Recently, Amichai Lau-Lavie, founding director of Storahtelling and a second-year Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student, published a blog post about illegally smuggling tallitot (prayer shawls) into the Western Wall for use by Women of the Wall on February 11, Rosh Hodesh Adar.
“I broke the law by smuggling prayer shawls into the site of the former Jewish Temple, right under the nose of the Israeli police,” he wrote. “I don’t feel badly about breaking a law, which is not even an actual law to begin with — but I feel terrible about the situation in which a place for prayer has become a circus of terror and an abuse of all that’s sacred.”
Lau-Lavie spoke with The Sisterhood by phone from Jerusalem to explain exactly what he did, why he did it, and what he thinks might be the best way forward in making the Kotel a place where all Jews can pray as they see fit.
Four women were taken into custody by the police on August 19 (Rosh Hodesh Elul) for wearing a tallit (ritual fringes) at the Western Wall, making Israel the only country in the world where wearing a tallit can be illegal, and the only country where there is a proposed law — submitted by ultra-Orthodox politicians — to make Jewish women’s religious practice punishable by a seven-year prison sentence. It’s not so much wearing the tallit that is illegal, but rather being a woman that puts one at odds with the police. Being a religious woman can be a dangerous thing in Israel.
I recently spoke with Deb Houben, a 35-year old graphic designer and wine taster living in Jerusalem, who was one of the four women taken into custody. A graduate of the modern Orthodox Maimonides Day School in Boston, she made Aliyah in 2007 and has been participating in the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers of Women of the Wall for around five months. This is the second time she has been picked up by the police during prayers. This time, she was charged with wearing a tallit and disturbing the peace, and sentenced to 50 days away from the Western Wall or a 1000 NIS (~ $250) fine.
SZTOKMAN: How did you get involved with Women of the Wall?
HOUBEN: My friend Molly works for Women of the Wall, and she invited me to come and I really love it. I really enjoy the experience of davening (praying) with this group, and lending my voice. My brother recently gave me a new tallit, although at the kotel we call it a “shawl.” It’s a traditional tallit, with black stripes, because that’s how I like it. It’s what my brothers wear, and it’s what my father wears. In fact, the tallit I used to wear was my grandfather’s.
Leaders of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel today sent Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. a letter questioning recent remarks which seemed to criticize accounts of a woman who was arrested at the Kotel for wearing a prayer shawl.
Ambassador Michael Oren, speaking at last week’s convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that the young woman, Nofrat Frenkel, was not arrested but merely “led away” by police from the prayer area at the Kotel when haredi men became aware she was wearing a tallit.
The report of his statement can be read at the bottom of the Forward story here.
Oren’s statement is directly contradicted by Frenkel’s first-person account, published in the Forward here, and by other women who were part of the Women of the Wall group which was trying to pray at the Wall on the first day of the new Jewish month. The account of one of them, Anat Hoffman, can be read here.
Now Rabbi Alan Silverstein and David Lissy, the chair and chief executive, respectively, of the Conservative movement’s foundation to support Masorti communities in Israel, have written Oren a letter saying that they are “astonished” by his “somewhat disparaging” remarks about the Frenkel affair at the United Synagogue conference.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Forward, they write:
It is always good to deal with facts. Nofrat Frenkel’s first person account, not disputed by any participant or published report, indicates that if ‘arrest’ is not the proper term under Israeli law to describe what happened, some equally harsh term would fit.
The Masorti Foundation leaders go on to recount the facts as related by Frenkel and others, and conclude the letter by writing:
Following the recent arrest at the Western Wall of a woman wearing a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, a prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi has requested that Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren meet with “a rabbinic delegation of American Orthodox rabbis who strongly support the right of women to wear a tallit and tzitzit.”
In a letter to Oren, penned this morning, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., called the arrest Monday of Nofrat Frenkel “offensive and dangerous,” adding: “You are ceding the Temple Mount and its holiness to a group of fundamentalist and exclusionary Jews who increasingly do not share that prophetic vision.”
“If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country in the world, there would be outrage,” Herzfeld told The Sisterhood. “Just because it’s the state of Israel doing it doesn’t make it acceptable. It’s not coming from antisemitism, but it’s still religious persecution.”
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.