Overseas Student Programs Reeling From Western Wall Arrests

Some visitors got a rude awakening when they discovered that it is illegal in Israel for a woman to wear a tallit at the Western Wall.

Not many people were aware until last week that it is against the law in Israel for a woman to wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the Western Wall. But when four women were detained last Friday and interrogated by police for violating this prohibition, the news reverberated around the Jewish world.

The women, released after a few hours of questioning, were participating in the monthly prayer service held by Women of the Wall to mark the beginning of the Jewish month.

This was not the first time participants in the service clashed with police, but it was the first time that non-Israelis were detained - in this case, two 18-year-olds from Britain participating in the Netzer Olami Shnat gap-year program, which is affiliated with the Reform youth movement.

The two also happened to be the youngest women ever dragged away from the Western Wall plaza for donning a tallit.

For Jewish organizations around the world that identify with the mission of Women of the Wall and bring tens of thousands of young people to Israel every year on organized programs, it raises a thorny issue: How to protect their charges, and, at the same time, uphold their values and beliefs? More bluntly put, should they be discouraging participants from joining a cause they strongly identify with because of the risk of ending up in jail?

"I would never have thought that I would live to see the day when this is an issue we would have to discuss," said Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, the director of the Masorti (Conservative ) Olami movement. "The fact that Jewish youth coming from around the world can't come to the Kotel and pray in a fashion they believe in is appalling."

Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce said she believes the police are merely trying to intimidate the activists ("If they wanted to press criminal charges, they would have done that by now"). Still, she does urge those who want to show solidarity, particularly younger women from abroad, to understand there are risks involved in acts of civil disobedience. "What concerns us is that they may end up having problems with their visa and lose their right to be in Israel," noted Pruce. "That is why I tell them that if they do not want to be detained, they should not wear a tallit."

Prompted by recent events, Netzer Olami has decided to warn participants in its programs of the risks they might face. "In wake of the disturbing behavior of police in recent months, participants in our educational programs interested in taking part in Women of the Wall prayer services will be briefed about this behavior and about the possibility of women being detained for interrogation for wearing a prayer shawl at the wall," wrote Michael Vainberg, the director of the gap year program, in an email.

Masa Israel, which runs dozens of programs in Israel for young Jewish adults, said it does not condone breaking the law in Israel, but according to North America director Avi Rubel, "We do encourage our participants to engage in Israeli democracy and to explore issues of Jewish identity in Israel within the bounds of Israeli law."

Young Judaea, which is non-partisan, has no intention of changing its guidelines for Israel program participants. "We will not change our policies or approach," said Dan Krakow, the director of the organization's Israel office. "We're an activist organization that believes in pluralism, and we're happy for our kids to be exposed and engage with all kinds of causes across the gamut - certainly something connected with women's rights and engaging with their Jewish identity."