The monthly gathering of the prayer group Women of the Wall Wednesday morning — the first since last month’s arrest of the group’s leader for the crime of “praying with a Sefer Torah” — was a study in contrasts.
The sound of women’s voices singing psalms of praise — the Rosh Chodesh Hallel prayers — competed with the sound of screaming men and women scattered around, cursing and hurling intended insults: “You’re all Christians!” “Lesbians!” “Blasphemy!” “Impurity!” “Go away!” The protesters encircled the prayer group.
More than 100 women were at the prayer service, along with some 20-30 men behind partitions. Many of those who gathered were regulars of the group. But others had come out show support for Women of the Wall on the heels of the July arrest of group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, while she was singing and carrying a Torah. A 2003 Supreme Court decision prohibits women from reading Torah and from wearing a tallit over their clothes in the Kotel plaza, which many ultra-Orthodox Jews say violates Jewish custom. Hoffman was not reading Torah when she was arrested, but police, at the time said, “Anat Hoffman was arrested by police because she violated the agreement of the high court by praying with a Sefer Torah.”
Police superintendant Rafael Malachi, the only man in the women’s section — a slight officer wearing a police uniform and knitted skullcap — was charged with maintaining peace at Wednesday’s prayer gathering.
The international firestorm that followed has clearly impacted Malachi, the officer who led the arrest. In light of criticism that police arrested the wrong party in this conflict, Wednesday Malachi took a different approach. His eyes were fixated on a middle-age Israeli woman who kept walking right up to the group and shouting things like, “You sound like a Church! At least try and sound Jewish! “ or “You’re all Reform Lesbians!” Malachi walked right up to her and said, “How is your story going to end today? It’s your choice.” The woman quieted down for a few moments as Malachi motioned to another officer to keep an eye on her.
Another Israeli woman with a heavy scarf covering all her hair walked right up to the group screaming at the top of her impressive lungs, “This is not the place for Reformim! It’s for the Jewish people!” As Malachi’s team tried to restrain her, another woman passed by on the right screaming, “Impurity! Look at you! Some of you are wearing kippot!”
None of the protesters were arrested.
Meanwhile, the loudest of all hecklers was on the men’s side, and although his voice carried strongly enough to seriously disturb the prayers, Malachi’s team left him alone.
“The police did a very admirable job today,” said Batya Kallus, who regularly attends the Women of the Wall gatherings. “Except for the fact that they confiscated our shofar. Besides that, they were doing what we asked them to do, which is to protect us.”
Hoffman and others were less forgiving. “They took our shofar for no reason whatsoever,” Hoffman said. “We have been blowing the shofar here for 22 years without incident. There was no reason for the police to do that.” Hoffman, who was under a restraining order barring her from the main Kotel, stood outside the security gates with her friend Rabbi Naama Kelman Dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem campus, holding the Torah. “People would pass by and actually kiss the Torah,” Kelman said. “They didn’t even notice that a woman was holding the Torah. That was everything for me.”
“I felt that we maintained a good level of energy and strength in the face of some enormous verbal harassment,” added Rabbi Jacqueline Koch-Ellenson, the executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, who came with her husband David Ellenson, the president of HUC-JIR, and their 24-year old daughter, Hannah, to show their support.
Indeed many people were there to make a statement about Jewish life, identity, and pluralism. American Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who was watching from the back, said, “This whole episode brings up visions of Selma, Alabama. When I first saw the video of Anat being arrested for holding a Sefer Torah, I couldn’t believe that this is what is happening in the State of Israel.”
Despite the surroundings, Natalie Lastreger — a rabbinical student of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies who served as the cantor at Wednesday’s gathering — said that she drew inspiration from the prayers themselves. “Expressing gratitude to God amid such hostility is just beautiful,” she said, smiling and motioning to the sky. “We forget to say thanks sometimes, but today, one could not help but feel it, and mean it.”