Police Detain Women of the Wall Leader in Jerusalem's Old City

Lesley Sachs taken into custody after she was caught carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, in defiance of regulations imposed by the custodian of the Jewish holy site.

Members of Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall on Passover, April 24, 2016.
Members of Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall on Passover, April 24, 2016. Olivier Fitoussi

A leader of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, was detained by police on Tuesday morning after she was caught carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, in defiance of regulations imposed by the custodian of the Jewish holy site.

Law enforcement officials stopped Lesley Sachs, the executive director of Women of the Wall, as she was leaving the area at the conclusion of the group’s monthly prayer service, and took her in for questioning at the nearby police station in Jerusalem’s Old City.

This is the first time in more than three years that a member of the multi-denominational prayer group was taken into police custody. 

Eyewitnesses said that 80 women had attended the Rosh Chodesh service that marks the beginning of the Jewish month and which was otherwise uneventful.

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Orthodox rabbi who serves as custodian of the Western Wall, has refused to allow women to read from their own Torah scroll in the women’s prayer section. Nonetheless, over the past year, members of Women of the Wall have defied this prohibition, and the authorities have turned a blind eye.

At Tuesday morning's service, the Torah scroll used had been lent to Women of the Wall by Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California. It was later confiscated by police.

Yizhar Hess, executive of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, who observed the scene at the Western Wall, accused the police of “obeying the orders of the Kotel rabbi instead of fulfilling its job of enforcing the law.”

During a period of several months in 2012 and 2013, Women of the Wall activists were regularly detained by police at the Western Wall for wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries and for singing out loud.  After a Jerusalem District Court ruled that these practices were not a violation of “local custom,” the group has been largely left alone.

Women of the Wall had agreed to move their monthly service to a new egalitarian prayer space, under a plan approved in January by the government. Because of opposition from Orthodox politicians and lobbyists, that plan has not been executed and its future lies in the balance. 

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said in response that the Israeli government whether it plans to execute the plan it approved or to “revive the deep split in the Jewish people over this issue.”

“We will not allow ourselves to be impressed with statements by the prime minister on the importance of Jewish unity and dialogue while women are arrested at the Western Wall just for reading a Torah,” he said. “We had done away with such disgraceful scenes during the negotiations over the plan for a new egalitarian prayer space, and the fact that they have resumed does not bode well."

Responding to this morning’s events, the spiritual leader of the congregation that had lent the Torah scroll to Women of the Wall accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of reneging on his promises to embrace Jewish pluralism.

“It is our understanding that you had committed your government to a compromise that shows unity of the Jewish people and a place in the state of Israel for all streams of Judaism,” wrote Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in an urgent letter to the Israeli leader. “Today's action appears to be yet another step backwards in that commitment. We can only assume that Reform Jewry, the largest stream of Judaism in North America, is not welcomed in Israel's holiest places, but this will not deter us.”

The Torah scroll that was confiscated by police, she said, was greatly valued by the congregation as it had been bequeathed by a couple who had come to California as refugees from Nazi Germany.