Sisterhood Blog

Woman of the Wall Arrest: A First-Hand Account

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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As they do at the start of every month, Israel’s Women of the Wall went to the Kotel on Wednesday to celebrate Rosh Chodesh.

But this time, instead of services concluding with the Musaf prayer, the experience ended with a 25 year old participant, a medical student who was wearing a tallit and carrying the group’s new Torah scroll, being arrested by police and charged with “performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others.”

The morning began pleasantly, Anat Hoffman told The Sisterhood. Hoffman chairs Women of the Wall (WoW) and is director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which is part of the Reform Movement.

Forty two women, including a group visiting from New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, gathered in the women’s section of the Kotel at 7 A.M. to pray the morning service. Then, because it is Rosh Chodesh Kislev, they sang Hallel, “in full voice,” said Hoffman. Sixteen of the women were wearing tallitot, she said, but “there was no complaint whatsoever from anyone.”

Ordinarily at this point in their service, WoW participants exit the Kotel plaza, walk around the enormous staircase leading up to the Dome of the Rock, proceed south and descend stairs to the archeological dig site nearby known as Robinson’s Arch, where they read from their Sefer Torah.

This is the location that Israel’s Supreme Court said they can use for their Torah readings, in its 2003 decision denying WoW the right to pray as a group at the Kotel.

This week, the women of WoW were celebrating a new Sefer Torah, one donated to them by Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh.

The Sefer Torah long used by WoW weighs about 50 pounds and is difficult even for two women to carry, in a duffle bag, to the Kotel and then Robinson’s Arch, Hoffman said.

“There are 200 Torah scrolls on the men’s side of the Wall but on the women’s side there is not a one for public use,” said Hoffman. Their new scroll weighs less than one-quarter of the previous one, so is easier to bring to their services.

After singing Hallel had gone so well, and they had detected no hostility from the haredi women around them, “we felt the force was with us, and we decided to show the Torah what the Kotel looked like and took it out of the duffle bag,” Hoffman said.

Three men quickly walked up to them, right through the women’s section.

“They told us, very angrily, to shut up and that we couldn’t be here,” Hoffman said. “They have no legal right to decide who prays and how. We told them to butt out,” she said. “They said they’d bring police, who really are in charge of the Wall area. When the police came, without a word we all turned around to leave and go to Robinson’s Arch, which is not a holy place,” she said.

One police officer “decided to show us who’s boss and grabbed the woman who was holding the Torah and started pushing her ahead.”

He was pushing Nofrat Frenkel, a 4th year medical student at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, who had woken up at 4:30 AM to make a 5AM train so that she would reach the Kotel in time for the 7AM service. An observant and learned Conservative Jew, Hoffman said that Frenkel has been attending WOW services for four years, and in her own practice wears a tallit when she prays every day.

The policeman “is pushing her, she’s saying ‘don’t touch me’ but he doesn’t stop and we’re running after her. I’m holding her bag and someone else is holding her coat, while she is wearing a tallit and holding the Torah.”

Frenkel was forcefully ushered into the police station at the Kotel, where she was held for an hour before being moved to the police station on the other side of the Old City, near the Jaffa Gate, where she was held for another 90 minutes.

Outside the station, the WoW participants sang the Hebrew song “Gesher Tzar Maod” (whose words mean “the world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to be afraid as we cross it”), and the American civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

Inside, even as she was being questioned by police, Frenkel could hear them. “Nofrat said our singing helped her swallow her tears,” Hoffman said.

“They threatened that she might not get a medical license because she would have a felony on her record. They frightened her. But this is an idle threat. We will go all the way to the Supreme Court with this,” said Hoffman.

Frenkel was released on her own recognizance, but only after signing a statement agreeing not to return to the Kotel for 15 days, Hoffman said. The police said they are investigating, but “they didn’t ask any of the other 41 women there anything.”

The outcome is uncertain. If tried and found guilty, Frenkel faces up to six months in prison or a 10,000 shekel fine (about $2,650).

“She would be guilty of a felony which in Israel will bar her from being a doctor,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman says that it may be time for IRAC to revisit the Supreme Court decision which banned them from reading Torah at the Kotel.

“We need to try to get public opinion to say it cannot be an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. The wall cannot be a place where other forms of Judaism are not welcome. There must be more than one way to be Jewish in the Jewish state.”

Women of the Wall is the only group in all of Israel in which Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews pray together, Hoffman said.

She said that they are also considering suing the religious head of the Shas political party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who in his weekly public address last Saturday night said that women who pray in a tallit at the Kotel are “stupid” and “deviant,” and “should be slapped,” as reported earlier this week by The Sisterhood.

“We believe this is incitement to violence,” Hoffman said.

To read a related Forward editorial, click here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Women of the Wall, Tallit, Sefer Torah, Kotel

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Comments
Beth Parness Wed. Nov 18, 2009

"performing a religious Act that offends the feelings of others". Wow, how many ways can this be interpreted to defend any police action that can be committed at any time or any place against anyone. Time for action ladies!

Reader Wed. Nov 18, 2009

I think it is relevant to the story that the woman arrested identifies as a lesbian. Here is her perspective on being a religious lesbian: http://www.uscj.org/All_is_Created_for_H7983.html

Reader Wed. Nov 18, 2009

I think it is relevant to the story that the woman arrested identifies as a lesbian. Here is her perspective on being a religious lesbian: http://www.uscj.org/All_is_Created_for_H7983.html

Jennifer Wed. Nov 18, 2009

Reader, I don't think that's relevant at all. The report indicates that she was arrested (or "brought in for questioning") because of her activities with the Women of the Wall and apparently singled out because she was wearing a tallit and carrying the Torah, not because of this other aspect of her life which, regardless of his feelings about lesbianism, was probably unknown to the arresting officer.

James Wed. Nov 18, 2009

That's just terrible. Just terrible.

Sarah Wed. Nov 18, 2009

This story is so upsetting. It makes me really angry and sad at the same time.

Joe Feld Wed. Nov 18, 2009

This is certainly a dreadful episode, but it was also avoidable, as they knew what they were doing was not acceptable. From the Halachic view there was not much problem. A woman can wear a tallis but not a man's tallis. She should attach the tzitzis to a different fabric so as not to 'crossdress'. A women's service can read from a Torah scroll, according to some opinions, but there is a problem about the brachos as women are not 'commanded' but do so voluntarily. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said women may accept men's mitzvos if they do so from pure desire for spirituality, but NOT if they just want to show they can do whatever men do. Why would anyone give women a Torah scroll so heavy that it takes two women to lift it ? There are small, light weight Torah scrolls that are 100% kosher. My shul has Samson Raphael Hirsch's personal Torah scroll and it is very small and light. Robinson's Arch overlooks the Western Wall and is set aside for Conservative and Reform services with mixed seating. I understand there is also a section of the women's section at the Wall where women can wear a tallis and layne from a Scroll. The Court made it very clear that there are certain rules and etiquette at the Wall itself and the women involved were well aware of this for many years. The episode was handled very poorly by the Israeli police, but then they handle most religious matters very poorly, as the Haredim never cease reminding us. When I lived in Meah Shearim for a few months in the early 1970's [between my BA and MA], during the campaign to stop autopsies without family consent, the police turned minor Haredi protests into confrontation and warfare. The behaviour of the police should definitely be investigated.

esthermiriam Wed. Nov 18, 2009

Jerusalem Post version --

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1258489193200&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull

Nicely paralleled by US State Department report on (non-) freedom of religion in Israel: http://www.nif.org/issue-areas/stories/us-state-dept-report-slams.html

Rabbi Andrew Sacks Thu. Nov 19, 2009

The arrest of Nofrat Frankel is outrageous. How can a woman suffer arrest for simply praying in keeping with the norms of Masorti Judaism and in a manner acceptable to the majority of world Jewry. This davening was not mixed- but women only.

Over the past two weeks the disgusting display of bullying by the Haredi community at the Kotel has gone beyond anything we have ever seen.

For the first time, there is now a passage that allows men to walk directly to the men's section, thus bypassing the mixed plaza area.

During his weekly sermon, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef scolded the 'stupid women who come to Western Wall, don a prayer shawl, and pray.'

The so-called Rav HaKotel ( a title he assumed - the law recognizes only a civil servant who is the "Authority for Holy Places) referred to the women as "

Korah and his assembly" (who suffered the penalty of death).

The organization "The Kotel Heritage Foundation, which is not an arm of the government imposes upon women to cover their legs and shoulders with Shmates. They have become the modesty police.

All of this has set the stage for the Haredi community present at the Kotel to feel empowered and as having the authority to act out as hooligans.

Of course all of this comes only days after Haredi riots at the site of the Intel plant in an industrial Jerusalem area.

The Haredim are running roughshod in the streets of Jerusalem and in its Holy places. Such lawlessness must be taken seriously and the perpetrates of incitement must be dealt with severely.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks

Charnie Fri. Nov 20, 2009

While I certainly find the way that the police handled this situation distressing, that factor does not discount the fact that this woman was looking for trouble.

For better or for worse, and I won't go there at this point, Conservative and Reform do not enjoy the same significance in Israel as they do in the USA. Basically, in Israel you're either dati, charedei or non-dati.

Jerusalem is the holiest place on earth to all Jews. However, as Joe Feld eloquently stated in his comments, a woman is not the same as a man. Just like apples and oranges are both very good, they are different from one another. And this is also how the Torah views are respective roles. In the morning blessings, possibly The Most Misunderstood Blessing in the entire prayerbook is the one that men say. But as a woman, I'm quite happy that the blessing I say states that "Hashem created me according to His will". So women, try to understand here that our purpose as Jews is not to emulate men, but to strive to our best within our own gender. Men were created with a need to do more mitzvahs not because they're better then us, but because they are less perfect.

Charnie Fri. Nov 20, 2009

While I certainly find the way that the police handled this situation distressing, that factor does not discount the fact that this woman was looking for trouble.

For better or for worse, and I won't go there at this point, Conservative and Reform do not enjoy the same significance in Israel as they do in the USA. Basically, in Israel you're either dati, charedei or non-dati.

Jerusalem is the holiest place on earth to all Jews. However, as Joe Feld eloquently stated in his comments, a woman is not the same as a man. Just like apples and oranges are both very good, they are different from one another. And this is also how the Torah views are respective roles. In the morning blessings, possibly The Most Misunderstood Blessing in the entire prayerbook is the one that men say. But as a woman, I'm quite happy that the blessing I say states that "Hashem created me according to His will". So women, try to understand here that our purpose as Jews is not to emulate men, but to strive to our best within our own gender. Men were created with a need to do more mitzvahs not because they're better then us, but because they are less perfect.

Jonah Rank Fri. Nov 20, 2009

I believe that we must stand with IRAC and Hiddush and demand that Israel legalize religious pluralism and end the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi monopoly on the definition of Jewish living.

Lisa B Sat. Nov 21, 2009

Not really surprising considering a political/police system very used to the idea that some people are more equal than others. My heart weeps for a nation I gave much too that has so much trouble separating religion and democracy/rule of law.

Rabbi Barry Leff Sat. Nov 21, 2009

For those interested in the religious issues involved with women wearing a tallit, you can read about it a post on my blog at http://www.neshamah.net/reb_barrys_blog_neshamahn/2009/11/wear-a-tallitgo-to-jail.html

Deb Zoo Sat. Nov 21, 2009

Did they also arrest & charge the men who violated the Women's side? (a woman on the man's side surely would have been!)

Deb Zoo Sat. Nov 21, 2009

Jennifer, her lesbianism *IS* relevant and here's why.

Although i agree with you it *shouldn't* be relevant, can you make room for the possibility that the "authorities" might treat her differently once they figured it out (during her Police Station visit, if not via profiling assumptions at the Kotel)? And if you think there is neither internet access (she wrote for an online magazine last spring) nor profiling expertise by police in Israel (and thus they could not possibly have become aware), you are sadly mistaken. Perhaps she would not have been booked in the end - no way to know...

SAKarp Mon. Nov 23, 2009

Why weren't the men who infiltrated women's space stopped by the police?

How cowardly these men are! If they really had faith, they would not be threatened by women reading Torah.

Moshebaer Yehudi jihadi Mon. Nov 23, 2009

Good is a function of choice - evil is necessary sometimes too urgent. Individual ego serves and disserves our unity as a people. Imbalances in our formation as the measure for the other nations cause skewing.

Christians, Muslims, Jews are Zionists when fully wedded into it. B"H

Debbie Rosenberg Thu. Nov 26, 2009

Sad indictment of the police system

caryn h Fri. Dec 18, 2009

Charnie, Can you explain to me why only men can ask for a divorce? Because they are less perfect?

Passer-by Thu. Jan 14, 2010

Pretty nice place you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I would like to read a bit more soon.




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