Thousands of girls from ultra-Orthodox seminaries in Jerusalem are expected to protest at the Western Wall on Friday, in response to a court ruling permitting the Women of the Wall prayer group to hold non-Orthodox services in the central plaza of the holy site.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the head of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, has instructed the principals of girls’ seminaries in the Jerusalem area to send their students to conduct prayer services at the Western Wall on Friday morning, the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. The thousands of ultra-Orthodox girls are expected to face a few dozen members of the Women of the Wall group, who hold non-Orthodox Rosh Chodesh prayer services at the Kotel on the first day of every Hebrew month.
The prayer service was planned following consultations with Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and Knesset members from United Torah Judaism. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is also calling for women and seminary girls to pray at the Western Wall on Friday morning, according to the ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Hadarim.
Rabbi Sthteinman has made it clear that the ultra-Orthodox worshippers are not to resort to violence.
Friday's protest is unique in that ultra-Orthodox leaders rarely call on women to participate in public struggles. It is even more unusual for female students to be summoned to a protest.
The seminary girls' prayer service will be held at the same time that the Women of the Wall group is planning to hold its own, special service at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall intend to hold a celebratory service in honor of the recent Jerusalem District Court ruling permitting them to pray in the manner they choose in the women’s section of the Wall's central plaza. This will be the first time since the group's founding 24 years ago that its members will officially and legally be permitted to wrap themselves in prayer shawls and tefillin.
A delegation of American women, all participants in Otzma, a program for young Jewish leadership, will joining the Women of the Wall Friday morning at their monthly prayer services as a sign of solidarity.
Otzma issued a statement saying all six of its participants “are attending to show their support for religious equality and egalitarianism – which are basic freedoms in the United States.”
Otzma is the flagship young leadership program of Masa, a joint venture of the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency.
Joining the protestors against Women of the Wall is another new organization, founded just several weeks ago by a group of Orthodox woman, called Women for the Wall. The group defines its mission as “making prayer at the Kotel a more pleasant experience for everyone, while maintaining an atmosphere of sanctity (Kedusha) and respect for Jewish tradition.”
In previous months, women have routinely been arrested for wearing prayer shawls and tefillin at the Kotel. But police have announced that they will not interfere with the women's prayer customs, in accordance with the ruling of Judge Moshe Sobel.
Police are expected to call up reinforcements in order to handle what is already a complex situation. This month, the Rosh Chodesh service falls on a Friday, when Muslims traditionally congregate on the Temple Mount. Just Tuesday, the Temple Mount was the site of violent riots, when 200 Jews were permitted to enter the holy site to pray in honor of Jerusalem Day.
Naftali Bennett, the minister for religious services, has called on all sides to “lower the flames.” Following a meeting between Bennett and leaders of Women of the Wall earlier this week, the group agreed not to arrive at the Kotel carrying Torah scrolls. The controversial practice is legal under Judge Sobel’s ruling, but women are nevertheless forbidden by Rabbi Rabinowitz from bringing Torah scrolls onto the plaza.
Bennett, who also met previously with the attorney general, is expected to amend regulations governing Israel's holy sites, in order to more sharply define what is meant by permitted “customary practices” at the Western Wall. He is not expected to embrace the sweeping interpretation of Judge Sobel, but he is not expected to fight the ruling in its entirety either.
“I will try to the best of my ability to reach a compromise”, said Bennett. “I call on all sides to lower the flames by Friday. The Wall is a holy place, not a battlefield, and I intend to resolve this issue that we have faced for years.”
Bennett's deputy, MK Eli Ben Dahan, added, “We will do all we can to reduce tensions" until the compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Nathan Sharanksy is implemented. Sharansky has proposed building a new prayer section for non-Orthodox worship at the Kotel.
"King David, who bought Jerusalem, collected money from the whole nation so that everyone would have a part in the city, including of course the Western Wall," he added. "We must all make an effort to reach a compromise, in order to reduce conflicts at this site.”
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