Women of the Wall held its first peaceful service in many months at the Western Wall on Monday morning with a record number of participants.
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Police said that somewhere between 400 and 500 women participated in the pluralistic women’s prayer group service that also marked its 25th anniversary. Among the participants was a delegation of more than100 supporters from the United States, including 20 rabbis.
Under pressure from several Orthodox cabinet ministers, the Bnei Akiva movement at the last minute called off plans to bring thousand of high school girls in its school system to the Western Wall to demonstrate against Women of the Wall. Haaretz has learned that Education Minister Shai Piron, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and several other members of the Habayit Hayehudi party put pressure to bear on Rabbi Benny Nechtailer, the head of the Bnei Akiva school system, to call off the demonstration.
The decision to bus in Bnei Akiva high school girls so that they could join ultra-Orthodox seminary girls in protesting the women’s prayer group had drawn fire from both within and outside the ranks of the religious Zionist movement.
Women of the Wall reported that about 1,000 worshippers had participated in their service (a much higher estimate than the police), including 200 male supporters who stood above the women’s prayer section in the upper plaza.
“It was a divine moment, and I rarely have divine moments at the Kotel,” said Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of WoW at the conclusion of the service. She said she was particularly delighted that for the first time in 25 years, her brother had come to the Western Wall to show support for the group.
About 300 ultra-Orthodox seminary girls, according to police estimates, held their own prayer service at the same time. That is much fewer than the thousands who have typically filled the women’s prayer space in recent months in order to crowd out Women of the Wall at their monthly Rosh Chodesh service.
A small group of ultra-Orthodox girls stood around the Women of the Wall worshippers, taunting and cursing the while they prayed. Female border police served as a human barrier separating the two groups.
The ultra-Orthodox girls said they were from seminaries in Jerusalem and that their schools had organized transportation for them to the Kotel.
“The peaceful prayer service of Women of the Wall this morning is testament to the failure of the Kotel rabbi and others to arouse provocations at the holy site this morning,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel. “It is proof that it is possible to find a way for every Jewish community to pray as they wish at the Kotel.”
At the start of the service, ultra-Orthodox male worshippers standing on the other side of the barrier dividing men from women used loudspeakers to drown out the sounds of the women praying and singing. But about halfway through the service, police disconnected the loudspeakers, saying that the relatively small number of male worshippers did not justify using the amplification system. It was the first time in several months that Women of the Wall were allowed to pray without the background sound of men praying through loudspeakers.
Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg, a mother of children active in Bnei Akiva who herself had served as a youth leader in the movement, was among those who had come out to show their support for WoW. “I had planned to be here because of the 25th anniversary celebrations,” she said, “but when I heard that they were planning to send Bnei Akiva girls here to demonstrate, that’s what gave me a real push to come.” Ben-Sasson Furstenberg is the granddaughter of Yosef Burg, one of the founder’s of the National Religious Party (the precursor of Habayit Hayehudi) and a long-serving minister and Knesset member.
Among the participants at the 25th anniversary event were a group of eight female cantors from the United States, who stood on chairs leading the service, and a delegation of executives and designers from comme-il-faut, the Israeli clothing company, which last week unveiled a new line of women’s fashions inspired by Women of the Wall. “We’re here to express our solidarity with their struggle,” said comme-il-faut Managing Director Sybil Goldfeiner.
Also visible in the crowd were several longstanding members of WoW, who in recent weeks have been campaigning against the board’s decision to enter into negotiations with the government about the possibility of moving the group’s monthly prayer service to a new egalitarian space on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge.
The Kotel rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, rejected a request by Women of the Wall to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s prayers section. In a symbolic act of protest, members of the group held up empty Torah scroll covers as they read from a Chumash.