Women of the Wall challenge Israeli laws

KPCC News, California/April 1, 2010

With tensions in Jerusalem running high throughout the city amid fears of impending hostilities, a group of Jewish women who had gathered at the Western Wall to pray together became the object of violent opposition by ultra-Orthodox religious men, who threw chairs and hurled insults across the barrier screen that separates the men's and women's sections at the most holy site of Judaism.

The Women of the Wall, a group of liberally observant Jewish women, had not even begun to assemble into prayer just before 7 a.m. on the chilly Tuesday morning when more than ten chairs were launched over the separation screen at the group.

"The weather was not a deterrence to our prayers. It was raining chairs this morning," joked WOW Chairperson Anat Hoffman.

The group believes women should have the right to perform acts traditionally reserved for men in Orthodox Judaism, such as praying in a group at the Wall, singing songs, wearing a prayer shawl garment called a Tallis and reading from the Torah.

Under current Israeli law such activities conducted at the Western Wall by women are considered a felony offense punishable by a fine of over $2,500 or six months in prison. It is considered an act of desecration because of the offense it causes to Orthodox worshippers. The site is overseen by Israel's Orthodox chief rabbinate, the official state religious governing body with jurisdiction over many aspects of life in the Jewish state, like marriage and divorce.

The women come to pray at the Wall at the start of each new month in the Jewish calendar, known as Rosh Hodesh. At the November gathering, member Nofrat Frenkel was arrested and detained for reading the Torah and wearing a prayer shawl at the Wall. In January Hoffman was called into the police station to be interrogated and fingerprinted. She was told she could face felony charges for violating a Supreme Court order that prohibited women from wearing the Tallis at the Western Wall.

On Tuesday morning police surrounded the group, but their presence was more a protective measure than a threat. Officers instructed the women to wear their Tallis hidden inside their jacket. After the chair throwing, the police detained two men and a line of female police officers was ordered to stand in front of the group.

"The police were very clear," said Hoffman. "The message was - no interruption to the Women of the Wall in their prayer. It was wonderful."

Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall laughs as ultra-Orthodox men throw chairs over the separation screen at the Western Wall as the women prepare to pray. (Photo by Meghan McCarty)

Frenkel attempted to carry the Torah in a duffel bag into the Kotel but was stopped by police. The bag was handed over to a male supporter who was allowed to carry it to Robinson's Arch, an archaeological site that has been provided as an alternative site where the women can read the Torah.

While the physical violence abated as the women began to sing and pray together, the Orthodox men raised up their voices in an attempt to drown out the women's singing. Some stood on chairs to look over the separation screen, screaming insults and admonishments and throwing up their hands in anguish.

Older Orthodox women complained to the police, yelling angrily and commanding the women to stop with cries of "Sshh!" But the group remained unfazed.

"You have to feel compassion for the shushers," said Hoffman. "We're not in the business of silencing women but once you have faced a soldier with a rifle pointed at you telling you to keep it down, like many of these older women have, you have to understand where they're coming from."

But there were also more extreme responses, with several men and women calling out "Nazis!"

"This is their favorite thing to say," said WOW Public Relations Coordinator Michelle Handelman. "It's just the worst thing they can think of to call them so they keep saying it."

Many of the 75 women in attendance were American immigrants who are accustomed to the more egalitarian practices of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the most common denominations in the U.S. Some others were younger students from Hebrew Union College engaged in rabbinic studies.

Hoffman said the monopolization of the Kotel by one form of Judaism at the expense of all others was still a major concern, but she sees Women of the Wall gradually chipping away at that hegemony.

"Am I still riding at the back of the bus? Yes," said Hoffman. "But I can do things in the back of the bus that I wasn't allowed to do before and someday we'll be able to ride any place on the bus we wish."

This story is part of a collaboration between KPCC.org and Neon Tommy, the news Web site for the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

A USC Annenberg graduate reporting class journeyed to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv over spring break to study the confluence of religion and politics in Israel-Palestine. The group met with activists, journalists, politicians, religious leaders and ordinary people to gain a first-hand understanding of the conflict in the region and scoop stories that aren't always told in the rush to break news or explain diplomatic machinations.

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