(Adds comment from detained female rabbi, further comment from Jewish Agency)
Ten women were detained at the Western Wall on Monday, the highest number held at one time amid a spate of similar incidents in recent months, according to a press release from Women of the Wall, a Jerusalem-based group that has been agitating for more than 20 years for the right of women to pray audibly as a group at the Wall.
This group was taken into police custody for three hours of questioning because they were wearing prayer shawls during one of Women of the Wall’s regular prayer services, which celebrate the new lunar month, the press release said.
Between 15 and 20 women affiliated with Women of the Wall have been arrested at the wall in the last six months, said Shira Pruce, Women of the Wall’s spokeswoman, has told The Jewish Week in a previous interview.
The group of about 200 was allowed into the site to pray, some of them wearing prayer shawls, for about an hour, but at the end of the service, the police detained many of those wearing prayer shawls, according to the press release.
The detained women included Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman, who was arrested and held overnight in October; Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of the American comedian Sarah Silverman; one female rabbi from Canada and one from Connecticut.
“The irony is that last week my colleagues and I prayed freely all over Kiev, but in Jerusalem I was detained,” Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin of Queens, who had been travelling with the Rabbinic Cabinet of JFNA, told the Jewish Week in an e-mail.
While detained, her passport was taken from her and she was fingerprinted and photographed, but she was not told much about what was happening, Bodzin wrote. She was also interrogated and asked if she thought she was doing anything wrong, to which she said that as a Jew, she is religiously obligated to pray with a talit, or prayer shawl.
About 50 male supporters, among them members of the Israel Defense Forces who liberated the Wall during the 1967 war, accompanied the group, the press release said.
The arrests come as Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and chairman of the Jewish Agency, is studying the issue of women’s prayer at the Wall at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sharansky has been trying to tamp down the controversy over women praying at the Wall, said spokeswoman Vera Golvensky. Sharansky had separate meetings last week with both leaders of Women of the Wall and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which claims to control the site.
Golvensky, who observed the prayer service Monday morning, said all went well throughout the service. She was puzzled and disappointed when she saw the police step in and detain women after it ended.
“The whole idea was to reduce the tensions,” she said. Sharansky had asked the police to use female officers to deal with the women rather than men, if police determined that action was neccessary. In the past, male officers have been accused by treating the women roughly.
When Sharansky learned the women detained on Monday were going to be taken to a judge, he called police officials and asked that the women be released, which they were.
Two years ago, the Jewish Agency stopped holding its own ceremonies for new immigrants at the wall because men and women couldn’t sit together due to rules mandating gender separation. On Oct. 30, the agency passed a resolution calling for at atmosphere of “mutual respect and Ahavat Yisrael,” or love of Israel, at the wall to facilitate religious expression by men and women.”
At issue, police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told The Jewish Week, is a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that allows women to pray audibly, as a group and from a Torah scroll at the Wall, but only in the “Robinson’s Arch” area.
“They know, based on the court order, there is one area where they are allowed to pray, which is at the arches,’ he said. For the next 15 days, the detained women are not allowed to approach the wall, he added.
Robinson’s Arch is at some distance from the iconic section of the wall Jews venerate, where men hold services on their side of the barrier that divides the genders, and women pray individually and softly on theirs.
But the Women of the Wall say prayer is under the de facto control of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, an ultra-Orthodox organization that earlier this month told police to confiscate their prayer shawls when they attempted to gather at the wall.
The Women of the Wall has petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to challenge the make-up of the foundation’s board.
Feldman denies that the foundation has any authority, as did Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who runs the foundation, in an e-mail to the Jewish Week. They both said police would have confiscated women’s prayer shawls if they sensed that the women wearing them were about to be provocative by defying the court ruling.
In 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in Women of the Wall’s favor, deciding women could hold group services at the wall in addition to reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls. But that decision was greeted with years of ultra-Orthodox violence at the wall when the group attempted to pray there, and the court reversed itself in 2003 for fear that female assembly at the wall would lead to rioting.