'Outraged' Reform Jewish Leaders Urge Netanyahu to Denounce Western Wall Strip-searches

'The actions of the Western Wall Heritage Fund go beyond the disagreement we have about the implementation of a compromise at the Kotel,' letter to Israeli prime minister reads

The Western Wall in Jerusalem.
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Leaders of the Reform movement in the United States sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, expressing their “outrage and dismay” over the strip-searches their female rabbinical students were subjected to the previous day while visiting the Western Wall.

They called on Netanyahu to issue “a swift and clear denunciation” of this practice.

Two American students studying at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College were pulled aside at the security check to the Western Wall, taken into a separate room, and asked to lift their skirts and shirts. When asked to respond, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of Western Wall and director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the site, suggested that the special security check was conducted because the women were suspected of smuggling Torah scrolls under their clothes into the Western Wall, in defiance of the prevailing rules.

Earlier this year, following similar incidents, the Supreme Court urged Rabinowitz to refrain from conducting invasive body searches on women coming to pray at the Western Wall.

The two women pulled aside were part of a delegation of 15 students from the Hebrew Union College, who had come to join Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, for their monthly gathering.

“These bold young leaders were treated in the most degrading way imaginable. They were pulled out of line among hundreds of men and women and were subject to a completely unnecessary search,” the Reform movement leaders wrote in their letter to Netanyahu. “The actions of the Western Wall Heritage Fund go beyond the disagreement we have about the implementation of a compromise at the Kotel. This was an unacceptable and shameful attempt to hurt and humiliate our leaders, and we are deeply outraged.”

The letter was signed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America; Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president of Hebrew Union College (which ordains Reform rabbis and has campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem); and Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In the letter, they noted that the two American women were spending their first year of studies in Israel and that they were stopped after they passed through a metal detector, noting that this “clearly indicated that they were not posing any security threat.”

The goal of the exchange program in Israel, the letter said, is “to cultivate and love and commitment” to the country.

“We will continue to struggle for justice and work to create an Israel we can be proud of,” the Reform movement leaders wrote. “The actions of the personnel at the Kotel [Western Wall] yesterday morning only continue to make our work extremely difficult.”