When 10 women were detained last week for breaking the rules governing women’s prayer at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, the incident made headlines.
The group arrest was only the latest in a spate of similar incidents in recent months in response to the activism of Women of the Wall, which has been agitating for 20 years for the rights of women to pray freely at the Kotel. Robyn Fryer Bodzin, a rabbi at the Israel Center for Conservative Judaism in Flushing, Queens, who was in Israel on a UJA-Federation of New York mission with 30-some colleagues, was one of those arrested. Now that she’s back home, she’s hoping to celebrate the next Rosh Chodesh in solidarity with Women of the Wall by being a part of a public prayer service in downtown Manhattan. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Just as you feel spiritually distressed by not being able to pray as you want at the Wall, so do other Jews feel distressed by you doing that very thing. How would you respond to their feelings?
A: The Kotel — Yerushalyim in general — is a public space. It should not be ruled by the haredi establishment. If there are people that are so bothered by women davening, they can go elsewhere, to a private place. But the Kotel and the Old City and the stones of Jerusalem are for all Jews.
What would your ideal Kotel look like?
In my ideal world we would go back to 1967, when the paratroopers liberated and said it’s in our hands, it’s for all of us. If I could dream of what the Kotel plaza could look like, there would be three sections: a women’s section, a men’s section and a mixed section.
You must have known that women had recently been detained for wearing a tallit at the Wall. Did you wear yours on purpose?
I didn’t really think about it. When I go to Shacharit, I put on a tallis; when I daven Mincha, I don’t. It’s an extension of my body. I’m not just waking up and opening a siddur [prayer book]. It’s a way to acknowledge that I’m going to spend time in prayer with the creator, the Kodesh Baruch Hu. To this day, I have no idea why I was chosen [for detention]. There were women who were wearing tefillin; I was not that morning. There were women who were wearing bright, multicolored tallises; I was not.
How did you feel when you were arrested?
A police officer asked me for my Israeli identity card and then my passport [Rabbi Bodzin is Canadian]. Then she told me to follow her, and we followed her to a small police station and one by one, more women came until there were 10 of us standing there … at the very beginning I was scared, but [others of the women] had done it before, and once I was informed that the police officers were sympathetic to us my fear left. I borrowed a phone and called my husband and he started putting it up on Facebook and Twitter.
The police were sympathetic to you?
I don’t think when other criminals are being detained by police, do the police make sure everybody has a cup of tea to keep warm and … bags of dried fruit and pretzels. When one of the police officers was processing me, he asked me if I was married, and I asked him right back and then we kibbitzed for five minutes about what he was looking for. I asked him if I could have a pen on his desk as a souvenir, and he said sure.
Do you think this civil disobedience strategy will enable women to pray freely at the Wall
In Israel, things get done through the inside, through people that have power, and people are starting to care. [But] we met with the editor of Haaretz and asked him why does Women of the Wall stuff make the front page of the paper in English and not in Hebrew, and he said Israeli society cares less about Reform and Conservative Jews than they do about the Orthodox. I think a lot of them are just not aware of it yet, and we need to make awareness … I hope this will expedite a solution, because taking away a woman’s right to daven as a Jew isn’t such a Jewish thing to do.