Wearing kippot, some two dozen women convened for afternoon prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Representing the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements, the group gathered at the Jewish holy site in support for Linda Siegel-Richman, from Colorado, USA, who on Monday was prevented from entering the Western Wall plaza by security guards who demanded to know "who had given her permission" to wear her skull cap.
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Having spent several weeks studying in Israel, Siegel-Richman, a teacher, was on her way to pray at the Western Wall and, in accordance with Jewish custom, to place notes that her second grade students had written into the crevices of the stones.
By the time Wednesday’s prayer service convened, Siegal-Richman herself was already on a plane back to the United States, explained Tammy Gottlieb, Director of New Media for the Masorti (Conservative) movement and a friend of the Siegal-Richman family.
Siegal-Richman, said Gottlieb, "wears her skullcap when she is doing avodat kodesh (holy work). It pains me terribly that an American Jewish woman, who wanted nothing more to pray to god and fulfill a mitzvah (good deed) for her young students, encountered that kind of hatred for her Jewish observance here in Israel."
Following the incident, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, issued a statement saying, "If there was an incident of this kind, Western Wall officials were wrong to prevent Linda from entering...I give my sincere apologies and the apologies of my staff to Linda and hope you return soon to visit the Western Wall."
In response, Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, said: "That is not a real apology. A real apology should take responsibility for what the guards and ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who are under Rabinovitch's authority, did to a woman who wanted nothing more than to pray.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is primarily ultra-Orthodox and is publicly funded, administers the main Western Wall plaza. In the past its guards have regularly detained women for praying out loud or in a group, or for wearing prayer shawls.
In his statement Rabinovitch also expressed "regret over the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust at the Western Wall as a result of the struggles of Women of the Wall...[it is] an atmosphere that is harming many worshippers."
Quipped Hoffman, who is also a leader of Women of the Wall, which regularly prays in the women's section of the Western Wall at the beginning of every Jewish month, "That is really blaming the victim. Maybe we are also responsible for the Destruction of the Temple because, as women, we want to have and express our religious feelings."
The timing of the event was particularly painful, said Rabbi Nava Hefetz, Director of Education at Rabbis for Human Rights, referring to a statement earlier this week made by Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas), who said that he did not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish.
Also pointing to the government's recent repeal of a decision by the previous administration to create greater flexibility in conversion, Hefetz said, "The state is allowing a small group of extremist Jews to appropriate Judaism. A woman has the right to express her religious sentiments as she feels fit – there is no religious ruling that a woman has to dress or pray in a certain way. A daughter of Israel was expelled, humiliated, degraded – here, at the Kotel, the place that should symbolize Jewish unity."
Avishag Amit-Shapira, 20, an applied physicist and a self-defined Orthodox Jew, noted that this is the beginning of the period of three weeks of mourning leading up to the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, when, according to Jewish tradition, the Second Temple, of which the Western Wall is a last vestige, was destroyed. "We are taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. This is a time when we should be reflecting on how we can come together as a people in love and respect. Instead, I feel that as a woman and a Jew, I, too, have been personally humiliated and degraded. No one should have the right to question my intentions as a Jew who seeks to worship God in faith and humility."
The prayer event was organized through the Facebook page of the "Feldhushiot," a Hebrew acronym for "I Am a Religious Feminist and I Don't Have a Sense of Humor, Either." With a wink to the often repeated contention that feminists "don't have a sense of humor," the Feldhushiot page, which has nearly 10,000 followers, serves as a social media forum for debates, conversations, and, in this instance, social organizing.
Unlike many previous events sponsored by Women of the Wall, the prayer service passed without incident or interruption by ultra-Orthodox women, who object to women who pray out loud in a quorum or wear what they regard as "male symbols." A group of high school girl students from "an Ultra-Orthodox high school in the south," who refused to be more specific, watched from the side. "They are sinners," said one of the girls, pointing to the women in their kippot. "If they want to be like men, they should wear beards, too. But I guess they should be allowed to pray because, at the end of days, it will be obvious that there is only one Jewish way."