POSTED: 3:28 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2012
JERUSALEM » The face-off at the security gate outside the Western Wall one Friday this month was familiar: for more than two decades, women have been making a monthly pilgrimage to pray at one of Judaism's holiest sites in a manner traditionally preserved for men, and the police have stopped them in the name of maintaining public order.
But after a flurry of arrests this fall that sparked international outcry, the women arrived for December's service to find a new protocol ordered by the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who controls the site. To prevent the women from defying a Supreme Court ruling that bars them from wearing ritual garments at the wall, they were blocked by police officers from bringing them in.
"How can you say this to me?" demanded a tearful Bonna Devora Haberman, 52, a Canadian immigrant who helped found the group Women of the Wall in 1988. "I'm a Jew. This is my state."
The officer was unmoved. "At the Western Wall, you can't pray with a tallit," he said, referring to the fringed prayer shawl in Haberman's backpack. "You can't go in with it."
After years of legislative and legal fights, the movement for equal access for people to pray as they wish at the site has become a rallying cause for liberal Jews in the United States and around the world, though it has long struggled to gain traction here in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox retain great sway over public life.
This has deepened a divide between the Jewish state and the Jewish diaspora, in which some leaders have become increasingly vocal in criticizing Israel's policies on settlements in the Palestinian territories; laws and proposals that are seen as anti-democratic or discriminatory against Arab citizens; its treatment of women; and the ultra-Orthodox control over conversion and marriage.
"When my kids start expressing frustration with Israel as a society because what they hear and see from a distance is not welcoming to them in their religious practice — that's not good for the Jewish people, let alone for the state of Israel," said Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, the director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, an American immigrant who runs Kol Haneshama, a leading Reform synagogue here, said Women of the Wall "is an issue that really brings out the gap between Israeli Jews and American Jews."
While more than 60 percent of Jews in the United States identify with the Reform or Conservative movements, where women and men have equal standing in prayer and many feminists have adopted ritual garments, in Israel it is 1 in 10. Instead, about half call themselves secular, and experts say that most of those consider Orthodoxy as the true Judaism, feel alienated from holy sites like the Western Wall, and view a woman in a prayer shawl as an alien import from abroad.
(Jewish law requires only men to pray daily, and it prohibits women from dressing like men.)
"Secular Israelis do not see this as their problem; to them it's a bunch of crazy American ladies," said Shari Eshet, who represents the New York-based National Council of Jewish Women here. "It's embarrassing for Israel, it's embarrassing for Jews, and the American Jewish community is beginning to understand that it's a slippery slope here."
The increased agitation around the wall is part of a broader clash over Judaism and gender that has roiled Israel in recent months. For instance, women have won lawsuits against segregation on buses and sidewalks imposed in religious neighborhoods. But a bus line recently stopped accepting advertisements with images of people after religious vandals routinely blacked out women's faces in the name of modesty.
In January, speakers at a conference on health and Jewish law canceled their appearances because women were barred from the podium — a demand of the most Orthodox — while the chief rabbi of the air force quit after religious soldiers were not excused from events where women sang.
These controversies concern the imposition of Orthodox doctrine in secular spheres. More complicated are questions of how Judaism itself should be practiced. This spring, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must pay the salary of a Reform rabbi along with hundreds of Orthodox ones. A small group of Jerusalem restaurants has been seeking an alternative kosher certification system to the one run by the government's rabbinical council.
"The next chapter of what it means to be a Jewish state is being defined right now," said Elana Sztokman, the director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who is writing a book that includes a chapter about Women of the Wall. "We have to figure out what does Israel want, what role do we really want religion to have in this state? And it's happening on the backs of women."
Women of the Wall began in December 1988, when tourists attending a feminist conference decided to take a Torah scroll they had brought from the United States to a prayer service at the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the ancient Temple Mount. The group has since returned 11 times a year to pray on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, an occasion embraced by Jewish feminists.
"This did not evolve here in Israel, this is an import from abroad," said Anat Hoffman, the group's leader. "Many of Israel's best inventions were imports," she added. "For example: Zionism."
Israel's Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that women cannot bring a Torah or pray with ritual garments at the Western Wall, saying that doing so disrupts the public order. The court designated a discreet part of the wall, called Robinson's Arch, for coed prayer with full regalia.
But the women complain that separate is not equal. They are at work on a new Supreme Court petition that challenges the 13-member board of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which governs the site, saying its ultra-Orthodox majority does not represent the Jewish public.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who leads the foundation, has denounced the women as zealots. "They don't come here to pray, they want to protest," he said in an interview. "They hurt us, the Jewish people, by distorting the truth."
The first arrest was in 2009. Since June, there have been 16, but the women were generally released and their cases were dropped after they agreed not to visit the Western Wall for a period of time.
In October, Hoffman refused to sign such an agreement, and spent a night in jail.
She wrote in the Huffington Post that she was "handcuffed, strip searched, laid on the bare floor" and "locked in a tiny cell with a crying young Russian woman accused of prostitution."
Outrage engulfed the diaspora. Thousands gathered for solidarity prayer services.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said he was flooded with complaints and set up two conference calls with American rabbis. Under pressure from international groups, the Jewish Agency, an arm of the Israeli government, passed a resolution on Oct. 30 calling for a "satisfactory approach to the issue of prayer at the Western Wall."
At the service in November, six women were arrested. Then, on Dec. 14, four more were detained for defying the new rules about entering the area with their prayer shawls.
Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a Canadian immigrant, took out a prayer book and shouted the commandment to wear the garments, only to be led to the police station before the service began. She was followed by two teenagers from Britain and Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman of New Jersey, the editor of a popular Reform prayer book.
Sharon Gretz Strater, 27, a student from California, wept at the prospect of giving up the shawl her mother wove for her Bat Mitzvah, but relented. Haberman, who said that her shawl was designed by her five children, two of whom are serving in the Israeli army, would not, but after several minutes of tearful argument, she managed to get through.
"They made me take an oath and swear that I wouldn't take out my tallit and tefillin," she said, referring to the shawl and the leather boxes containing prayers that she wears daily, as men are commanded to. "It's unbelievable that this is what we're calling our police to do."
A half-hour later, Haberman was dancing and singing hymns in the women's section of the Western Wall, tears replaced by a grin of what she called "ecstasy." Soon after, she and the others were at Robinson's Arch, wrapped in their shawls as they read from the Torah.