About a dozen Torah scrolls carried into women’s section at Western Wall

Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — About a dozen Torah scrolls were carried into the women’s section of the Western Wall for use during the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service.

The scrolls were brought to the women on Wednesday morning as part of a protest march against restrictions on egalitarian worship at the site, led by leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements from Israel and the United States.  Among those marching, numbering about 100 according to reports, were Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation has in the past prevented women from bringing Torah scrolls into the women’s section. The Women of the Wall have held their monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer for the new Hebrew month in the womens’ section of the Kotel for more than 25 years.

The women and the marchers were met with haredi Orthodox protesters who pushed and shoved the marchers carrying Torah scrolls in an attempt to prevent them from bringing them to the women’s side of the Western Wall plaza. One photo showed a black-clad haredi woman punching a worshipper from Women of the Wall. Protesters also blew loud whistles to disrupt the service and shouted epithets at the women, including”Nazis,” “Goy” and “whores.” Many of those shouting were young boys.

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Police at the site reportedly stood by and in some cases filmed the proceedings. In one video posted by Women of the Wall, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, warned police if they did not intervene to help allow the woman to worship undisturbed that he and his colleagues would do so.

“The Western Wall won’t be the same Wall after today,” Kariv told Haaretz. “For the first time, women and men, Reform and Conservative Jews, secular and Orthodox, demand their right to enter the Western Wall. Today we liberated the Western Wall from the control of ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox parties won’t decide for the rest of the Jewish people how to pray… We won’t acquiesce any longer to discrimination, to incitement, or to the Israeli government’s shameful surrender to a small and aggressive minority.”

The Prime Minister’s Office in a statement released later Wednesday said the “unfortunate incident this morning at the Western Wall does not help advance a solution for prayer arrangements there.” The statement called the incident “unnecessary friction,” and said that the “unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall this morning undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise.”

The statement echoed comments that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Tuesday night in a speech to about 200 Jewish Diaspora leaders in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting.

“We are one people and we have one Wall. Yes, it’s our Wall. And we have problems with the Wall now, but we’re working on it. The less we work on it publicly, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution,” Netanyahu said at the meeting, hours before the well-publicized protest.

“The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” he said, adding: “Sometimes things require patience and tolerance. I’ve been dealing with this now for over 20 years. I can tell you I have patience and tolerance, and I hope you do, too.”

An agreement for egalitarian prayer at the site announced in January would expand the egalitarian section at the wall and place it under the authority of a pluralist committee while solidifying haredi Orthodox control over the site’s traditional, Orthodox section. Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group that holds monthly services in the Orthodox section, would move to the non-Orthodox section once the deal is implemented.

The agreement was negotiated among Women of the Wall, the site’s haredi Orthodox leadership, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli government, and the Reform and Conservative movements. All parties praised the decision as path breaking at the time.

Later, however, the religious partners backed away from the deal and in June, a group of Orthodox Jewish organizations filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the establishment of the egalitarian section.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the Women of the Wall last month petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to order the government to follow through on the plan to create the egalitarian prayer area next to the Western Wall.

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