AT 11:00 PM ON October 16, 2012, Israeli police arrested Anat Hoffman for praying out loud and wearing a tallit while leading a service at the women’s section of the Western Wall. The ultra-Orthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s control over practices and mores at the site was upheld by a Supreme Court decision in 2003 and does not permit women to engage in activities that “disturb the peace” or violate “local custom.”
As the chairman of the board of Women of the Wall, known as WOW, Hoffman has practiced these rituals at the Wall for the past 24 years. She and other WOW members come to the Kotel each month and hold a service on Rosh Chodesh. While the women have previously been questioned and fingerprinted by the police, Hoffman’s lock-up was a first. Her treatment in custody where she said she was “handcuffed, strip searched, dragged and locked up with an accused prostitute” also lacked precedent. Police released Hoffman the following morning without filing formal charges.
Jews who support religious pluralism in Israel responded with outrage. United Synagogue’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, helped lead the outcry, declaring, “This time enough is enough; Israel must endorse religious pluralism or risk a rift with the Diaspora.” United Synagogue created a Facebook group for those who wanted to protest Hoffman’s treatment and on behalf of religious pluralism in Israel. Called “Hear O Israel: The Global Sh’ma Flashmob,” it invited individuals and groups to post videos of themselves reciting the Sh’ma and commenting on the issue. (Hoffman was arrested while reciting the Sh’ma.) Three thousand people joined the group, and hundreds of supporters around the world posted videos. (The group is at www.facebook.com/ groups/uscjglobalshma.) Israel’s Masorti movement declared that “the Western Wall Plaza belongs to the entire nation.”
At its 2010 convention, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism passed a resolution supporting Women of the Wall. It affirms our unity as a single worldwide community and urges the municipality of Jerusalem and the state of Israel to take immediate steps to promote religious pluralism, provide equitable treatment to non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life, and end the harassment of women seeking to pray with dignity at the Kotel.
When the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel met in late October, its members – who include USCJ’s Rabbi Wernick, former Women’s League president and current president of MERCAZ Janet Tobin, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism – expressed a range of viewpoints on the matter of religious pluralism. But they unified in their call for “achieving a satisfactory approach to the issue of prayer at the Western Wall… consistent with Israel’s guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience.” Wernick emphasized that USCJ would labor until Israel embraced the right to freedom of conscious and worship. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later asked the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, “to study the issue and suggest ways to make the site more accommodating to all Jews,” the New York Times reported. Hoffman was cautiously optimistic but said her group was planning to file a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the makeup of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Sharansky has expressed his belief that the Kotel does belong to all Jews.
In November, just one month after the well-publicized detention of Hoffman, the Israeli police again arrested several Women of the Wall, including Bonnie Riva Ras, a USCJ staffer in Israel, who is a WOW leader as well as a member of the Women’s League Masorti Day of Study committee. In December, police told Women of the Wall they could not bring their tallitot when they entered the plaza to pray. While Ras’s arrest was peaceable, her account makes clear that the Israeli police will continue enforcing the ultra-Orthodox view that prevents women from praying at the Wall in the same way that men do: without fear of harassment, arrest or physical violence.
Arrested for Praying: A Firsthand Account
by Bonnie Riva Ras
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.
Nancy Rosenberg is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.