Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren blamed his own government for giving him an “incomplete” report recently that led to his giving leaders of Conservative Judaism an inaccurate account of one of their members’ detention at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
The woman, Nofrat Frenkel, was detained last November after she wore a tallit and carried a Torah in the women’s section of the main plaza approaching the wall. According to her account, which was supported by independent observers, police forcefully pushed Frenkel, an Israeli medical student and observant Conservative Jew, into a nearby police station, where she was interrogated and detained for two-and-a-half hours. The police had her sign a statement saying she would not go near the wall for the next 15 days.
When asked about the incident at the annual meeting of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in December, Oren dismissed these accounts as “widely misreported,” saying she was simply “led away” from the area.
In the face of challenges to his account, the Israel embassy released a statement December 22 conceding he had misinformed the Jewish leaders. “The ambassador’s response was based on information he had requested and received from Israel, but which was subsequently proven to be incomplete,” the statement said.
“It is not clear why he got incomplete information,” said Oren’s spokesman, Jonathan Peled, in a follow-up interview. “He was clearly not given the whole picture at the time, and responded on the basis of information he received.” Peled said that Oren had demanded “a full and thorough inquiry so he will not be misled.”
“We hope to get the full file within a couple of days,” he said. “We have formally requested that we need an answer as soon as possible.”
In a phone call to David Lissy, executive director and CEO of the Masorti Foundation, Oren said that his earlier, inaccurate account was based on a police report. “He is personally looking into it and personally taking it very seriously,” Lissy told the Forward.
Oren gave a similar explanation to Rabbi Alan Silverstein, the Masorti movement’s chairman, in a separate phone call. The calls were in response to a letter the two wrote Oren voicing concern about the account he gave USCJ leaders.
The diplomatic coda to the November Kotel episode was only part of the affair’s aftermath. On and around December 17, Jewish women’s prayer groups and Torah study groups met for special gatherings around the world to mark the new Jewish month of Tevet in solidarity with Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group of which Frenkel is a part.
In a rare example of interdenominational work, Reform Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson and Rivka Haut, a Brooklyn Orthodox activist, worked together to promote the grass-roots effort. Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, an organization of female Reform rabbis, and Haut, who organized the first women’s group prayer service at the Kotel in 1988 penned a joint letter promoting the gatherings.
Others also spoke out, including Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of the Washington congregation Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue. In a letter to Oren, Herzfeld condemned Frenkel’s detention as “offensive and dangerous.”
But in the weeks since her detention, Conservative Jewish groups in the United States did not speak out on the issue.
In response to inquiries from the Forward, Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of USCJ, at whose conference Oren gave his account, said on December 23, “If Israel’s going to be the home for all the Jewish people then it needs to be the home for all the Jewish people. Incidents like this make it harder for North American Jews to really get behind Israel in the way in which we want to.”
Frenkel’s police detention was but the latest in a series of incidents over many years involving Women of the Wall—a trans-denominational group—and the Orthodox rabbinical authorities that control the holy site, which marks the outer perimeter of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans. As is standard in Orthodox prayer venues, the site is sex segregated, and women may pray only individually and not as a community or minyan as men do.
Women of the Wall challenges Orthodox edicts that ban women from holding formal services at the Kotel site or conducting themselves in ways that vary from strict Orthodox practice. The Torah study groups and women’s prayer groups that gathered in solidarity with Women of the Wall represented a wide spectrum of the movement that has coalesced around this issue in response to the Frenkel incident.
When she heard about Frenkel’s experience, Simonne Horwitz, an assistant professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, hastily planned a trip to Israel for the December 18 service held at the Kotel. She joined 152 other women who came with Women of the Wall, many of them wearing prayer shawls under raincoats. Masorti officials say that many were members of their movement.
“I really felt the need to be there and not just talk about support,” Horwitz said. “It was my first time being able to really pray at the wall and not just put the note in. It felt really different, being part of a group.”
At the synagogue of Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship rabbinical school of the Conservative movement, women held a prayer shawl above them “like a hupah,” said Rabbi Lisa Gelber, JTS’s dean of students, and read a poem by the late Yehuda Amichai, A renowned Israeli poet.
“We took turns reading lines from the poem in Hebrew and English, then we sang together from Hallel [a prayer recited for the new month], calling on God to open up the gates of justice so we can come in to praise God,” she said. “It felt appropriate to acknowledge that this is an issue of justice. All of us, men and women, should be able to approach God in communal prayer wrapped in what helps define us as Jews.”
Solidarity study groups and services also took place in Scarsdale, N.Y., Bridgeport, Conn., Edison, N.J., Glencoe, Ill., Mendota Heights, Minn., and Charlotte, N.C., among other areas.
But Women of the Wall chairperson Anat Hoffman criticized the lack of political response to the treatment that Frenkel received. “I want Michael Oren to be drowning in e-mails and faxes and letters saying: ‘Do something about this. This is something we care about,’” said Hoffman, who is also executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.
Hoffman said that when she led the women in Rosh Hodesh prayer at Kotel, she heard ultra-Orthodox men jeering them, calling them “prostitutes” and shouting that “the Holocaust happened because of you.”
“But more than I heard the bullies, I heard the silence of all my supporters,” Hoffman said. “The silence of the majority of Israeli seculars, who have allowed this thing to happen; the silence of the court, the police, the mayor, the Knesset, and also the silence of my brothers and sisters, who know women read Torah and wear tallit.”
Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
The embassy requests that this statement, exclusive to The Forward, be used in its entirety:
Earlier this month at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial convention, Ambassador Oren responded to a question based upon information he had requested and received from Israel, which was later proven to be incomplete. The ambassador has since demanded a full and complete report on the incident involving Ms. Nofrat Frenkel at the Kotel.In the interim, the ambassador has contacted the leaders of the Masorti Movement to express his concern over this unfortunate episode and to reiterate the continued commitment of the State of Israel of upholding pluralism and democracy in Israel.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”