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Unlike their controversial “rosh hodesh” service marking the start of each new month in the Jewish calendar, the women gathered late Sunday night to say Selichot prayers, which are traditionally said in the lead-up to the High Holy Days. Given that the women were neither unfurling a Torah nor wearing tallits (prayer shawls) and tefilin (phylacteries), leaders of the Haredi community reportedly decided they would not send out legions of young religious women to block their access as they did at the last two prayer services.
While the Women of the Wall stood at the back of the women’s side of the Western Wall plaza, singing the words of age-old prayers asking God for forgiveness, streams of Orthodox teenagers and women filtered by on their way to and from the wall. Some stared, some sneered, some snapped photos on their smartphones as if happening upon an odd and exotic tribe. But few of these stopped to say or shout anything at the group of about 80 worshippers connected to Women of the Wall. One aging ultra-Orthodox woman, after quizzing a member of the group about their “unusual” choice of prayer in unison and blowing of the shofar, shrugged: “Alright, then. May you all have a good year.”
Not everyone was quite as accepting. A woman watching from just outside the prayer section, shaking her head, said she had nothing but disgust for the Women of the Wall. “What they’re doing is a provocation, not prayer,” said the woman, who would only give her name as Rivka from Ramat Shlomo, a haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem. “Hashem won’t hear their prayers,” she declared. “I can only hope they’ll repent and return to the right way.”
As the women got the part of the service in which a famous prayer of supplication is chanted, “Hatanu Lefanecha” – we have sinned before you – a yeshiva student listening nearby jibed “Well, for once they got something right.” And then, he offered a little more thoughtfully, the women surely “mean well.”
“I believe that a lot of them really want to connect to God, but they’re a little lost,” explained Yossi Overlander, a 21-year-old student from London in black and white hassidic garb. “They were even given a place to pray, but they said no, because they want other women to see how they do it and for them to be influenced by this behavior. So it’s more about making a statement.”
A week ago, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett inaugurated a new 450-square-meter platform in an archeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, and in his capacity at the Minister of Religious Services, said the Women of the Wall should go pray there. The raised platform, whose opening Bennett hailed as a “history-making event,” sits below the Western Wall plaza and does not have direct access to it the wall itself. The Women of the Wall immediately rejected it as a “sunbathing deck” and said that the government, on the eve of the new year, had adopted a policy of “separation and exclusion.”
Following Bennett’s announcement, the Prime Minister’s Office had to backtrack on his behalf and said reports that a decision has been made regarding prayer arrangements were “incorrect.”
The controversy at the heart of the Jewish world continues, and the deeply differing sides in the debate seem no closer to solving the issue as the Israel heads into 5774 on Wednesday night.
But Lesley Sachs, the director of Women of the Wall, was encouraged by the fact that the prayer service passed with hardly a hint of interference.
“It’s wonderful that we could have such a beautiful prayer service tonight,” said Sachs. “Of course, a few people did pass and say some nasty things. But we also had many women passing by who stood with us for a few minutes to support us, or who called out, ‘good for you.’”
And then there was that little incident on the way into the Western Wall complex. Someone tipped off the police, Sachs says, that she might be carrying a Torah, or something else suspicious.
“The policeman came over, and he knows me – he’s arrested me a few times before,” said Sachs. “And he looked and saw that what I was actually carrying was just a big batch of t-shirts.” The group distributed to its activists about 40 of the new shirts, which read “I stand with Women of the Wall.” Sachs was sent on her way. “The officer said, ‘There’s nothing problematic here, let her go.’”