Feminist Group Holds Overnight Sit-in to Guarantee Torah Reading at Western Wall

Members of Women of the Wall come up with new tactic for outwitting Kotel security inspections.

Daniel Shitrit

Determined to read from a full-size Torah at the Western Wall this morning without getting caught, members of a feminist prayer group came up with a new tactic for outwitting security guards: This time, they smuggled the scroll in the night before to avoid inspection and sat with it for 12 hours, until the morning prayer service began.

Under a special pact reached with leaders of Women of the Wall last month, police have promised not to confiscate Torah scrolls found in the possession of its members, if they happen to be discovered in the women’s section of the Western Wall.

That was after a leader of the group was detained for smuggling a Torah scroll into the area last month.

Three months ago, Women of the Wall succeeded in holding a Torah reading with a full-size scroll at the Western Wall for the first time in more than 20 years. The scroll had been handed over to them through an opening in the partition that separates the men and women’s sections by a group of male supporters.

Since then, under instructions from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – the Orthodox-run organization responsible for prayer regulations at the Western Wall – a special locked barricade has been set up between the two sections.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation does not allow worshippers to bring their own Torah scrolls to the Jewish holy site. It keeps a supply of several dozen scrolls in the men’s section but none in the women’s section. It has consistently rejected requests by Women of the Wall to borrow one of the scrolls from the men’s section.

A group of Women of the Wall activist arrived at the Western Wall with a Torah scroll at 7 p.m. yesterday evening.  At close to 4 a.m., they were approached by police who searched through their belongings and discovered the Torah scroll.  The police tried to confiscate the Torah and detain the women for questioning. The women, however, refused to budge an insisted on calling Avi Biton, the police commander of the Jerusalem Old City district who promised them last month that no Torah scroll of theirs would be confiscated.  Following his intervention, the women were left alone.

But two-and-a-half hours later, other Women of the Wall activists, who had come to join these woman for the monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer, were stopped at the security checkpoint when shofars were discovered in their bags. Biton was again asked to intervene on behalf of Women of the Wall, which he did. Not long thereafter, he was summoned yet again, this time when security guards at the Jewish holy site tried to prevent Women of the Wall activists from bring their own prayer books into the women’s section. Once again, he ordered the security guards to leave them alone.

According to a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall, only about 80 women participated in the morning prayer service – much fewer than the monthly average of 150-200.  She speculated that some worshippers could have been deterred by the stabbing death last month of 16-year-old Shira Banki at the Jerusalem gay pride parade by an ultra-Orthodox man. This morning’s service was dedicated to tolerance and pluralism in Jerusalem in wake of the murder. Still, the women were cursed and taunted throughout the service by ultra-Orthodox worshippers who object to their singing out loud and wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries.

"This Rosh Chodesh in my mind will be remembered as our most powerful celebration of the year,” said Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, at the conclusion of the service. “The devotion of the women who sat all night so that we can pray with a Torah scroll, made it possible for us to make history today. Every woman who prayed with us today got a chance to blow the shofar. That never happened before.”