Woman Jailed for Praying Aloud at Western Wall Barred From Holy Site for 30 Days

Western Wall regulations forbid women from praying aloud and leading services at the base of the holy site.

Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of the group Women of the Wall, told Anglo File she signed a court order barring her from the Wall for 30 days under tremendous pressure, following her arrest by police this week for reciting the Shema prayer aloud at the holy site in Jerusalem.

"I just couldn't take it there anymore," said Hoffman, who spoke to Anglo File following her release from a police detention center in Jerusalem. "I was traumatized."

Hoffman was arrested on Tuesday after she recited the Shema prayer in front of a group of Hadassah women visiting Israel to mark the institution's centennial. Western Wall regulations forbid women from praying aloud and leading services at the base of the holy site.

"I was arrested, I was strip-searched, hand-cuffed and leg-cuffed, and I had to sleep on the floor," said the 58-year-old Hoffman. "My wrists are bruised from being dragged on the floor."

Hoffman, who studied at the University of California in Los Angeles, and whose father hails from West Chester, Pennsylvania, notes that she was not charged by police - nor has she ever been charged in the six times she was previously detained for her activities at the Wall.

"If there has never been a charge in 24 years, what is the function of these arrests?" asked Hoffman, who also serves as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. "It's to harass and intimidate the group and to make sure that women will be denied what is their duty and even their right."

A spokesman for the Israel Police, Micky Rosenfeld, said Hoffman had initially been set to be released shortly after her arrest but was detained overnight because of her refusal to sign the order restricting her access to the Wall. "She refused to agree to conditions that the Israeli police handed to her," he said. Rosenfeld told Anglo File that he would look into Hoffman's assertions regarding her incarceration, but no additional comment was received from him before press time.

Hoffman confirmed to Anglo File that she at first refused to comply with police "conditions," which included a NIS 5,000 personal recognizance bond and a NIS 5,000 surety bond.

"I demanded to see a judge so that I could ask about these conditions," Hoffman said.

The following morning, on Wednesday, she appeared before a judge and was ordered to sign the agreement prohibiting her from visiting the Wall for 30 days, which she says was a condition of her release. The judge reduced the personal recognizance bond to NIS 2,500.

Hoffman signed under the advice of her attorney, Hen Holender, who told Anglo File on Thursday that had she refused to sign she would have been detained another night before returning for another hearing with the magistrate.

"We have received the court's decision and we respect it," Hollender wrote Anglo File by email Thursday. "Although in our opinion the police's decision to arrest our client shows that freedom of religion and conscience in Israel is unfortunately a limited right. We are considering an appeal to the district court regarding the restraining order for 30 days from the Wailing Wall against our client."

A spokesperson for Women of the Wall, Shira Pruce, said the police practice of releasing detainees under "restrictive conditions" has been applied to women arrested at the Wall "for several years."

One day after Hoffman's arrest, two Israeli women - a native South African and a Canadian - were arrested also at the Wall after they allegedly draped prayer shawls over their shoulders, in contravention of regulations.

"I had my fingerprints and photograph taken, as if I were a criminal," Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, told Anglo File following her release from police custody Wednesday morning. "I am not a criminal."

As her group - which pushes for women's right to lead prayer services at the holy site - has done on the first day of the new Hebrew month, known as Rosh Chodesh, for more than two decades, 54-year-old Sachs and her fellow female worshipers sought to lead morning services in the women's section of the Wall plaza in contravention of local regulations.

"The moment I put on the tallit [prayer shawl], a policeman came up to me and told me that I shouldn't be wearing it the way I was over my shoulders, but around my neck, as a scarf," said Sachs, a native of Johannesburg, who was 2 years old when her family moved to Israel in 1960. "I asked him, 'Are you the fashion police?'"

Moments later, Sachs and another worshipper, 42-year-old Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, an Israeli-Canadian citizen and board member of the women's group, were charged with obstructing public order and wrapping themselves in a tallit.

Sachs, who spoke to Anglo File shortly after she was released, was livid. "I feel upset because the Kotel has been taken over by such a group of ultra-Orthodox fanatics," said Sachs, using the Hebrew word for the Western Wall. "Most of my friends have given up on the Kotel and don't want to go there anymore. But the Kotel is not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It's a national heritage site which is very holy to all of us." Sachs blamed Israel's "political situation" - the product of years of coalition agreements giving ultra-Orthodox parties broad powers over the management of religious affairs in the country. "The ultra-Orthodox have been given the keys," Sachs charged.

She expressed her concern that police are arbitrarily enforcing prayer shawl regulations at the Wall, making the situation unpredictable and even ripe for further clashes between female congregants and police.

"This month I was told to wear the tallit as a scarf, yet two months ago four women were arrested for doing just that," said Sachs. Israel Police could not verify the particulars of the case before press time. "It changes every time. What will it be next month? It's very frustrating."

Neither Sachs nor Cohen Yeshurun were barred from visiting the Wall.

AP