski said.

Members of the Women of the Wall, Conservative and Reform Movements hold Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, March 4, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Recent months were marked by significant escalation in the violence directed at women and non-Orthodox Jews praying at the Wall.

At least five bar mitzvah ceremonies held in the ostensibly egalitarian “Ezrat Israel” southern section of the wall were targeted by violence in recent weeks, notably that of Seth Mann, of Las Vegas, whose mother, Sari Mann, is the director of Nevada’s state AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.

In a passionate essay published in The Times of Israel after the incident, Seth Mann’s father Joel wrote that he was initially relieved when he saw police officers arrive to his son’s ceremony, which was being ruined by Haredi teenagers blowing whistles and yelling “goys” at the celebrants.

“The police did little to nothing to stop the disturbance and sometimes violent attacks that occurred. The Israeli Police stood there as the Haredi teens attacked Jews,” he wrote.

“It was at this moment that my heart broke,” Mann went on. “I realized that not even in the State of Israel, the homeland for the Jewish people, am I allowed to pray freely and safely. My son, on his Bar Mitzvah, is told he is not Jewish.”

A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the family to express his dismay, and later ordered that barriers separating men and women in traditional Jewish places of worship be prohibited in the egalitarian section of the Western Wall. Orthodox activists have occasionally brought in the barriers, known as a mehitza, to take control of the prayer space.

In the chaos this Friday, one small figure appeared unfazed: Lucia da Silva, the slight but self-assured bat mitzvah girl, for whom this was the culmination of a full year of study of the sacred texts and of the Hebrew language. The bat mitzvah, she said, was among the highlights of her trip to Israel, along with the Dead Sea and the beach.

Danelo said that she and her wife, Cara Stoddard, sometimes felt attacked for their Zionism back home in Seattle. In Israel, she shrugged, they were “attacked for being… Jews.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

** Editor’s note: This article, including its headline, was updated from the original version.

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