Jerusalem Police Detain Women at Western Wall for Wearing Tallits

Five women detained along with one Haredi man who set alight a Mormon pamphlet, day after Jewish Agency Chairman details plan to expand Kotel plaza to include place for non-Orthodox Jews; 'Sharansky needs to know that if this continues, there is no basis for compromise,' says Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv.

Five women were detained by police Thursday for wearing tallits (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) at the Western Wall during a morning prayer service held by the Women of the Wall organization. In addition, an ultra-Orthodox man was detained.

After several hours of questioning, the women were taken to the Jerusalem Magistrates Court in the Russian Compound. They were later released, without being issued with restraining orders that would have prevented them from accessing the site. In the past, such restraining orders have been issued against members of Women of the Wall, a group of activists that holds a monthly prayer service at the wall, although it is rare.

About 150 women attended the Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Kotel, some wearing tallits and tefillin. Fifteen minutes into the start of the morning prayer, Jerusalem police detained the women, all active members of Women of the Wall, for violating recently enforced prohibitions against wearing tallits at the Western Wall plaza. However, not all those women in attendance wearing tallits were arrested, sparking speculation that police had no choice but to take action after they warned at a press conference earlier this week that they had every intention of enforcing the law governing prayer at the wall vigilantly.

The clampdown came two days after Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky announced his recommendations for a compromise agreement that would eventually wrest exclusive control of prayer at the wall from the Orthodox.

Police initially thought the Haredi man detained this morning had set alight a special siddur (prayer book) that the group Women of the Wall use at their monthly, Rosh Hodesh service, but later said that it turned out to be a Mormon pamphlet. Throughout the prayer service, a group of Haredi men heckled the women, shouting from the men’s section: “With our bodies, we will defend the Kotel. Reform Jews, get of here.”

Among the women detained were Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, and Bonnie Ras, assistant director of communications for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Also detained were Silvie Rosenbaum, Sharona Kramer and Rabbi Valery Stessi, who was the first Conservative rabbi to be ordained in Israel, and the head of the Maayanot congregation in Jerusalem. They are all Israeli citizens.

The women were taken to the police station in the Old City of Jerusalem for interrogation.

Two Meretz Knesset members, Michal Rosin and Tamar Zandberg joined the Women of the Wall prayer service on Thursday morning. They, too, donned tallits, but because they enjoy parliamentary immunity, they cannot be arrested. Both Rosin and Zandberg accompanied the detained women to the police station and spent about a half hour with them there.

As the women were being escorted to the police station, a group of men who had come to show their support began shouting: "Let her go. Let her go."

"Natan Sharansky needs to know that if this continues, there is no basis for finding any compromise," Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, said. "The basis for any compromise is mutual respect, and the behavior we saw today will prevent any moving forward. We demand that the women who were detained be released immediately."

Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative movement in Israel, described police action this morning as “meaningless folly.”

“Jews around the world have their eyes set on the Kotel now that Sharansky has courageously presented a program that requires everyone to compromise, yet the rabbi of the Kotel continues with his shenanigans,” said Hess. “Saying Kaddish may no longer be an act that warrants arrest for him, but the tallit is still something that burns his eyes. He runs the Kotel as if it were his own personal property, and in doing, does great damage to the State of Israel.”

Under pressure from the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to draft recommendations aimed at resolving the increasingly heated dispute over prayer at the Kotel.

Following the arrests, Rosin expressed outrage at police behavior. "It's a poor decision, it saddens me that on the one hand the government speaks of compromise, but on the other it acts this way," she told Haaretz.

Zandberg was also highly critical of the police, noting that "On the day after the Israeli government published its plan for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, these arrests make it look like a joke."

Not all women who attended the Western Wall on Thursday morning support the Women of the Wall's cause. "I have come here to protest against the Reform Jews who desecrate this holy site," Miriam Schreiber, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Jerusalem, said. This is the second month now that Schreiber has attended the Kotel to protest against the Women of the Wall, standing next to them, praying out loud in an attempt to drown them out. "Their whole practice betrays the Creator," she added.

Jerusalem Magistrate Court Judge Sharon Bavli-Larry released the five women detained, noting in her decision that they did not incite Thursday's clashes at the Western Wall, but rather an ultra-Orthodox woman did.

"Indeed, it is correct that Women of Wall worshippers are seen in the footage approaching another worshipper, but I cannot ignore the fact that that other worshipper is standing purposely with her back to them holding an umbrella upon which are written slogan against Women of the Wall. Under these circumstances, it is not the Women of the Wall who started the provocation," wrote the judge in her decision.

The woman holding the umbrella was Miriam Schreiber.

Based on this decision that Women of the Wall carry no blame, Bavli-Larry rejected a request by police for an injunction that would have prevented the five women detained from praying at the Western Wall for the next three months.

Sharansky is expected to present his recommendations to Netanyahu in the coming days. On Tuesday, he spelled out his plan for resolving the controversy over female prayer at the wall in a meeting he held with world Jewish leaders in New York. The plan calls for expanding the existing Western Wall area to include a new section that would be designated for non-Orthodox groups and where members of these groups would be able to hold their services throughout the day.

Sharansky's proposal is the product of months of deliberations in an attempt to forge a compromise between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. While Reform and Conservative Jews are a minority among Israeli Jews, they are the vast majority among Jews in North America.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who was involved in drawing up Sharansky's proposal, recently said that while he would prefer that everyone would pray according to Jewish law, "under the current circumstances, when the desire is that the Kotel not be a place for demonstrations and disputes, I will not object to the proposal."

In a statement released Thursday, Sharansky said the morning's events were "one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife."

He added that he hopes the recently generated goodwill to defuse tensions and make the Western Wall a site where all manners of prayer are accepted "will be translated into practical steps in the coming weeks.”

Women of the Wall traditionally hold a morning prayer service at the wall at the start of each Jewish month. In recent months, members of the organization have clashed with police over newly enforced regulations that prohibit them from wearing prayer shawls at the wall and praying out loud. Virtually every month, police have arrested women during and after the monthly prayer services for violating these restrictions, sparking an outcry among Jewish organizations abroad that advocate for pluralism.

Sara Farber, a Jerusalem woman who describes herself as “observant, but I’d rather not use any labels” attended the Kotel on Thursday morning just to observe. “I don’t identify with the desire to wear a tallit and tefillin, but I completely support their right to pray as they believe,” she said, referring to Women of the Wall.

Nadia M. Levene
Michal Fattal
Michal Fattal