Jerusalem — On Tuesday, Rosh Hodesh Nissan, members of the group Women of the Wall and their supporters gathered, as they do at the start of every Jewish month, at the back of the Western Wall’s women’s section.
Forewarned by the police that their prayer shawls would be confiscated at the entrance to the women’s side, some of the women hid their tallitot underneath their clothes and donned them once the prayers began.
But the police ultimately relented when the three female Knesset members — Stav Shaffir, Michal Roisin and Tamar Zandberg — who arrived with prayer shawls, flatly refused to relinquish them, citing parliamentary immunity.
The MKs’ presence apparently made the police think twice about their plans to once again detain and/or arrest some of the 250 to 300 women who were praying communally, at least two dozen of them in tallitot.
That’s exactly what Women of the Wall had hoped would happen when they sent the female MKs an invitation to join them.
The invitations were part of WOW’s growing efforts to share with Jews around the world, and especially Israelis, their struggle to pray the way they wish at the Kotel.
“Our strategic goal is to get more into the hearts of Israelis,”Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman, told The Jewish Week.
“The issue is, who does the public sphere belong to, and that’s entered the public discourse. Women of the Wall are part of this discussion.”
The issue of women’s prayer at the Wall has long resonated with American Jews, particularly the Conservative and Reform denominations. But the spate of recent arrests, including two female American rabbis last month, has further energized stateside activists.
About six hours after morning services at the Wall, American supporters of WOW’s efforts held their own services in solidarity.
A gathering in New York City’s downtown Town and Village Synagogue attracted about 300 participants, including day school students.
As part of their stepped-up outreach efforts, WOW’s leaders asked David Rubinger, the famed photographer who took the iconic 1967 photo of paratroopers who had just liberated the Western Wall, whether he would feel comfortable photographing Women of the Wall in a similar pose.
The paratroopers immortalized in the photo supported the project, “and in the process we got to meet and know them,” Hoffman said as she walked, first gingerly, then triumphantly, with other WOW participants from the Kotel plaza.
The former paratroopers joined the WOW Rosh Hodesh prayers (from the men’s section) in February, a PR feat that gained a great deal of media attention.
But WOW didn’t orchestrate the participation of Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem-based Reform rabbi and sister of famous comedian Sarah Silverman, who was detained, along with her daughter Hallel, the same day the paratroopers joined in.
The Silvermans’ sit-in at the Kotel and their subsequent detention made headlines around the world, and spawned a lot of grass-roots support for Women of the Wall even among Israelis, many of whom consider WOW a provocative group spurred by American, not Jewish norms.
“Before this, I didn’t even know who Sarah Silverman was,” Hoffman admitted.
Hoffman attributed the recent spike in media coverage, coupled with the large number of women and men (120 men attended on Tuesday) to the recent public outcry over haredi attempts to marginalize women in public places.
“It looks like people’s hearts are beginning to open because of this segregation in the public sphere. There’s a radio show where women are permitted to speak for only a few hours every week. There are the segregated buses. There is the ongoing struggle over signs in Beit Shemesh demanding that women dress modestly.”
These issues, coupled with WOW’s savvy PR moves have given rise to a grass-roots movement, Hoffman said.
“We have crossed the tipping point, a moment where suddenly the attention is beyond the group’s control. I don’t know how many groups are holding solidarity rallies,” she said, referring to the many prayer vigils, including ones in New York, held in solidarity with WOW on Tuesday. “I no longer know the last names of the many women who come to pray with us.
“After 24 very long, very hard years, something has ripened,” Hoffman said, a little awed. “It’s an hour of grace, and I think we’re on our way to liberating the Kotel not just for our group but for all people who want to pray there in their own way.”
Longtime WOW participants know it won’t be easy. The women at Tuesday’s prayer session were heckled by fervently Orthodox women, including one who stood alongside them and recited her own prayers at the top of her lungs throughout the hour-long service.
They also had to contend with a group of more than 100 fervently Orthodox men who heeded “pashkevilim,” or notices, placed in haredi neighborhoods, urging them to pray at the wall this day “to protest against the desecration” of the Kotel.
Led by a white-bearded rabbi, the men broke into a frenzy of loud prayer in order to drown out the Women of the Wall, who continued their melodic communal prayers without missing a beat.
Not even the sound of an insistent shofar blown by a man trying to break up the women’s prayers had much of an effect. The women — including the Knesset members draped in prayer shawls — swayed to the melodies, so caught up were they in the prayers. At the end they formed a large circle and danced.
Throughout that hour a dozen armed border policemen took positions on the men’s side of the tall wall that separates the men’s and women’s sections. Male and female police personnel warned Hoffman and several other women that they were violating the sanctity of the Kotel, a code phrase for “you’re going to be detained.”
WOW leaders believe the chief of police decided not to detain the women when they saw there were Knesset members present.
When the Women of the Wall exited the women’s section an hour later they did so singing, with locked arms, American Civil Rights Movement style. They were relieved and a bit shocked when the police made no arrests as they walked to Robinson’s Arch, the archeological garden Israel’s High Court designated in 2003 as the proper place for “non-traditional” prayer, for a Torah reading.
WOW hopes to attract even more Knesset members to future Rosh Hodesh gatherings, not only to prevent arrests but also to raise the legislators’ awareness that when a woman at the Kotel wears a prayer shawl or tefillin, or prays from a Torah scroll, she can be charged with a felony.
Standing in the women’s section, where longtime WOW members and veteran journalists were a bit dumbfounded by the sight of three female MKs in tallitot, Stav Shaffir, a newly elected MK, said she felt it important to join the cause.
“I believe in their struggle,” Shaffir told The Jewish Week, “Religion cannot be in the possession of any one group. I believe in the right to express one’s religious beliefs in the way that feels right for them.”
Hoffman said one of her group’s goals is to organize Israel’s first-ever bat mitzvah at the Kotel, with all that it would entail.
“There are tens of thousands of bar mitzvahs on the other side of the mechitza. We have the names of 120 girls” who would like to be bat-mitzvah’d in the women’s section.
The activist also has another dream: That Barbra Streisand will join WOW during her planned visit to Israel in June.
“Women of the Wall are very inspired by Yentl, who was a woman who wanted to delve more deeply into Torah study and had to pretend to be a man to do it,” she said, referring to the eponymous protagonist of the 1983 film starring Streisand.
The group plans to send the performer an invitation to its Rosh Hodesh gathering, especially because, according to Hoffman, the singer already owns one of the colorful prayer shawls designed for WOW.
“She can follow her tallit and join us. We could use the most Jewish female voice in the world,” Hoffman said.