In Act of Defiance, Hundreds of Reform Jews Hold Special Service at Western Wall

This was the first time in recent history that non-Orthodox Jews have held a Torah reading with women without interference

Hundreds of Reform Jews hold special Torah service at Western Wall. May 18, 2017.
Hundreds of Reform Jews hold special Torah service at Western Wall. May 18, 2017. Yuli Goren

Hundreds of Reform Jews from around the world held an egalitarian Torah-reading service on Thursday morning at an area of the Western Wall deemed off limits to worshippers – and, despite initial concerns, they were not stopped.

Neither did security guards at the Western Wall prevent them from bringing Torah scrolls into the Jewish holy site, as had been feared, nor did ultra-Orthodox worshippers praying nearby try to disrupt their service, as has often been the case in the past.

This was the first time in recent history, then, that non-Orthodox Jews have held a Torah reading service, in which women participated, with no interferences in the upper plaza of the Western Wall. The upper plaza is the area located right above and in full view of the traditional gender-segregated prayer plazas.

About 450 Reform Jews, attending the biennial conference of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, participated in the event.

 “Our raison d’etre for gathering at the Kotel was to celebrate our movement’s continuing commitment to egalitarianism,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, president of WUPJ, the umbrella organization for the international Reform movement. “For most of the participants, this was the first time they were able to pray in the Kotel plaza as they do in their home congregations, with many sharing the prayer leadership and participation.”

 He said many were moved to tears as they ended the service singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

Worshippers at the Western Wall are not allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls to the site but are asked instead to use the Torah scrolls available in the men’s section. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run organization that administers the holy site, does not make Torah scrolls available to women, however. For this reason, members of the Reform delegation attending the morning service decided to disregard the ban and bring their own Torah scrolls to the Western Wall.

According to Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, security guards at the entrance to the Western Wall told them it was against regulations to bring the Torah scrolls in. The delegation members responded that in their opinion, this restriction is unlawful, and proceeded to enter the site. They were not stopped as they walked through carrying five Torah scrolls.

Neither were they prevented from holding their Torah reading service in the upper plaza, which the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has deemed off limits for worship.

“This all goes to prove that when nobody mobilizes the masses against us, it is possible for us to hold a peaceful egalitarian service at this site,” said Kariv.

Before the Torah reading service, the Reform delegation members held a joint bat-mitzvah ceremony for about a dozen South American women at the temporary plaza created for egalitarian prayer in the southern expanse of the Western Wall.