NEW YORK – More than 350 people – Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Jewish Renewal – gathered Tuesday morning at a Manhattan synagogue to pray together on the first day of the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan, and show solidarity with Women of the Wall, whose members have frequently been arrested for wearing tallitot and praying as a group at the Kotel.
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The gathering, called “Wake up for Religious Tolerance: Rosh Hodesh Solidarity Minyan in Support of Women of the Wall,” was scheduled to meet in Union Square, but moved into nearby Town & Village Synagogue because of rain.
People traveled to the event from as far away as Philadelphia. Similar gatherings took place around the U.S., including a demonstration outside Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, and solidarity prayer services in Cleveland, Chicago and at Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania, said service organizer Rabbi Iris Richman. A “sing in” is slated outside Israel’s consulate in San Francisco for Sunday.
“We are responsible for one another and we demand justice and tolerance for all who want to pray at the Kotel,” said Richman from the synagogue's stage after the conclusion of the morning service. A Conservative rabbi, she organized the event after 10 women were arrested a month earlier at the Kotel for wearing tallitot, or prayer shawls. More than 40 synagogues and Jewish organizations, including the Reform and Conservative movements’ congregational arms, co-sponsored the gathering.
The spirited morning service was led by rabbis and cantors, all of them women, from the liberal movements. Middle school students from the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn carried the Torah around the sanctuary after it was taken out of the ark and, together with students from the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, led the Aleinu part of the service. Men accounted for perhaps one-fifth of the people in attendance, who crowded into the sanctuary.
Surveying the packed pews, Rabbi Charles Savenor, who works for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, quipped, “It’s like the High Holy Days, but even better.”
Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman, 18, was one of those arrested at the Kotel last month. A resident of Newton, Mass. until age 11, when her family made aliyah, she was called to the Torah at the solidarity service. “It was so amazing to see that many people there who don’t even live in Israel, but it still means so much to them. It was incredible,” she said afterward. “I was so happy that I got to be there.”
Being part of a pluralistic event “is exciting,” said Ariella Rosen, 26, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, shortly before the service began. Rosen and two classmates were arrested at the Kotel last May when participating in a Women of the Wall service. “Chances for people to gather from different parts of the community don’t happen as often as they ought to,” she said. “We’re used to being in our own bubbles.”
Rabbi Robin Fryer Bodzin, who leads Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, was also arrested at the Kotel last month, on Rosh Chodesh Adar. She said, from the synagogue stage, “We have been patient. And we are done being patient. There is no need for our voices to be silenced anymore.”
David Kalb is a modern Orthodox rabbi who did not participate in the egalitarian service but spoke from the stage at its conclusion. “This is a civil rights issue,” said Kalb, who works as education director at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y. “When violence is done by so-called Haredim, it is the job of Orthodox Jews to be at the Kotel and put themselves between these violent protestors and these women who want to pray to God,” he said, to loud applause.
Vicky Vossen took the morning off from her job as a court attorney in Brooklyn to be part of the gathering. “I came because we cannot have a state calling itself a Jewish state that denies women the right to practice Judaism freely,” she said. “It’s a shanda that a representative of Israel’s government isn’t here and hasn’t responded” to service organizers’ requests to send a representative to the event.
“If they want Jews form the Diaspora to come to Israel, they have to permit religious freedom,” said Vossen.
“Stop whining about how difficult things are for Israel. They have to be strong and moral and Jewish from within. It is a moral imperative,” she said.
When asked why the consulate did not respond to organizers’ requests, consulate spokesperson Keren Gelfand emailed a statement citing Kotel-related decisions by Israel’s Supreme Court and the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently appointed Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee, “to study the issue and suggest ways to make the site more accommodating for all Jews.”
“It is in the interest of the State of Israel and the entire Jewish people that everybody will have an opportunity to express their Judaism, as well as their solidarity with the Jewish people and the State of Israel, in a way he or she wants, without undermining each other,” Gelfand wrote. “As one of the most diverse nations on Earth, there is no substitute for peaceful coexistence.”
Opponents of Women of the Wall maintain the group's tactics are overly confrontational and gimmicky and that by engaging in practices many Orthodox Jews consider to be provocations, its members are harming rather than promoting the cause of Jewish pluralism and tolerance. Their opponents also say that Women of the Wall should move their prayer services over to the nearby Robinson's Arch area that was offered to them by the government as an alternative venue rather than insist on congregating at the Kotel.
In Jerusalem this week posters were plastered in Haredi neighborhoods urging people to go to the Kotel Tuesday morning to protest Women of the Wall’s “defilement of the holy.” More than 200 women, including three new members of Knesset wearing tallitot, went to pray at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh. Though some at the Kotel attempted to interfere with their service, this time, when the members of Knesset reminded police of their immunity, no one was arrested.
Lester Bronstein is the rabbi of Bet Am Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in White Plains, New York that was an official supporter of the solidarity service. He was at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh Adar and watched colleagues and friends be led away by police. Looking around the Town & Village sanctuary in New York, he said, “this is the center of the universe this morning. It’s like a direct spiritual line to Yerushalayim,”
“This is symbolically important,” he said, “but real things need to change” at the Western Wall.