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Two Jewish American women, both members of the Reform movement, were stopped at the entrance to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning, taken to a side room and asked to lift their shirts and skirts. The women were part of a delegation of students studying at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College, who had come to join the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall at its monthly service.
Earlier this year, following similar incidents, the Israeli Supreme Court appealed to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall, to refrain from invasive body searches of women coming to worship at the Jewish holy site.
In response, Rabinowitz said that the body checks were conducted “in accordance with security needs, in coordination and at the direction of the Israeli police.” He noted that Women of the Wall supporters have been known to smuggle in Torah scrolls to the Western Wall, in defiance of regulations at the site.
The two women who were singled out for the search were part of a group of 15 students from North America and Australia, mostly women. They were accompanied by Tamar Havilio, head of cantorial studies at Hebrew Union College. “When I told the guards that it was illegal for them to conduct such body checks on women, they told me it was because of the security situation,” said Havilio. “But I did not see any men being pulled aside.”
The guards were about to summon a transgender member of the group for a similar body search when Havilio urged Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, to come intervene. After Kariv warned the guards that such action was illegal, the transgender student was allowed to pass through without a body check.
The group comprised rabbinical, cantorial and Jewish education students, Havilio said.
Women of the Wall activists succeeded in smuggling in a Torah scroll to the Western Wall on Wednesday morning, as they have in recent months. The participants in the prayer service also held a shofar-blowing ceremony at its conclusion to mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul.
Responding to this morning’s events, Rabinowitz said: “The shofar-blowing by Women of the Wall was not a call for repentance and awakening but a call for war among the Jews.”
In January, responding to a petition submitted by the Center for Women’s Justice, the Supreme Court called on Rabinowitz to stop subjecting women to intense body searches at the Western Wall. The petition demanded that women be permitted to bring their own Torah scrolls to the holy site. “It is the responsibility of the rabbi in charge of the Kotel to prevent searches on the women who have petitioned and on others like them beyond the regular security checks conducted on all those who come to the Kotel,” the judges wrote.