Arrested at the Western Wall, British Teenagers Discover the Limits of Jewish Life in Israel

'I definitely take for granted being able to pray how I like at home,' says Rhiannon Humphreys, who was detained for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten
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Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Emily Wolfson and Rhiannon Humphreys spent their recent Hanukkah vacation traveling around Israel. In addition to soaking up some sun in Tel Aviv, Wolfson visited Tiberias and Humphreys took in the "beautiful views" in Sde Boker.

They did not plan to see the inside of a Jerusalem police station.

Yet last Friday, the women - both 18 and participants in RSY-Netzer's Shnat gap year program - were detained for several hours by Israel Police after wrapping themselves in tallitot, or prayer shawls, at the Western Wall. The women were taking part in a monthly service organized by the group Women of the Wall.

Neither was charged with a crime.

In a joint Skype interview from Carmiel, where they are currently volunteering with local youth, the women appeared in good spirits during what they admitted was a "hectic and somewhat stressful time." They said they have received messages of support from family and friends on Facebook, as well as from RSY-Netzer and the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

They also said that while their decision to wear tallitot was made on the spur of the moment, it was consistent with the values that have been instilled in them by RSY-Netzer.

"It wasn't something that was pre-planned," said Humphreys, from London.

"We all did this together," added Wolfson, from Glasgow, Scotland. "It just so happened that Rhiannon and I threw on our tallitot."

Wolfson said she wore the tallit that her grandfather presented to her at her bat mitzvah.

Humphreys had borrowed a tallit from a friend because "the one that I have now is from my bat mitzvah and I have very different taste now than I did when I was 13," she said.

When asked if they knew the potential consequences of wearing tallitot at the Western Wall, Humphreys replied: "I was aware that women had been detained in the past for a variety of reasons, but I knew that participating in the service wasn't a detainable offense."

Under a new decree by religious authorities, women cannot enter the Western Wall plaza with Jewish ritual objects.

Wolfson and Humphreys, who met six years ago at a Jewish summer camp in the U.K., said they had learned about Women of the Wall before arriving in Israel and sympathized with the group's mission.

"I knew that they did this service at the start of every Hebrew month," Wolfson said. "Since equality for women is something that I really hold dear, I thought I was going to take part rather than just read about it."

They said they coordinated to attend the early-morning service during their vacation, and that other "Shnatties," as program participants are called, joined them. No one else from the program was detained.

"It's something that the kids who come on Shnat try to do every year," said the program's director, Michael Vainberg. He emphasized that the activity is not officially sanctioned by the RSY-Netzer youth movement.

Shortly after donning her tallit, Humphreys was approached by police and led away. Wolfson was detained a few moments later. They were taken to a guard stand where two other women from the prayer group were being held.

"We prayed together for a bit and the guards had no problem with us praying because we weren't inside of the Kotel," Wolfson said.

With the help of a translator, the women were informed that they would be transported to a Jerusalem police station for questioning. At the station, they spoke to an attorney who works with Women of the Wall and who advised them not to sign any of the documents, which included an admission of disturbing the peace. He reassured them that they would not be arrested if they refused to sign, as the police had warned.

"The attorney told us - and was right - that it's unlikely to be taken to court as they don't care enough because they want to go home on a Friday," Wolfson said.

During the detention period, which they estimated lasted about two hours, the women said they could hear their fellow Shnatties and other Women of the Wall participants singing and chanting outside of the police station.

Wolfson's sister Rhea, who is the national director of RSY-Netzer, broke the news to their parents. "They were a lot calmer, as it was coming from my sister," Wolfson said.

"I received a text from my dad," Humphreys said. It read: "Just heard, very proud, well done. Sending you big hug."

Both women declined to say if they would participate in future Women of the Wall prayer services. They did say that they will see their gap year through and then return to the U.K. to attend university. Wolfson plans to pursue culinary arts, and Humphreys said she will study politics.

The experience has inspired them to pursue, in Wolfson's words, "further social and legal recognition of our rights as women to wear tallitot, pray and read from the Torah collectively at the Kotel."

It also has given them a deeper understanding of the divide that exists between Jewish practice in the Diaspora and in Israel.

Said Humphreys: "I definitely take for granted being able to pray how I like at home."

Emily Wolfson, 18, in Israel for a gap-year program, at Western Wall after being arrested.Credit: Michal Fattal



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