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Woman of the Wall Arrest: A First-Hand Account

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.

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