Arrested for Praying: A Firsthand Account

One woman’s personal experience as an arrestee

by Bonnie Riva Ras

Comments Off on Arrested for Praying: A Firsthand Account

Bonnie Riva Ras being led away to the police station.

Bonnie Riva Ras being led away to the police station.

The morning of Rosh Chodesh Kislev came way too early. I had just arrived home to Jerusalem from New York the evening before and there was no food in my apartment, not even milk for coffee. But I am a board member of Nashot HaKotel – Women of the Wall – and I have not missed a Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel since I made aliyah in August 2010.

At 6:30 AM, I wearily made my way to the Kotel. Getting through security was surprisingly easy. Usually my backpack is scrutinized and the guard opens my tallit bag and checks through my siddur. Sometimes my bag is checked more than once, and I am thoroughly questioned.

When I got to the plaza in front of the Wall there were large groups of women and male supporters gathered around Lesley Sachs, WOW’s executive director. Many groups from across the country had traveled to Jerusalem to support us. Only our Beersheba sisters did not come; they had been kept up all night by the barrage of missiles coming from Gaza.

We gathered at the very back of the women’s section and put on our tallitot. Lesley had just started to announce that the service would begin when the police came and took her and Rachel Cohen Yeshuran, a fellow board member, away.

I stood up front wrapped in my tallit; board members always stand up front to protect our shlichat tzibur, our prayer leader, from harassment by the police and attack by ultra-Orthodox Haredi women. Our prayer leader davened beautifully and the arrests continued while we prayed. We had just begun singing Song of the Sea when three police officers came for me.

For the past six months, women davening with us have been detained by the police because they were wearing traditional, longer tallitot, which are disallowed because they’re deemed men’s garments by the ultra-Orthodox authorities given control of the Wall. I wear a gold embroidered Woman of the Wall tallit that the police consider a woman’s tallit so I was never detained before. In previous months, I would wait outside the police station and at the courthouse to show solidarity. I had thought about wearing a different tallit but that would have been provocative. I want to daven at the Kotel in the same tallit I wear davening at shul.

This time I was taken to the police station and the officers took my identity papers. I was texting my daughter to tell her what happened and was told that my cell phone was going to be taken, so I put it away. More women were brought from the Kotel and then we were six: Lesley, Rachel, Laura Wharton, Deb Houben, Bonna Devorah Haberman, and me. We were transported by police van to the Kishlev station near the Yaffo gate, singing the entire way, our method of resisting the political situation. At the station, we were put in a room together and we davened Shacharit and Hallel. The police woman who escorted me came in and said we were all arrested. Our attorney arrived and spoke to us as a group, but he was not allowed to be with us when we were interrogated. We were questioned one by one, which went on for quite a while. But they never took our cell phones so we texted, spoke on the phone and took pictures as we waited. The hours dragged on.

When I went in to be interrogated, I was not allowed an interpreter (my Hebrew is not yet fluent). I was questioned in English but there were still some communication gaps. For instance, the officer could not accurately translate the crime I was accused of committing. Roughly, I was told my crime was that I wore a tallit at the Kotel and that it was an act that could potentially lead to unrest.

I was asked if I knew I was wearing a tallit and if I knew it was a crime. I denied that wearing a tallit is a criminal act. (In fact the Supreme Court judgment does not actually say that it is.) I disagreed that the rabbi of the Kotel had the authority to decide that it was illegal for a woman to wear a tallit. I said that I was an olah chadashah, a new immigrant, and the officer told me that the police had been watching me for quite some time. I was asked several questions about Lesley, and it seemed as if the police were trying to build a case against her.

I didn’t understand that I could refuse to sign the paperwork they gave me, so I accepted a ban from the Kotel that, had I understood, I would have refused to sign. Some of us signed and some of us refused, but in the end, we were all released.

I was not handcuffed or physically harmed in any way. But I was removed from the Kotel as I prayed, was detained for five hours and was photographed and fingerprinted. My case is still open and I can be called in for questioning and potentially jailed.

Women of the Wall chose not to publicize these arrests and did not post videos or pictures on our website or Facebook page. It was not the right time; Israel was under attack and needed our full support.

The missiles from Gaza have now stopped. But a war is still raging – it’s about the marginalization of 50 percent of the population, whose voices are not heard, who are not supposed to be seen and whose public sphere is shrinking, especially at Judaism’s holiest site.